Corti, Alfonso Giacomo Gaspare

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Corti, Alfonso Giacomo Gaspare

(b. Gambarana, near Pavia, Italy, 22 June 1822; d. Corvino San Quirico, near Casteggio, Italy, 2 October 1876),

microscopic anatomy.

Corti was one of the biologists who in the middle of the nineteenth century sought to explain the fine structure of organs. Inspired by the color effect of chromic acid solutions, which were used as fixing agents, he introduced carmine staining into microscopic technology. He also described the most important components of the membranous cochlea, and in all his work he looked for the connection between structure and function.

The Cortis, an old noble family of Lombardy, maintained an estate at Gambarana; it was all that remained of their former, more extensive holdings. The location of the estate made them citizens of Sardinia. Alfonso was the oldest son of the Marchesa Gaspare Giuseppe Corti di San Stefano Belbo and the Marchesa Beatrice Malaspina di Carbonaro. From youth he was under the influence of his father’s scientific interests. Probably he spent his school years in Pavia; from 1841 to 1845 he studied medicine there. Bartolomeo Panizza showed him how to use the microscope, and with Mauro Rusconi he became active in comparative anatomy. Against the opposition of his family he continued his studies, from September 1845, in Vienna. Corti visited clinics there and simultaneously did some anatomical work with Josef Hyrtl. He received his M.D. in Vienna on 6 August 1847; his thesis, De systemate vasorum Psammosauri grisei, included his own drawings based on injection specimens that he himself had prepared.

At the end of December 1847, Corti was chosen as Hyrtl’s second prosector; he soon had to relinquish this position, however, because war broke out between the Kingdom of Sardinia, as the Piedmontese realm was then styled, and Austria on 23 March 1848. He returned to Turin by way of Zurich. From 2 February to 3 August 1849, Corti was in Bern, where he began his own microscopic studies in collaboration with the physiologist Gustav Gabriel Valentin; Valentin encouraged him to undertake the investigations that were published the following year. Except for a trip to England, where he met some important microscopists (including James Paget, Thomas Wharton Jones, and Richard Owen), Corti spent the rest of 1849 with his relatives in Paris.

In the middle of January 1850, Corti left for Würzburg to work with Albert Kölliker, under whom he mastered normal histology in two months. Some results of his work are in Kölliker’s handbooks. In his own investigations on the structure of the retina, Corti succeeded in demonstrating, through isolation, the connection of the nerve cells with the optic nerve fibers; by doing this, he verified A. H. Hassall’s disputed, earlier observations. Furthermore, in Würzburg he completed the studies, begun in Bern, on the ciliary epithelium in the digestive organs of the larvae of frogs and toads; he reported on this to the Physikalisch-medizinischen Gesellschaft on 6 July 1850. Corti concluded that the ciliary cells in the digestive organs of these larvae serve, before the formation of muscle layers, to expel the contents of the hollow organs. These observations were unknown to all of Corti’s early biographers.

During this period Corti must also have been occupied with his studies on the inner ear, which he had begun entirely on his own; he had begun entirely on his own; he had not completed these studies when he left Würzburg in the middle of August 1850. He was a member of the wedding of Rudolf Virchow in Berlin, and then he went to the Netherlands. In Utrecht he visited Schroeder van der Kolk and Harting, from whom he learned how to mount moist microscopic preparations in fluid or resin. This technique and the method that he discovered of staining microscopic objects with carmine solutions enabled Corti to distinguish the individual components of the membranous cochlea.

Corti’s observations are remarkable since he could use only freshly prepared pieces of the membranous cochlea and not fine sections of it. He described the ganglion spirale cochleae with its bipolar cells, the lamina spiralis membranacea, the uas spirale, the columns, the hair cells, and the membrana tectoria; he even saw the vascular epithelium of the stria vascularis ductus cochlearis and recognized it as the source of the endolymph. He was unsure only how and where the fibers of the nervus cochlearis end. Thus he was unable to clarify completely the function of the individual parts of the membranous cochlea; nevertheless, he expressed the ideas upon which Helmhotz later based his “resonance” theory of hearing.

Corti undertook the completion of his work in Paris, where he had gone toward the end of September 1850. There his efforts in microscopic anatomy were honored: he was elected a corresponding member of the Societe de Biologie de Paris (on 20 July 1850); corresponding, and later regular, member of the Verein Deutscher Aerzte and Naturforscher in Paris (17 February and 5 April 1851); and corresponding member of the Paris Medical Society (5 April 1851). Pressing family business forced him to leave at the beginning of 1851 for Turin, where he had to spend several years attending to these matters; the high point of his scientific career had already passed.

The scientific world heard of Corti again with the publication of his letter concerning histological observations on an elephant, sent in April 1853 to Kölliker and published in 1854. The letter testifies to Corti’s interest in general science and offers proof that the cells of the various tissues of this large mammal are the same relative size as corresponding cells of other mammals. All later work, which Valentin encouraged him to undertake, remained attempts with out conclusive results. A last honor was bestowed upon Corti when he was elected a member of the Imperial Leopoldian-Carolinian Academy (6 January 1854). His letter of appreciation to the president of the academy contains the first reference to his suffering from rheumatoid arthritis. This illness, not dangerous but very protracted, caused Corti—increasingly with the years—to become crippled in his hands and feet.

Earlier, Corti had acquired as part of his inheritance an estate in Mazzoline, which he developed into a model farm for viniculture after his financial situation had improved. This improvement was partially the result of his marriage, on 24 September 1855, to Maria Anna Carlotta Bettinzoli, who died in 1861. The management of his estate and the education of his two children gave substance and meaning to Corti—s life until his death at the age of fifty-four. Because of his twenty-two-year silence the scientific world, except for a few friends, had long forgotten him. He is now generally known for the organ in the cochlea, described by him, which at Kölliker’s suggestion was designated the orgaqn of Corti—a name familiar to students of medicine and the natural sciences.


1.Original Works. Corti’s major writings are “Beitrag zur Anatomie der Retina,” in Archiv für Anatomie, Physiologie and wissenschaftliche Medizin (1850), 273–275, 4 figures in plate 6; “Ueber Flimmerbewegung bei Froschund Krötenlarven,” in Verhandlungen der Physikalischmedizinischen Gesellschaft zu Würzburg1 (1850), 191–192; and “Recherches sur l’organe de l’ouie des mammiféres. Première partie: Limaçon,” in Zeitschrift für wissenschaftliche Zoologie, 3 (1851), 109–169, 12 illustrations in plates 3 and 4.

II. Secondary Literature. On Corti or his work, see Alfredo Corti, “II Marchese Alfonso Corti e le sue ultime ricerche nel Laboratorio di anatomia comparata dell’ Università di Torino,” in Rivista di storia delle scienze mediche e naturali47 (1955), 1–28, which includes the Italian translation of the letter from Corti to Kölliker, orginally in Zeitschrift für wissenschaftliche Zoologie5 (1854), 87–93; Erich Hintzsche, Alfonso Corti (1822–1876), Berner Beiträge zur Geschichte der Medizin and der Naturwissenschaften, no. 3 (Bern, 1944) with complete bibliography; and “Ein neuer Brief von Alfonso Corti (1822–1876),” in GesnerusI (1944), 137–146; Gennaro Palumbi, “Nel centenario della scoperta dell’organo del Corti,” in Atti della Società italiana di anatomia XIII, supp. to Monitore zollogico italiano, 40 (1952), 22–25; Bruno Pincherle, La vita e I’opera di Alfonso Corti (Rome, 1932), which includes a reprint of “Recherches sur I’organe de I’ouie” and Egon V. Ullman, “Life of Alfonso Corti,” in Archives of Otolaryngology54 (1951), 1–28, more “story” than “history.”

Erich Hintzsche

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