Camillo Golgi

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Golgi, Camillo

(Corteno [now Corteno Golgi], Brescia, Italy, 7 July 1843; Pavia, Italy, 21 January 1926)

histology, pathology.

Golgi’s family was from Pavia; his father Alessandro was a doctor. Golgi read medicine at the University of Pavia, where, together with Giulio Bizzozero and Enrico Sertoli, he studied under Eusebio Oehl, distinguished as the first in Pavia to develop systematically studies of microscopic anatomy and histology.

After obtaining a degree in medicine in 1865, he worked for a short time in the psychiatric clinic directed by Cesare Lombroso, but his main interest was in the histological research he was conducting in the laboratory of experimental pathology directed by Bizzozero.

Golgi’s first publications, which appeared between 1868 and 1871, included some works on clinical topics but were mainly devoted to the anatomy and pathological anatomy of the nervous system. In his papers on neurology he described the morphological features of the glial cells and showed the relationships between their prolongations and blood vessels.

In 1871 he gave a private course on clinical microscopy, but in 1872 financial difficulties forced him to interrupt his scientific career temporarily and accept the modest post of principal doctor of the Pio Luogo degli Incurabili at Abbiategrasso. Even there he managed, although with difficulty, to continue his microscopic research on the structure of the nervous system; later he was able to publish the results in important papers.

Having gained a certain degree of fame, he became in 1875 a lecturer in histology at the University of Pavia. In 1879 he obtained the chair of anatomy at the University of Siena, but the following year he returned to Pavia, first as professor of histology and later of general pathology; he continued to teach histology as well until his obligatory retirement in 1918. Around him flourished a group of notable scholars and researchers.

In 1906 he shared the Nobel Prize for medicine or physiology with Santiago Ramon y Cajal, famous also for his studies on the fine anatomy of the nervous system.

Golgi became a senator in 1900 and took an active part in public and university life, especially in Pavia, where he was dean of the Faculty of Medicine and president of the university. He also concerned himself with problems of public health and university administration. A member of numerous scientific societies and academies, Italian and foreign, he had contacts with such personalities as the Swiss anatomist Albert von Koelliker, and the Norwegian explorer and scientist Fridtjof Nansen.

In the course of his long life Golgi penetrated various fields of biology and medicine with equal success, but the areas of research in which he earned the greatest distinction were neuroanatomy (for which work he won the Nobel Prize), cytology, and malariology.

In the second half of the nineteenth century considerable progress was made in the study of histology and microscopic anatomy; until the work of Golgi, however, little headway had been made in the study of the nervous system because of a lack of appropriate techniques; and theories on the function of nerve cells and their extensions were nebulous and conflicting. Golgi invented a completely original method based on the coloration of cells and nerve fibers by means of the prolonged immersion of samples, previously hardened with potassium bichromate or ammonium bichromate, in a 0.5 to l percent solution of silver nitrate. This technique brings out clearly the features of the nerve elements. Under controlled conditions, based on the length of the period of hardening in the bichromate, the “black reaction” permits the controlled staining of certain nerve elements (for example, either the nerve fibers with their fine branches, or only the nerve or connective cells) or even only certain parts of one (fibers) or the other (cells), thus allowing a better study of their interrelationships.

From 1873 Golgi published many articles on the results of his systematic observations, using his new technique, on the fine anatomy of the various organs of the nervous system (the gray matter of the brain, the cerebellum, the olfactory lobes, etc.). On the basis of his observations Golgi formulated a theory based on the following fundamental points:

(1) The function of the nerve extensions, or axons, is exclusively one of transmission of nerve impulses.

(2) The function of the protoplasmic extensions, or dendrites, is predominantly trophic, as can be deduced, for example, from their frequent relationships with the pia mater.

(3) There are two types of nerve cells, differing according to the characteristics of the nerve extension of each: nerve cells of the first type are those with an axon that, although serving a more or less large number of lateral fibrils, nevertheless preserves its individuality and continues directly into the cylindraxis of a medullary fiber. Nerve cells of the second type are those with an axon that within a relatively short distance of its origin subdivides within an indeterminate distance, and with no demonstrable spatial limit. The cells of the first type probably have a motive or psychomotive function; those of the second, hypothetically a sensorial or psychosensorial function.

(4) In the gray matter of the nerve centers there is a diffused nerve network of extreme fineness, continuous over the entire nerve substance and made of nerve fibrils finely and thickly interlaced. Golgi would not pronounce dogmatically on the question of whether it was a network in the true sense, made of anastomosed fibrils derived from various nerve elements, or simply interlaced, functionally independent filaments of different origin. Golgi considered the diffused nerve network to be the mediating organ that effectuated connections between various parts of the nervous system or between various functional activities related to that system.

Golgi’s hypotheses superseded those formulated in 1872 by Josef von Gerlach but were soon challenged by the contributions made by Ramon y Cajal to the neuron theory.

Some of Golg’s contributions to neuroanatomy deserve mention. He discovered the existence along the length of nerve fibers of numerous special apparatuses that support the myelin (the corneal spires); the existence of special terminal bodies of a sensitive nature in muscle tendons that had never previously been described and the importance of which has been confirmed by recent physiological research; and the critical examination of the theory of brain localizations.

In the field of cytology Golgi was the first to describe, in 1898, the existence in the cytoplasm of the nerve cell of a special small organ, in the shape of a fine and elegant network of anastomosed and interlaced threads. Later Golgi and his co-workers demonstrated that this endocellular structure, called Golgi’s internal reticular apparatus, was given special attention by classical cytologists, who recognized its undoubted individuality and suspected its importance in the cellular economy; it is now the object of particular studies, because it is considered of fundamental importance in cytometabolic processes.

The discovery in 1880 of the malaraic parasite by C. L. Alphonse Laveran was not immediately accepted but was received at first skeptically and with diffidence. Among Italians the theory of its existence was accepted and developed by Ettore Marchiafava and Angelo Celli, whose research on it achieved (1885) results important to the understanding of the development cycle of the parasite.

Golgi followed for some time, in Rome, the research of Marchiafava and Celli; then in Pavia, between 1885 and 1893, he did important research on malaria, arriving at the verification of the following fundamental facts:

(1) the existence of the cycle of monogamic development of the tertian and quartan forms of malaria;

(2) the existence of specific differences between the parasites of the two forms;.

(3) the correspondence of the cyclic development of the malaric parasites with the periodic succession of the fever fits;

(4) the constant relationship of the single fits with the development, maturing, and reproduction of one generation of parasites;

(5) the correspondence of various species or varieties of malaric parasites with the various fundamental classical types of intermittent fever.

From this knowledge Golgi immediately derived results capable of practical application: by the examination of the blood of malaria patients carried out with methods that he suggested, it was possible to diagnose the different forms of the disease and to establish the sequence in the appearance of the fever fits. Furthermore, since the plasmodes display different degrees of sensitivity to quinine according to the stage of their development (the young forms derived immediately from the segmentation or sporulation process are the most sensitive to quinine), the most efficient way to prevent the appearance of the fever fit and progressively extinguish the infection is to give quinine a few hours before the fit, so that it can act on the new generation of the parasite. Also basically important for diagnosis was the observation that the entire nosogenic process of malaric fevers sometimes occurs not in the circulating blood but in the internal organs, so that it is only later that the parasites spread in the blood.


Golgi’s works, which originally appeared in various journals, were collected in Opera omnia, 4 vols. (Milan, 1903–1929). A German trans. of his works is Untersuchungen ueber den feineren Bau des centralen und peripherischen Nervensystems, G. Fischer, ed. (Jena, 1894).

Golgi’s MSS, partly published drawings (some completed by his students), and scientific and personal effects are in the Museo per la Storia dell’Università di Pavia. Material on Golgi may also be found at the Instituto di Patologia Generale dell’ Università di Pavia.

The following works serve as bibliographical sources: Bruno Zanobio, “The Work of Camillo Golgi in Neurology,” in Essays on the History of Italian Neurology. Proceedings of the International Symposium on the History of Neurology. Varenna—30. VIII/IX. 1961 (Milan, 1963), pp. 179–193; and “L’opera del biologo Camillo Golgi,” in Actes du III Symposium International d’Histoire des Sciences, Turin, 28–30 juillet 1961 (Florence, 1964), pp. 64–84; and Giorgio Pilleri, “Camillo Golgi” in Kurt Kolle, ed., Grosse Nervenärzte, 2nd ed., II (Stuttgart, 1970), 3–12.

Bruno Zanobio

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Golgi, Camillo (1843-1926)

Italian histologist

Among other achievements in neurobiology, Camillo Golgi devised a method of staining nerve tissue using silver nitrate. Golgi-stained nerve tissue revealed unique structures with fine projections, which were later recognized as individual cells, or neurons.

Golgi was born in Corteno, Italy, on July 7, 1843. His hometown was later re-named Corteno-Golgi in his honor. Golgi studied medicine at the University of Pavia, where he received his M.D. in 1865. After graduation, he worked briefly in a psychiatric clinic, but eventually decided to pursue a career in histological research.

Financial difficulties forced him in 1872 to accept a position as chief medical officer at the Hospital for the Chronically Ill in Abbiategrasso, Italy. No research facilities were available there, however, and he was able to continue his studies only by converting an unused kitchen into a laboratory. By 1875, Golgi had earned sufficient fame to receive an appointment as lecturer in histology at the University of Pavia. Four years later, he was appointed Professor of Anatomy at the University of Siena, but he stayed only a year there before returning to Pavia as Professor of Histology.

Golgi's earliest research involved the study of neurons, or nerve cells. Neurons present a number of problems for researchers that other cells do not. While most cells are compact and have a relatively fixed shape, neurons are commonly very long and thin with structures that are difficult to see clearly. In the 1860s, techniques used to stain and study non-nerve cells were well developed, but they were largely useless with neurons. As a result, a great deal of uncertainty surrounded the structure and function of neurons and neuron networks.

In 1873, Golgi found that silver salts could be used to dye neurons. The neurons turned black and stood out clearly from surrounding tissue. Golgi perfected his technique so that the addition of just the right amount of dye for just the right period of time would highlight one or another part of the neuron, a single complete neuron, or a group of neurons.

Golgi's new technique resolved some questions about the nervous system, but not all. He was able, for example, to confirm the view of Wilhelm von Waldeyer-Hartz that neurons are separated by narrow gaps, synapses, and are not physically connected to each other. He was not able to completely explain, however, the complex, overlapping network of dendrites.

While studying the brain of a barn owl in 1896, Golgi made a second important discovery. He found previously undetected bodies near the nuclear membrane. The function of those bodies, now known as Golgi apparatus, or Golgi bodies , is still not understood. For his research on the nervous system, Golgi was awarded a share of the 1906 Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine.

Between 1885 and 1893, Golgi was also involved in research on malaria . He made one especially interesting discovery in this field, namely that all the malarial parasites in an organism reproduce at the same time, a time that corresponds to the recurrence of fever.

In addition to his scientific work, Golgi was active in Italian politics. He was elected a Senator in 1900 and served in a number of administrative posts at Pavia. Golgi died in Pavia on January 21, 1926.

See also Cell cycle and cell division; Cell membrane transport; Golgi body; Malaria and the physiology of parasitic inflections

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Golgi, Camillo (1843–1926) Italian cytologist, who experimented with cells and tissues while working as a physician. He later became a professor at Pavia University. He devised a method of staining cells using silver salts, which enabled him to study nerve cells, and identified a type of nerve cell in the brain (later called Golgi cells) that made connections with many other nerve cells. This led to the establishment, by the Spanish histologist Santiago Ramón y Cajal (1852–1934), of the neuron as the impulse-conducting unit of the nervous system. Golgi is also remembered for his discovery of the cell organelle now called the Golgi apparatus. For his work on the structure of the nervous system he shared the 1906 Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine with Ramón y Cajal.

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Golgi, Camillo (1843–1926) An Italian physician who developed a method for staining nerve cells with silver nitrate and who first demonstrated the existence of the branching processes named after him (Golgi body). In 1906 he was awarded (jointly with S. Ramón y Cajal) the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for his research into the structure of the nervous system.