Mantegazza, Paolo

views updated


(b. Monza, Italy, 31 December 1831; d. San Terenzo di Lerici, Italy, 17 August 1910)

medicine, anthropology.

Mantegazza was born into a rich family who gave him a liberal and sophisticated education. His mother, to whom he dedicated one of his books, was Laura Solari, herself notably well-educated, and famous for her ardent patriotism. Under her inspiration Mantegazza took part in the “Cinque Giornate” of 1848, in which the Milanese were able, after furious street fighting, to repel the Austrian occupying forces. Since he was sixteen, Mantegazza was allowed to serve only as a courier in the insurrection, but it nevertheless marked his baptism of fire.

Mantegazza attended the universities of Pisa and Pavia, graduating from the latter in 1853 with honors in medicine. He began scientific experimentation while he was still a student, and when he was nineteen presented to the Istituto Lombardo Accademia di Scienze e Lettere a memoir on spontaneous generation—a still somewhat controversial topic—that aroused considerable interest.

After his graduation Mantegazza traveled extensively in Europe (he knew seven languages), then moved to South America. In 1856 he established a medical practice in Salto, Argentina, where he was engaged in founding an agricultural colony and where he married an Argentinian. He shortly thereafter abandoned the colonization project and returned with his wife to Italy; in 1858 he became an assistant at the Ospedale Maggiore in Milan. The following year, in spite of his numerous professional commitments, he requested that he be allowed to take part in a competition for the unsalaried post of honorary assistant in the same institution. In 1860 Mantegazza was appointed to the chair of general pathology at the University of Pavia, where he subsequently established the first laboratory of experimental pathology in Europe. Ten years later, in 1870, he went to Florence to fill the first Italian chair of anthropology. Here he built up an important museum of anthropology and ethnology and founded the journal Archivio per l’antropologia e la etnografia. Following the death of his first wife, Mantegazza married Maria Fantoni, the daughter of a Florentine aristocrat.

Mantegazza published a great number of books, both popular and scientific. Among the latter, those that record his researches on the physiology of reproduction and on what are today called opotherapy and endocrinology are particularly important. Taking up Spallanzani’s work of the preceding century, Mantegazza conducted a series of experiments in which he subjected frog sperm to low temperatures to determine its viability. From the data that he compiled he was able to conclude that it should be possible to preserve sperm by this method; and he went on to speculate on the feasibility of artificial insemination, writing that it might be a practice applicable to man. He also made experiments designed to demonstrate that tuberculosis is contagious, and was the first to show that bacteria reproduce by means of spores. He conducted researches on transplanting amphibian testicles, and did work on animal organ transplants in general.

The abundance and variety of Mantegazza’s works written for the layman quite overshadowed his scientific works, however. He was an active popularizer, at a time when science was considered to be the preserve of the initiated few. His works on hygiene are particularly significant; he courageously dealt with a number of then-proscribed topics, including sex education. Indeed, there was almost no medical or social problem to which he did not devote a book, pamphlet, or lecture; his books were highly successful, and a few have had modern editions. (He also wrote several novels in the lachrymose and romantic style popular at the time.)

Mantegazza lived to be nearly eighty. He was much honored for his scientific achievements. He was a member of a number of scientific academies and institutes, and was awarded decorations by his own and foreign governments.


I. Original Works. Among Mantegazza’s original works are Della vitalità dei zoospermi della rana e del trapiantamento dei testicoli da un animale all’ altro (Milan, 1860); Della temperatura delle orine in diverse ore del giorno e in diversi climi (Milan, 1862); Sugli innesti animali e sulla organizzazione artificiale della fibrina (Milan, 1864); Sulla congestione: ricerche di patologia sperimentale (Milan, 1864); Degli innesti animali e della produzione artificale delle cellule: ricerche sperimentali (Milan, 1865); Delle alterazioni istologiche prodotte dal taglio dei nervi (Milan, 1867). Two works on other scientists are Maurizio Bufalini: biografia (Turin, 1863); and Carlo Darwin e il suo ultimo libro (Milan, 1868). His later scientific books include Fisiologia dell’ amore(Milan, 1873); Fisiologia del dolore (Milan, 1880); and Fisiologia della donna (Milan, 1893).

II. Secondary Literature. Works about Mantegazza include F. Bazzi, “Paolo Mantegazza nel cinquantenario della morte,” in Castalia, 3 (1960), 126; and E. V. Ferrario, “Una lettera inedita di Paolo Mantegazza sulla fecondazione artificiale,” ibid. (1962), 134.

Carlo Castellani