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Fontana, Felice

Fontana, Felice

(b. Pomarolo, Italy, 15 [?] April 1730; d. Florence, Italy, 10 March 1805)

neurology, biology.

Fontana was educated in Rovereto, where he was a student of G. Tartarotti, and at Verona, Parma, and the University of Padua. Toward the end of 1755 he went to Bologna, where he collaborated with L. M. A. Caldani in research on the irritability and sensitivity of the parts of the animal body, an advanced subject proposed to scholars in 1752 by Albrecht von Haller. In 1757 Fontana defended Haller’s position in an epistolary dissertation which, published in the collection Mémoires sur les parties sensibles et irritables du corps animal (1760), marked the beginning of his fame. From Bologna, Fontana returned for a brief time to the Trentino and then moved to Rome; from there he went to Tuscany, which became his permanent residence until the time of his death.

In 1765 he was appointed to the chair of logic and, in 1766, to the chair of physics at the University of Pisa. Also in 1766, Leopold I, grand duke of Tuscany, who was very interested in natural sciences, summoned Fontana to Florence to organize and develop the court’s physics laboratory, which was then located in the Pitti Palace. Fontana reorganized the surviving instruments of the Medici collection—including the relics of Galileo and of the Accademia del Cimento now in the Museum of the History of Science in Florence—and notably increased the collection through the acquisition of scientific instruments and natural objects, as well as by the production of wax models of the human anatomy, prepared under his supervision in an expressly established workshop. In 1775 the Museum of Physics and Natural History, with its important collection of wax models, was opened to the public; it is preserved in a building that was acquired in 1772 to house the growing material. The collection was greatly expanded under Fontana’s supervision and during the course of the nineteenth century. In 1786 a duplicate of the collection was sent to Vienna to equip the Austrian medical-surgical military academy, which had been established the preceding year. After the museum had been inaugurated, Fontana was able to begin a long-planned trip in the autumn of 1775 to France and England, to observe, study, and make outstanding acquisitions. This trip, which lasted until January 1780, enabled him to make direct contact with the most significant scientists of the era.

Like his brother Gregorio, a celebrated mathematician, Felice Fontana was an abbot and, like his brother, he was sympathetic to the ideals of the French Revolution. In 1799 he was imprisoned—but only for a few days—by insurgents against the French. On 11 February 1805 he was stricken with apoplexy; he died the following month and was buried in the Church of Santa Croce.

The quality of Fontana’s scientific accomplishment is evident from his first work, on irritability and sensitivity, a subject that he continued to pursue so intensely as to earn the praise of Haller in 1767: “Fontana leges irritabilitatis constituit, ingeniosus homo et accuratus.” In 1767 there appeared the De irritabiltatis legibus, nunc primum sancitis, et de spirituum animalium in movendis musculis inefficacia, revised and translated into Italian as Ricerche filosofiche sopra la fisica animale (1775). According to the analysis made in 1955 by Marchand and Hoff,

The first law concerned Haller’s concept of contractility as a property of muscle fiber itself, and pointed out that a contraction follows only after some stimulus. The discussion displayed insight into the underlying nature of tetanic muscular contraction. The second principle was the refractory period discovered by Fontana in heart muscle and applied to better understanding of the function of other muscles. The original third principle was a disproof of the efficacy of a theoretical entity, the “animal spirits.” It was a demonstration that the nervous system could excite, but not actually cause contraction of a muscle, and this proposition was illustrated by the classic spark and gunpowder analogy. Not actually a law, this principle was replaced by another in the later Italian version. The newer third law was a description of fatigue as a phenomenon occurring within the muscle fiber itself. In his fourth law, Fontana pointed out the loss of contractility which results from stretching or compressing a muscle, and certain medical applications of this principle. The fifth law was concerned with problems arising from atrophy of disuse. This chapter included a discussion of the behavior of muscles after a relatively brief rest and a progressive shortening related to the “treppe” effect observed on the kymograph record [Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, 10 (1955), 202]

Initially unwilling to accept the idea of an identification of the nervous flux with electricity, Fontana gradually changed his mind in the course of his research so that finally “he thought in terms of an electric fluid and said the nerves would be the organs destined to conduct this electric fluid and perhaps even to excite it. This is, perhaps, the first suggestion that the production of electricity might be excited by the nerves rather than merely conducted by them as by wires” (Brazier, p. 110).

The research on the movements of the iris (1765) and on viper venom (1767, 1781) is strictly tied to irritability. Fontana observed that the reflex response to light of the pupil of one eye also occurs in the other eye, although it is not exposed to light; in a frightened or excited animal the pupil is dilated and remains so, even if the eye is struck by light; and the pupil of the animal eye is strongly contracted during sleep.

After a series of impressive and ingenious experiments, Fontana retraced the action of the bite of the viper to an alteration in the irritability of the fibers, which he maintained was mediated by the blood: in other words, the viper’s poison directly alters the blood, coagulating it, and this in turn alters all parts of the organism—especially the nerve fibers—that the blood would normally nourish. Fontana extended his toxicological experiments to other substances, especially to curare.

Fontana also took advantage of microscopic investigations to complete the characterizations of the parts of the animal body which Haller had based upon irritability and sensitivity. The use of the microscope was at that time especially difficult, because of the illusory images abundantly produced by contemporary instruments. Although Fontana was unable to do away with these images—one can visualize his “tortuous primitive cylinders”—he nonetheless belongs, together with L. Spallanzani, among the major microscopists of the eighteenth century. In the nerve fibers (his “primitive nerve cylinders”) he not only distinguished “the axone with myelin sheath and endoneural sheath” (Zanobio [1959], p. 307) but also recognized the fluidity of the axoplasm through accurate research of micromanipulation in which he took advantage of the use of the coverglass (Hoff [1959], p. 377). Thanks to the microscope, Fontana was able to demonstrate in 1778–1779 that the restoration of an interrupted nerve trunk may be traced to a real and actual regeneration of primitive nerve cylinders, or rather, of nerve fibers. Since 1776 Fontana had studied microscopically the “little red globes of the blood” and, discarding the illusory images observed by G. M. della Torre, he attributed to them a spheroidal configuration, modifiable with extreme ease under certain physiological conditions. In fact, the red corpuscles become noticeably elongated (by one third, by one half, or even to twice their diameter) when they cross a blood vessel: the corpuscles assume a cylindrical configuration and retain it as long as the canal remains narrow; but as soon as the canal increases in width, the corpuscles immediately contract and resume their original shape.

In 1766 Fontana demonstrated that the blight which had devastated the Tuscan countryside was caused by parasitic plants that feed on grain and that reproduce by means of spores. Again with the aid of the microscope, he studied the reproduction of cereal Anguillula and its anabiosis. In certain cellular elements (epithelial cells) he observed a nucleus equipped with nucleoli. His discovery of Fontana’s canal in the ciliary body of the eye is also famous.

Fontana’s biological works, which scholars of science have so far studied only fragmentarily, merit systematic investigation; and the exploration of Fontana’s chemical works begun by Icilio Guareschi, also interesting in its applicative aspects, should be continued. Also noteworthy are Fontana’s model of the eudiometer (for measuring the salubrity of air), an apparatus for oxygen therapy, and his studies on the absorbent powers of coal.


I. Original Works. Bibliographical essays on F. Fontana are contained in the works of Adami (1905), Guareschi, Marchand, and Hoff, cited below.

The principal works of Fontana are “Dissertation epistolaire de Mr. L’Abbé F. Fontana . . . au R. P. Urbain Tosetti . . .,” in Mémoires sur les parties sensibles et irritables du corps animal . . . ouvrage qui sert de suite aux Mémoires de Monsieur de Haller, III (Lausanne, 1760), 157–243; Dei moti dell’iride (Lucca, 1765); Nuove osservazioni sopra i globetti rossi del sangue (Lucca, 1766); De irritabilitatis legibus, nunc primum sancitis, et de spirituum animalium in movendis musculis inefficacia (Lucca, 1767); Ricerche fisiche sopra il veleno della vipera (Lucca, 1767); Osservazioni sopra la ruggine del grano (Lucca, 1767); Descrizione ed usi di alcuni stromenti per misurare la salubrità dell’aria (Florence, 1774); Ricerche fisiche sopra l’aria fissa (Florence, 1775); Saggio di osservazioni sopra il falso ergot, e tremella (Florence, 1775); Saggio del Real gabinetto di fisica e di storia naturale di Firenze (Rome, 1775); Traité sur le vénin de la vipère, sur les poisons américains, sur le laurier-cerise et sur quelques autres poisons végétaux . . . (Florence, 1781); and Opuscoli scientifici (Florence, 1783).

II. Secondary Literature. Works on Fontana are Casimiro Adami, Di Felice e Gregorio Fontana scienziati pomarolesi del secolo XVIII (Rovereto, 1905), and Felice Fontana pomarolese narrato ai suoi conterranei (Rovereto, 1930); Luigi Belloni, “Anatomia plastica: III. The Wax Models in Florence,” in Ciba Symposium, 8 (1960), 129–132; Alberico Benedicenti, Malati, medici farmascitst, II (Milan, 1951), 1180–1190; Guglielmo Bilancioni, “Felice Fontana trentino e gli studi sull’anatomia e sulla fisiologia dell’orecchio e di altri organi di senso nella seconda metà del secolo XVIII,” in Archeion, 12 (1930), 296–362; Mary A. B. Brazier, “Felice Fontana,” in Luigi Belloni, ed., Essays on the History of Italian Neurology. Proceedings of the International Symposium on the History of Neurology, Varenna 1961 (Milan, 1963), pp. 107–116; Andrea Corsini, “La medicina alla corte di Pietro Leopoldo,” in Rivista Ciba, 8 (1954), 1509–1540; Fielding H. Garrison, “Felice Fontana: A Forgotten Physiologist of the Trentino,” in Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine, 11 (1935) 117–122; Icilio Guareschi, “Felice Fontana,” in Supplemento annuale 1908–1909 alla Enciclopedia di chimica scientifica e industriale (Turin, 1909) pp. 411–448; Hebbel E. Hoff, “The History of the Refractory Period. A Neglected Contribution of Felice Fontana,” in Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, 14 (1942), 635–672: and “A Classic of Microscopy: An Early, If Not the First, Observation on the Fluidity of the Axoplasm, Micromanipulation, and the Use of the Cover-slip,” in Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 33 (1959), 375–379; Giuseppe Mangili, Elogio di Felice Fontana (Milan, 1813); John Felix Marchand and Hebbel Edward Hoff, “Felice Fontana: The Laws of Irritability. A Literal Translation of the Memoir De Irritabilitatis Legibus, 1767; Added Material From Ricerche Filosofiche sopra la Fisica Animale, 1775: and Correlation of These Editions With the E. G. B. Hebenstreit German Translation, 1785,” in Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, 10 (1955), 197–206, 302–326, 399–420; Bruno Zanobio, “Le osservazioni microscopiche di Felice Fontana sulla struttura dei nervi,” in Physis, 1 (1959), 307–320, “L’immagine filamentoso-reticolare nell’anatomia microscopica dal XVII al XIX secolo,” ibid., 2 (1960), 299–317, and “Ricerche di micrografia dell’eritrocita nel settecento,” in Actes du symposium international sur les sciences naturelles, la chimie et la pharmacie de 1630 à 1850, Florence-Vinci, (Florence, 1962), pp. 159–179.

Luigi Belloni

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