1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Malpighi, Marcello
MALPIGHI, MARCELLO (1628–1694), Italian physiologist, was born at Crevalcuore near Bologna, on the 10th of March 1628. At the age of seventeen he began the study of philosophy; it appears that he was also in the habit of amusing himself with the microscope. In 1649 he started to study medicine; after four years at Bologna he graduated there as doctor. He at once applied to be admitted to lecture in the university, but it was not till after three years (1656) that his request was granted. A few months later he was appointed to the chair of theoretical medicine at Pisa, where he enjoyed the friendship and countenance of G. A. Borelli. At the end of four years he left Pisa, on the ground of ill-health, and returned to Bologna. A call to be professor primarius at Messina (procured for him through Borelli, who had in the meantime become professor there) induced him to leave Bologna in 1662. His engagement at Messina was for a term of four years, at an annual stipend of 1000 scudi. An attempt was made to retain him at Messina beyond that period, but his services were secured for his native university, and he spent the next twenty-five years there. In 1691, being then in his sixty-fourth year, and in failing health, he removed to Rome to become private physician to Pope Innocent XII., and he died there of apoplexy three years later, on the 30th of November 1694. Shortly before his death, he drew up a long account of his academical and scientific labours, correspondence and controversies, and committed it to the charge of the Royal Society of London, a body with which he had been in intimate relations for more than twenty years. The autobiography, along with some other posthumous writings, was published in London in 1696, at the cost of the Society. The personal details left by Malpighi are few and dry. His narrative is mainly occupied with a summary of his scientific contributions and an account of his relations to contemporary anatomists, and is entirely without graces of style or elements of ordinary human interest.
Malpighi was one of the first to apply the microscope to the study of animal and vegetable structure; and his discoveries were so important that he may be considered to be the founder of microscopic anatomy. It was his practice to open animals alive, and some of his most striking discoveries were made in those circumstances. Although Harvey had correctly inferred the existence of the capillary circulation, he had never seen it; it was reserved for Malpighi in 1661 (four years after Harvey’s death) to see for the first time the marvellous spectacle of the blood coursing through a network of small tubes on the surface of the lung and of the distended urinary bladder of the frog. We are enabled to measure the difficulties of microscopic observation at the time by the fact that it took Malpighi four years longer to reach a clear understanding of the corpuscles in the frog’s blood, although they are the parts of the blood by which its movement in the capillaries is made visible. His discovery of the capillary circulation was given to the world in the form of two letters De Pulmonibus, addressed to Borelli, published at Bologna in 1661 and reprinted at Leiden and other places in the years following; these letters contained also the first account of the vesicular structure of the human lung, and they made a theory of respiration for the first time possible. The achievement that comes next both in importance and in order of time was a demonstration of the plan of structure of secreting glands; against the current opinion (revived by F. Ruysch forty years later) that the glandular structure was essentially that of a closed vascular coil from which the secretion exuded, he maintained that the secretion was formed in terminal acini standing in open communication with the ducts. The name of Malpighi is still associated with his discovery of the soft or mucous character of the lower stratum of the epidermis, of the vascular coils in the cortex of the kidney, and of the follicular bodies in the spleen. He was the first to attempt the finer anatomy of the brain, and his descriptions of the distribution of grey matter and of the fibre-tracts in the cord, with their extensions to the cerebrum and cerebellum, are distinguished by accuracy; but his microscopic study of the grey matter conducted him to the opinion that it was of glandular structure and that it secreted the “vital spirits.” At an early period he applied himself to vegetable histology as an introduction to the more difficult study of the animal tissues, and he was acquainted with the spiral vessels of plants in 1662. It was not till 1671 that he wrote his Anatome plantarum and sent it to the Royal Society, who published it in the following year. An English work under a similar title (Anatomy of Vegetables) had been published in London a few months earlier, by Nehemiah Grew; so that Malpighi’s priority as a vegetable histologist is not so incontestable as it is in animal histology. The Anatome plantarum contained an appendix, Observations de ovo incubato, which gave an account (with good plates) of the development of the chick (especially of the later stages) in many points more complete than that of Harvey, although the observations were needlessly lessened in value by being joined to the metaphysical notion of “praedelineation” in the undeveloped ovum.
He also wrote Epistolae anatomicae Marc. Malpighii et Car. Fracassati (Amsterdam, 1662) (on the tongue, brain, skin, omentum, &c.); De viscerum structura: exercitatio anatomica (London, 1669); De structura glandularum conglobatarum (London, 1689); Opera posthuma, et vita a seipso scripta (London, 1697; another edition, with preface and additions, was published at Amsterdam in 1700.). An edition containing all his works except the last two was published in London in 1687, in 2 vols. folio, with portrait and plates.