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Marcello Malpighi

The Man with a Microscope

Portrait of Malpighi by Carlo Cignani

Marcello Malpighi (1628–94) was born to a wealthy family at Crevalcore near Bologna, and graduated in philosophy and in medicine in 1653 at the University of Bologna. Although he never married or had any children of his own, he has gone down in history as the 'father of microscopical anatomy, histology, physiology and embryology'. A talented artist, he beautifully sketched his discoveries in the anatomy of both animals and plants. was at a time when many physicians held tight to the principles of the ancient Greek physicist Galen and rejected any new discoveries.

Early in his career, Malpighi worked in Bologna with anatomist Bartolomeo Massari, performing dissections and vivisections of animals at his home. He married Massari's daughter (although she died the following year) but was regarded by his fellows with some suspicions for his independence of thought. Nevertheless he was made a professor medicine at Bologna University in 1656.

That same year, Archduke Leopold of Tuscany invited Malpighi to hold a special chair of theoretical medicine at the newly established University of Pisa. In Tuscany he joined the Accademia del Cimento, one of the very first scientific societies, founded in Florence in 1657 by the followers of Galileo. In the society, Malpighi became close to mathematician and naturalist Giovanni Alfonso Borelli, who introduced him to iatromechanics (the view, derived from Descartes' philosophy of mechanics, that the human body resembles a set of different machines). Within the Academy, Malpighi was also introduced to an instrument that would occupy this attention for the next 39 years of his life: the microscope, which had just recently been improved and made into a truly useful tool by Robert Hooke.

After three years in Pisa, he retuned to Bologna with his microscope. In 1661, while investigating lungs, he discovered the capillary network and pulmonary alveoli, and how oxygen was diffused into the blood, a major discovery confirming Harvey's theory on circulation. He was the first to study very early stages of embryonic development on chicks, and did important work in histology (the study of the microscopic anatomy of cells and tissues of plants and animals), discovering that bile is secreted by the liver, not the gall bladder. He was the first to see and describe red blood cells (although he described them as 'globs of fat'). He studied taste buds, fingerprints, insect anatomy (his work on silk worms was the first to describe the structure of invertebrates), the seed development in plants (such as the lemon tree), and the transformation of caterpillars into insects, back at a time when many still believed insects were born out of herbs or galls.

Illustration from Malpighi''s botanical studies

By 1667 Malpighi's work aroused the interest of the newly formed Royal Society in London, and was asked to share his results with them. Malpighi agreed, and was elected a foreign member of the Society in 1668. Most of his later books were published in London, including his master work on botany, the Anatome Plantarum posthumously in two volumes, in 1675 and 1679. The great Swedish botanist Linnaeus, honoured his work by giving his name to a family of tropical and subtropical flowering plants, the genus Malpighia.

In 1669, Pope Innocent XII (who as a cardinal had long been a personal friend of Malpighi) summmoned him to Rome to teach medicine. Malpighi resisted, wanted to carry on his studies in Bologna, but it was an offer he couldn't refuse. But in spite of all the honours he was given, he was unhappy away from Bologna and his research and he died there three years later of a stroke.

Tomb of Mapighi

He has a lavish marble tomb in SS. Gregorio e Siro, with an epitaph honouring his 'great genius, honest life, strong and tough mind, and daring love for the medical art.'

Text © Dana Facaros and Michael Pauls

Images by Luca Borghi, Creative Commons License, PD Art