Marcello Malpighi

Anatomist, physiologist, physician and biologist, professor of logic, theoretical medicine and practical medicine (Crevalcore, BO, 1628 – Roma 1694).

Joining the long Bolognese tradition of anatomical dissection, Malpighi pulled off, although not without suffering speculation and rivalry, the radical inclusion of the medical discipline into the world of experimental science, through microscopic and iatromechanical research.

Marcello Malpighi Marcello Malpighi was born in Crevalcore, in the Province of Bologna, in 1638 to a wealthy family of landowners.

In 1645, he was sent to Bologna to finish his studies at the Scuole Pie and the following year he enrolled in the faculty of philosophy.

The sudden death of his parents and need to provide for his eight siblings pushed him to enrol in medical school, following the advice of the professor Francesco Naldi.

Malpighi immediately joined the “anatomical chorus”: an academic group that met at the home of the physician and professor Bartolomeo Massari, where the members studied anatomy through the dissection of animals and, more rarely, cadavers, a practice that enjoyed a long tradition in Bologna, dating back to the time of Mondino dei Liuzzi, a professor at the university between the 13th and 14th centuries.

In spite of Malpighi’s high esteem for Massari, who among other things also became his father-in-law, the young man immediately rejected his elder’s theoretical ideas, which were still tied to a philosophical/Galenic and astrological conception of medicine, drawn instead to a new scientific awareness of the discipline.

In a university like that of Bologna, which was not up-to-date with European innovations, these revolutionary positions cost Malpighi, making him the target of heated accusations and criticism from his fellow students as well as professors, such as Tommaso Sbaraglia, Agostino Cucchi and Ovidio Montalbani, who did everything in their power to obstruct the conferral of his degree and, more generally, the experiments carried out by the “anatomical chorus”.

Their plans fortunately failed, and Malpighi managed to take his degree in 1653 and was even given the professorship of logic three years later.

In 1656, however, just a few months after his appointment, the young professor decided it would be better to switch to the Medici university in Pisa as a professor of theoretical medicine.

Under the grand duke Ferdinand II, the cultural atmosphere in Tuscany was among the most exciting in Europe and Malpighi was welcomed with great ceremony into the Accademia del Cimento, a Galilean association attentive to the use of new technologies and open to more constructive internal debate.

This was the period during which Malpighi became increasingly passionate about the microscope.

Another member of the academy was the professor of mathematics Alfonso Borelli, who took the young Bolognese under his wing, directing him towards iatromechanics, which is to say the conception of living beings as composed of a group of distinct, assembled machines (organs): a medical doctrine that was formulated by William Harvey, but the most illustrious exponent of which was none other than Malpighi.

In 1659, Malpighi, by this point well-established, returned to Bologna, where he had kept his logic chair, which he now substituted for that of theoretical medicine.

With the publication of his two Epistolae de polmonibus in 1661, he once again found himself at the centre of criticism from his Galenic rivals. Illustrating the structure of an organ for the first time, thanks to his use of a microscope, he was able to debunk the theory that the lungs were formed of coagulated blood, through which the pneuma was given to the heart. Malpighi was able to instead grasp the hollow and alveolar nature of the organ and hence hypothesise the respiratory theory. In the second publication, by studying the lungs of frogs, he established the circulatory nature of the blood vessels, already guessed in 1628 by Harvey.

The endless harassment drove Malpighi to move to a different university in 1662, this time in Messina where, thanks to the help of Borelli, he was offered a professorship in practical medicine that was far better paid than the one in theoretical medicine in Bologna. During this brief period (three years), he continued his research, which found its way in part into the Tetras anatomicarum epistolarum, which he published with Carlo Fracassati in 1665 and comprised the treatises De lingua, De cerebro and De omento, pinguedine, et adiposis ductibus.

But Malpighi found rivals and detractors in Messina as well, driving him to return to Bologna (1665), where his professorship in practical medicine was confirmed and he was finally able to command the respect of his critics.

De viscerum structura came out in 1668, containing the writings begun in Sicily (De Hepate, De cerebri cortice and De renibus) and the ones just completed after his return to Bologna (De liene and De polypo cordis). The enormous volume was published by the Royal Society of London, which welcomed Malpighi among its members and he took the position of its intellectual guide, which had been until that time occupied by Borelli, with whom the now famous physician had cut off ties in 1663.

The Royal Society published his subsequent research, starting in 1669 with De bombyce: an entomological study that made heavy use of the microscope and faithfully adhered to the iatromechanical conception of bodies (the excretory organs of insects are still called “Malpighian tubules”, and are similar to “Malpighian corpuscles”, glomeruli in animal kidneys). These were followed in 1673 by De formatione pulli in ovo, on bird embryos, and two botanical works, Anatomes plantarum, in 1675 and 1679.

In 1683, a fire destroyed Malpighi’s home in Corticella, burning all of his writings and expensive work equipment (some believe that the fire was started by Sbaraglia and his followers).

In spite of this irreparable damage, the Royal Society published his Opera omnia in 1686, cementing the international arrival of the Bolognese scientist.

Despite his wealth and fame, he continued to be harassed, even within the university, by first-rate detractors, including the botanist Giovan Battista Trionfetti, the physician Giovanni Girolamo Sbaraglia, the chancellor and archdeacon Anton Felice Marsili and even some of Malpighi’s own students.

In the meantime, however, the professor was protected and supported in the city by the papal legate Antonio Pignatelli who, after becoming Pope Innocent XII in 1691, convinced the now elderly Malpighi, his personal doctor, to come to Rome as his chief physician.

In agreement with the Royal Society, Malpighi refrained from publishing during his Roman period, in view of an Opera posthuma, which came out after his death in 1694. In this scientific testament, published in 1697, his final research is framed by the great anatomist’s autobiography, finally able to defend his theories with uncommon passion, attacking his rivals for the first and last time.

Today, the memory of the great scientist is more alive than ever in the city that loved him so deeply but also did so much to obstruct his work. At Palazzo dell’Archiginnasio, the portrait painted of him by the classicist Marcantonio Franceschini in 1683-87 is a luminous, joyful counterbalance to the portrait made shortly after by Donato Creti of his antagonist Giovanni Girolamo Sbaraglia, portrayed melancholic and lost in thought.

The two enemies are also close by in the anatomical theatre in the same building: wooden statues that, along with other great names in the history of medicine, have watched over anatomical dissections for two centuries from their privileged places.

But while Sbaraglia never received anything from the city, a vast piazza has been named after Malpighi, as well as an entire section of the Policlinico universitario Sant’Orsola-Malpighi: This might be the greatest recompense obtained by the great physician and professor.