Camillo Golgi

Camillo Golgi was the first Italian to have received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1906. The Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institute awards the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. This prize has been awarded annually from 1901. It is awarded during a formal ceremony held on December 10, the death anniversary of Alfred Nobel, in Stockholm, Sweden. Since 1901 there have been five winners of Italian descent who have been awarded this prestigious prize.

Birth and early years

Camillo Golgi was born on July 7, 1843 in Corteno in a small village near Brescia in Northern Italy. His father was a district medical officer. He studied medicine at the University of Pavia. He was fortunate enough to study under some great teachers like Mantegazza, Bizzozero and Oehl. He worked in the laboratory of experimental pathology, which was under the able and dynamic guidance of Giulio Bizzozero a brilliant and young professor of histology and pathology. He introduced Golgi to experimental research and histological techniques. They maintained a lifelong friendship. Golgi graduated in 1865.

Early career

He began his career at the Hospital of St. Matteo. He was a very popular teacher and his laboratory was open to all young researchers. Although he did not practice medicine at the hospital he directed the activities of the Department of General Pathology. He also began studying histological techniques such as tissue staining and fixation procedures.

In 1872 he became the Chief Medical Officer at the Hospital for the Chronically Ill at Abbiategrasso (close to Pavia and Milan). He had accepted this job due to financial constraints. However he continued the research work he had began earlier. It is believed that he converted a small kitchen and made it his laboratory. This is where he began his path breaking research.

His most important research

In 1869 he wrote an article where he stated that mental diseases could be due to organic lesions of the neural centers. Lombroso’s theories had a deep impact on him. It was here that he began work on an experimental study of the nervous system. He investigated insanity, neurology and the lymphatic of the brain. He also began studying the causes of malaria.

Although Golgi has done a considerable amount of research on the central nervous system perhaps his most important research is the revolutionary method of staining which he discovered. Golgi was reticent and modest about this work and it is not exactly known when he developed this technique. He worked through out his life modifying and improving this technique. In 1873 he published a paper “On the structure of the brain grey matter” in the Gazzetta Medica Italiana (Italian Medical Gazette). He said that he could observe the elements of nervous tissue after a long series of attempts. He thus discovered a new method of staining individual nerve and cell structures. He called this the black reaction or reazione nera. This reaction can trace the processes and most delicate ramifications of cells. This reaction is based on nervous tissue hardening in potassium dichromate and impregnation with silver nitrate. This revolutionary staining method is still in use today and is named after him. It is called Golgi staining or Golgi impregnation. In this reaction a limited number of neurons are impregnated randomly for reasons that are still unfathomable. This reaction permitted for the first time a clear visualization of all the processes of a nerve cell body.

In 1875 he published an article on olfactory bulbs. In this article he made the first drawings of the neural structures as visualized by the Golgi reaction. He was an acute and prolific investigator who made a number of outstanding observations. Although it was Cajal who correctly interpreted that the nervous system is composed of anatomically and functionally distinct cells thus supporting the neuron theory Golgi’s work on the nervous system was also as important. Golgi contributed much to the modern knowledge of the structure of the nervous system.

Golgi also described two types of fundamental nerve cells. These neurons are named after him and are called Golgi type 1 and Golgi type 2.

In 1878 Golgi described the tendon sensory corpuscles. These also bear his name and are called the Golgi tendon organs.

In 1885 he published a monograph on the anatomy of the nervous organs. It had beautiful and finely etched illustrations of the nerve centres he had studied he had studied using his techniques.

From 1886 to 1892 he began studying the malarial diseases. He elucidated the cycle of the malarial agent, the Plasmodium in the red blood cells or RBC. He investigated the coincidence between the recurrent chills and fever with the release of the parasite in the blood. He also studied the efficacy of quinine in treating the disease.

In 1897 when he was doing research on the nervous system using his black reaction he observed an intracellular structure in the neurons. He officially reported their existence in April 1898. Golgi called this structure “internal reticular apparatus”. It was also named after him and was referred to as the Golgi apparatus. It was later called the Golgi complex and is now a days referred to as simply “the Golgi”. This discovery of a cell organelle was a major breakthrough in cytology and cell biology. Many scientists disputed the existence of the Golgi apparatus for decades. In the mid 50’s its existence was confirmed with the help of the electron microscope. The discovery of this cell organelle has made Golgi the most frequently cited scientist in molecular and cell biology.

The year 1998 was the centennial year for the discovery of this important call organelle. It was a year filled with seminars and articles in many scientific journals in honour of this discovery.

Return to the University of Pavia

In 1875 he returned to the University of Pavia as a Professor of Histology. He went to Siena for a short time but returned to the University of Pavia. In 1881 he was appointed to the Chair for General Pathology succeeding his teacher Bizzozero. He was the dean of the Faculty of Medicine. He was also the rector of the University of Pavia for several years. He continued teaching histology for a long time. He retired in 1918 but remained as Professor Emeritus. He remained at Pavia till his death.

He founded and directed the Istituto Sieroterapico Vaccinogeno in Pavia.
World War I

When the First World War broke out Golgi was already quite old. However he took the responsibility of directing a Military Hospital in Pavia. He created a neuro-pathological and mechano-therapeutical center to study and treat peripheral nerve lesions and also to rehabilitate the wounded.

The Nobel Prize

In 1906 Camillo Golgi and Santiago Ramon y Cajal jointly shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or medicine for their work on the structure of the nervous system.

Other honours

There is a hall dedicated to Camillo Golgi in the Historical Museum of the University of Pavia. He received many honours and degrees from several European Universities. More than eighty certificates of honour, degrees, diplomas and awards including the Nobel diploma received by him are displayed in this hall.

He became a senator in 1900.

In 1994 the Ufficio Principale Filatelico in Rome, Italy issued a stamp in honour of Camillo Golgi, the first Italian Nobel laureate in Physiology or Medicine.

His major influence on others

Camillo Golgi had a strong and positive influence on many people. He was an excellent and popular teacher. He encouraged many research scientists in his laboratory. Many of those whom he influenced and helped went on to achieve a lot in their personal and professional lives.

The Norwegian histologist and explorer Fridtjof Nansen was one of his foreign guest and student. Nansen went on to win the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1922. Adelchi Negri discovered the intra neuronal inclusions in Golgi’s laboratory. These were named Negri bodies after him and represent specific features of rabies and provide a histopathological criterion for this infection. It was in Golgi’s lab that Emilio Veratti described for the first time the sacroplasmic reticulum in skeletal muscle fibres.


His publications are collected and published by the Milan editor Hoepli as Opera Omnia. The first three volumes of Opera Omnia were published in 1903. the fourth volume of Opera Omnia was published in 1929 after his death. Golgi’s coworkers, L. Sala, G. Sala and E. Veratti edited it.

Personal life

In 1877 Camillo Golgi married Donna Lina Aletti. She was a niece of his teacher Bizzozero. They had no children of their own but adopted his niece Caroline. Caroline is married and is now called Caroline Golgi- Papini and lives in Rome. He took an active part in public life and was especially concerned with public health.

Camillo Golgi died on January 21, 1926 in Pavia where he had spent most of his life.

Although it has been many years since he died his heritage lives on and his pioneering research still influences biomedical research and call biology. His staining techniques are used till today.

As a stimulating teacher and a very highly motivated scientist his students and researchers in all the Institutes he set up carry out his legacy for future generations.