He was a visionary who unlocked the mysteries of life with his revolutionary microscope. He saw things that no one else could see, and made discoveries that changed the world.
But he was also a victim of ignorance and envy. He was ridiculed by his colleagues, persecuted by the church and betrayed by his students. He suffered from ill health, family tragedies and personal losses.
This is the remarkable story of Marcello Malpighi, the Italian physician and biologist who founded the science of microscopic anatomy. He is the father of histology, the study of tissues, and a pioneer in physiology, embryology and botany.
Malpighi was born in 1628 near Bologna, in the same year that William Harvey published his theory of blood circulation. He studied medicine at the University of Bologna, where he faced opposition from the authorities for being non-Bolognese. He later moved to Pisa and Messina, where he befriended other eminent scientists and joined one of the first scientific societies.
Malpighi was one of the first to use the newly invented microscope to study living things. He was amazed by what he saw: tiny structures that were invisible to the naked eye. He called them “animalcules” and “little globules”.
He discovered the pulmonary capillaries and alveoli, the microscopic blood vessels and air sacs in the lungs that enable gas exchange. He confirmed Harvey’s theory by showing how the arteries and veins were connected by capillaries. He also described the structure and function of various organs, such as the liver, spleen, kidneys, brain and skin.
He also made groundbreaking discoveries in insect respiration, plant anatomy and chicken embryology. He revealed that insects breathe through small holes in their skin called tracheae, and that plants have tubules similar to those in animals. He also studied the development of the chick embryo from fertilization to hatching, documenting the formation of various organs and tissues.
Malpighi’s discoveries were not only based on careful observation, but also on rigorous experimentation and logical reasoning. He used various techniques to prepare his specimens, such as staining, injecting, dissecting and magnifying. He also compared different species and tested different hypotheses to explain his results.
But Malpighi’s novel observations were met with scorn and disbelief by his peers. They called him crazy and accused him of fabricating his findings. They could not accept that he had seen things that they had not. They also feared that his discoveries would challenge their authority and undermine their beliefs.
Malpighi faced opposition from the university authorities, who tried to sabotage his career and reputation. He faced persecution from the church, who suspected him of heresy and atheism. He faced betrayal from his students, who stole his work and claimed it as their own.
Malpighi also suffered from family troubles, poor health and personal tragedies. He lost his wife, his son and his brother in a short span of time. He suffered from kidney stones, gout and depression. He was robbed of his money and possessions by bandits.
But Malpighi persevered and published his works in prestigious journals and books, earning the admiration of influential patrons and scientists across Europe. He received letters of praise from eminent figures such as Louis XIV of France, Christina of Sweden and Robert Boyle. He was invited to join the Royal Society of London by its founder Henry Oldenburg.
Malpighi died in Rome in 1694 at the age of 66. He was buried in the Basilica of Santi Gregorio e Siro, where a marble monument was erected in his honour. His life story is a testament to his courage, curiosity and creativity in the face of adversity.
Malpighi’s legacy is evident in the numerous anatomical structures that bear his name, such as the Malpighian corpuscles in the kidneys, the Malpighian tubules in insects, and the Malpighian bodies in the spleen. He also has a botanical family named after him, the Malpighiaceae.
He is now recognized as one of the greatest scientists of all time, who revealed the secrets of life under the microscope.