Pacini, Filippo

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(b. Pistoia, Italy, 25 May 1812; d. Florence, Italy, 9 July 1883)

anatomy, histology.

Pacini was the son of Francesco Pacini, a cobbler, and Umilta Dolfi. He was educated, with public assistance, at the Pistoia episcopal seminary and later at the classical academy. In 1830 he entered the medical school attached to the Ospedale del Ceppo; he completed his studies at the University of Pisa, where he graduated in surgery in 1839 and in medicine in 1840. In the latter year Pacini was also appointed assistant at the Institute of Comparative Anatomy in Pisa; he assumed a similar post at the Institute of Human Anatomy in 1843, and became a substitute teacher there the following year.

In 1847 Pacini began to teach descriptive anatomy at the Lyceum in Florence; he subsequently (1849) became director of the anatomical museum and professor of topographical anatomy at the medical school there, and from 1859 also teacher of microscopical anatomy. (Throughout Pacini’s career at the Florence medical school, the professor of descriptive anatomy was Luigi Paganucci.) As a teacher Pacini, convinced of the fundamental importance of the biological sciences to medical education, initiated a number of new programs; he was, however, occasionally frustrated and embittered by the antagonism of Bufalini, director of the department of internal medicine.

Pacini was primarily interested in microscopical research; as early as 1833 he had access to a primitive instrument, and in 1843 was given a good one by the Pistoian philanthropist Niccolo Puccini. The following year Pacini designed his own microscope, which he constructed the next year with the help of Amici; this was the best to which he ever had access. In 1868 he constructed another compound (which he called “inverted” ) instrument for photographic and chemical use; this, together with the 1845 microscope, is preserved in the Museo di Storia della Scienza in Florence.

Pacini saw the corpuscles that are now named for him early in his career; indeed, he discovered them in a hand that he was dissecting as a student in the Pistoia hospital in 1831, when he was nineteen. He first saw the corpuscles around the digital branches of the median nerve, and suggested that they were “nervous ganglia of touch” , but he soon found them also in the abdominal cavity. Although he studied these corpuscles microscopically from 1833 on, Pacini published his research only in 1840, when his Nuovi organi scoperti nel corpo umano appeared. The name “Pacini’s corpuscles” was proposed in 1844 by Koelliker, who had confirmed their existence; in 1862, however, the Viennese anatomist Carl Langer claimed priority for Abraham Vater–although Vater’s work, published in 1741, had been forgotten and was certainly unknown to Pacini. At all events, Pacini was the first to describe the distribution of the corpuscles in the body, their microscopic structure, and their nerve connections; he also interpreted the function of the corpuscles as being concerned with the sensation of touch and deep pressure.

Pacini made another important observation in 1854, when, in the midst of an epidemic in Florence, he discovered the cholera vibrio. He microscopically examined the blood and feces of those afflicted with the disease and the intestines of those dead from it. He published his findings in a report, Osservazioni microscopiche e deduzioni patologiche sul cholera asiatico, in which he stated that cholera is a contagious disease, characterized by destruction of the intestinal epithelium, followed by extreme loss of water from the blood (for which condition he later recommended, in 1879, the therapeutic intravenous injection of saline solution). Pacini went on to declare that the intestinal injuries common to the disease were caused by living microorganisms (which he called “vibrions”); he further provided drawings of the vibrions that he had observed microscopically in abundance in the intestines of cholera victims.

Despite the significance of his researches, Pacini was overlooked when, following the epidemic of 1866, the Italian government distributed medals for meritorious work against cholera. In 1884 Koch rediscovered the cholera vibrio, which he isolated in pure culture, and named it “Komma Bacillus”; by applying his rigorous postulates, he was further able to prove that the bacillus was the sole cause of the disease. Koch presented his findings to the Cholera Commission also recognized Pacini’s priority in discovering the microorganism.

In addition to conducting his own histological research, Pacini enthusiastically advocated the teaching of microscopic anatomy . He himself gave a course in practical microscopy as early as 1843, while he was still at Pisa; in 1847 he published a plea for the teaching of histology, and in 1861 he presented a collection of selected microscopical preparations to the first Italian Exposition, held at Florence. He published further notes on histological technique as late as 1880. His specific contributions include a description of the membrana limitans interna of the human retina (1845) and reports on the electric organ of the Nile Silurus(1846 and 1852) and on the structure of bone (1851). He also published work in practical anatomy, including a study of the muscular mechanics of respiration in man (1847); he later (1870) developed a method of artificial respiration based upon a rhythmic movement of the shoulders of the unconscious subject.

Pacini was a pious and charitable man. He never married, and his work was generally unrecognized; he died in a poorhouse, and was buried in the cemetery of the Misericordia in Florence. In 1835 his remains were transferred, with the remains of two other anatomists, Atto Tigri and Filippo Civinini (Castaldi), to the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Pistoia.


I. Original Works. For a complete bibliography of Pacini’s fifty-five works, see Castaldi, below. Works of particular interest are “Sopra un particulare genere di piccoli corpi globulari scoperti nel corpo umano da Filippo Pacini,” in Archivio delle scienze medico-fisiche,8 (1835), and in Nuovo giornale dei letterati, parte scientifica, 32 (1836), 109–114; Nuovi organi scoperti nel corpo umano (Pistoia, 1840);” Nuove ricerche microscopiche sulla tessitura intima della retina,” in Nuovi annali delle scienze naturali (July-Aug. 1845), and separately repr. (Bologna, 1845); “Sopra l’organo elettrico del Siluro del Nilo,” ibid. (July 1846); “Sulla questione della meccanica dei muscoli intercostali,” in Gazzetta toscana delle scienze medicofisiche,5 (1847), 153–156; “Cosa e ed a che e buona l’anatomia microscopica del corpo umano,” ibid., 193–199; “Nuovo ricerche microscopiche sulla tessitura intima delle ossa,” in Gazzetta medica italiana federativa (Nov. 1851); “Osservazioni microscopiche e deduzioni patologiche sul colera asiatico,” ibid.(Dec. 1854), and repr. in Sperimentale,78 (1924), 277–282; “Della natura del colera asiatico,” in Cronaca medica di Firenze (10 Aug. and 10 Nov. 1866); and “II mio metodo di respirazione artificiale per la cura dell’asfissia,” in Imparziale,10 (1870), 481–486.

See also “Dei fenomeni e delle funzioni di trasudamento nell’organismo animale,” in Sperimentale,28 (1874), 436–438, 537–563, 681–722; “Del processo morboso del colera asiatico del suo stadio di morte apparente e della legge matematica da cui è regolato,” ibid.,33 (1879), 355–369, 466–499, 573–597; “Di alcuni metodi di preparazione e di conservazione degli elementi microscopici dei tessuti animali o vegetali,” in Giornale internazionale delle scienze mediche,2 (1880), 337–350; and Nuove osservazioni microscopiche sul colera (Milan, 1885).

II. Secondary Literature. On Pacini and his work see A. Bianchi, Relazione e catalogo dei manoscritti di Filippo Pacini esistenti nella R. Biblioteca Nazionale di Firenze (Florence, 1889); L. Castaldi, “Filippo Pacini nel quarantesimo anniversario della sua morte,” in Rivista di storia delle scienze mediche e naturali,14 (1923), 182–212, with complete bibliography; “Un manoscritto inedito di Filippo Pacini sull’ordinamento degli studi anatomici,” in Rivista di storia delle scienze mediche e naturali,16 (1925), 13–17; “Discorso per la translazione delle salme di Filippo Civinini, Filippo Pacini ed Atto Tigri nella Chiesa di S. Maria delle Grazie presso l’Ospedale del Ceppo. Letto in 29 Settembre 1935 nel Palazzo Comunale di Pistoia,” ibid.,26 (1935), 289–310; G. Chiarugi, “Corpuscoli lamellosi del Pacini,” in Istituzioni di anatomia dell’uomo, IV (Milan, 1921), 789–793; A. Filippi, “Filippo Pacini,” in Sperimentale,37 (1883), 109–111; P. Franceschini, “Filippo Pacini e il colera,” in Physis,13 (1971), 324–332; J. Herrick, Introduction to Neurology (Philadelphia, 1928), 89; A. Koelliker, Ueber die Pacinischen Korperchen des Menschen und der Saugethiere (Zurich, 1844); C. Langer, “Zur Anatomie und Physiologie der Haut,” in Sitzungsberichte der Akademie der Wissenschaften in Wien, Math.-naturwiss. Klasse, 44 (1861), 19–46, and 45 (1862), 133–188; and G. Sanarelli, Il Colera (Milan, 1931), 73, 74, 80.

Pietro Franceschini