Camillo Golgi: the conservative revolutionary

Paolo Mazzarello, Department of Brain and Behavioral Sciences and University Museum System, University of Pavia

In August 1873 a thirty-year-old Lombard medical doctor, Camillo Golgi, published in the journal Gazzetta Medica Italiana — Lombardia a brief note from the modest title Sulla struttura della sostanza grigia del cervello (“On the structure of the grey substance of the brain”). The paper gave a hasty description of a new histological procedure for the study of the microscopic morphological structure of the central nervous system. It also provided a quick account of some substantial scientific novel-ties that the method had allowed to obtain. Making the silver nitrate act on pieces of brain previously hardened with potassium dichromate in succession, Golgi had succeeded in realizing the dream of all the histologists who had previously posed the problem of clarifying the spatial disposition and the remote projections of the cellular elements of which the central nervous system is composed.

The miraculous and mysterious contact between the potassium dichromate and the silver nitrate, in fact, determined the precipitation of a brown salt (the silver chromate) that, in a completely unexpected and unpredictable way, occupied the body of the cell and all its extensions, up to the most remote distances. But what most impressed was the randomness of the reaction: only a minority of the cellular elements, present in the microscopic field, were stained in black. At first sight what could have been considered a partiality (and therefore a defect) of the method, was instead his great strength. The cells, and their projections, clearly emerged with respect to the surrounding structures, thus creating almost a “microdissection” of the single elements that were like “extracted” from the tangled neurocytological interweaving within which they were imprisoned. It was as if one had succeeded in removing an entire, intact tree, with all its branches and roots, from an inextricable forest.

The reaction began to be known as a “chrome-silver reaction” or the “black reaction” or even the “Golgi method”. It was a significant scientific contribution destined to change forever the microscopic neuroanatomy but also the professional perspectives of the doctor who had created it. It was not the first time that Golgi’s fate had changed compared to the rigid tracks that seemed to constrain the early course of his life.


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