Aldo Castellani, Italian and Doctor: a story of dignity and consistency

(To Enzo Cantarano)

Nationalism is often blamed for any wickedness or depravity. However, as always happens when we talk about human activities of any kind, it is not correct to generalize judgments often made only by hearsay or by indifference or conformism or flattery.

The sense of belonging, the attachment to one's origins, if it does not become hypocritical ideology, easy alibi for empty claims of a presumed power, which wears out those who have never exercised it, can only be natural, genetic, I would say, impulses of every free spirit.

How can a tree bear good fruit if its roots sink into an unstable, uncertain, sterile ground ...

Well, the same thing happens for men too. Not everyone leaves their ideals from the river in full of epochal changes or they do it for convenience when not out of stupidity or career interest.

Once, there was talk of dignity ....

Precisely because of the strenuous defense of his dignity as an Italian and as a physician, among the many of my ancient masters I wanted to pay a modest tribute to the founder of School of Tropical Diseases in our country: Sir Aldo Castellani.

8 September 1874 was born in Florence. After various family and school vicissitudes in the 1893 he enrolled at the Faculty of Medicine of the Royal University of Florence where he graduated maxima cum laude in the 1899. His interest in tropical diseases led him to attend specialized university institutions in England and Germany.

In 1902 he participated in an expedition to Africa to conduct research on a very serious epidemic of a disease which was then known as "Sleeping sickness". He noticed in numerous patients the presence of a protozoan parasite, the trypanosome, conveyed by a fly, the Glossina palpalis o moscato tze-tze. Castellani, in addition to isolating the etiological agent in vivo, demonstrated its life cycle and also experimented with pharmacological treatments.

Exclusive on the African continent, it still afflicts more than 60 millions of people in 36 Nations today. But he also succeeded in isolating the etiologic agent treponema of the yaw and studied many other diseases such as hemorrhagic bronchospirochetosis (Castellani's disease), the non-malarial quartan and other tropical fevers.

It seems that, although the researches were conducted under the aegis of His British Majesty and at his own expense, however Castellani did not immediately make the results known, but had himself sent for some time to the Italian possessions of Africa so as to have his Home is the merit of the discoveries.

From the 1903 to the 1915 he was a lecturer in the Faculty of Medicine in Colombo, capital of today's Sri Lanka, then a British colony. There he identified several morbid forms, especially with parasitic etiopathogenesis, isolating the causative agents. In the 1910 he married, in England, Josephine Ambler Stead, from whom he had his only daughter.

In 1915 he was recalled to Italy and assigned to active military service. During the First World War he was in Thessaloniki, Macedonia, Serbia and Italy, after Caporetto, he was mainly in charge of malaria prophylaxis in the Army by quinine. From the 1918 he represented Italy at theOffice International d'Hygiène Publigue.

He had the opportunity to treat Benito Mussolini, his brother and his wife from the 1925 to the '43 and also many ministers and other figures of the Duce's entourage.

For over twenty years, from the 1920 to the '40, he practiced his profession in London. In this period he was doctor of President Roosevelt, of Rudolph Valentino, of sovereigns, Europeans and Orientals, of many illustrious diplomats, of high military ranks, of aristocrats, influential political figures, of entertainment, of music, as well as of art, painters, sculptors and architects. In the 1928 he was awarded the title of Sir. From the 1929 he was Academician of the Lincei and, from the 1936, Pontifical Academic.

In 1935, back in Italy, he was awarded the rank of general doctor with the task of health organization, especially of prophylaxis against tropical diseases, of the war against the Ethiopian Empire.

The favorable results were so striking as to arouse interest all over the world. Expectations of death from illness among our troops were estimated at around 22.000 men due to malaria, dysentery, typhus and paratyphoid, fevers, smallpox, sunburn, beriberi, pellagra, scurvy, avitaminosis, tetanus, meningitis, cholera, stings of scorpions and snakes but, thanks to Aldo Castellani, they were "only" 599 on almost half a million mobilized soldiers.

For the services rendered, King Vittorio Emanuele III conferred on him the hereditary title of Count of Chisimaio.

The international fame acquired by Castellani in the clinical field, especially of tropical diseases and dermatology, earned him the appointment as senator of the Kingdom of Italy in the 1929. From the 1930 held the chair of Tropical Medicine in Rome while maintaining his countless clinical and research positions in London and New Orleans.

The 10 June 1940, Italy and England entered the war. Castellani returned, with a daring voyage by sea and by land, to his homeland, also passing through Paris to stock up on serums and vaccines. He was immediately sent to Libya, where he earned the Silver Medal for Valor in the Field. He assured, in fact, despite difficulties, shortcomings and incompetence, satisfactory health conditions for all personnel, better than those of the German Army! The 27 October 1942 was appointed medical general responsible for all war theaters.

There were few cases of infectious diseases thanks to the use of vaccination prophylaxis. In Africa, the particular object of study by Castellani was the mental and physical reactions of soldiers and civilians exposed to bombings and enemy actions of various kinds.

After the fall of Mussolini, Castellani chose to serve for the Social Republic. However, in the last days of German rule his clinic was full of pseudopatients with fictitious names and diagnoses seeking protection. When the Americans arrived in Rome, Castellani was a senior consultant for the Medicine and Public Hygiene at the Allied military command. Temporarily hit by anti-fascist purges, he was promptly reinstated in his role at the University of Rome as director of Clinic of Tropical Diseases. In the 1946 the Prince of Piedmont called him to the Quirinale with the task of organizing a clinic.

After the plebiscite from which the Republic was born, former King Umberto II commissioned Castellani to organize the transfer of the royal family to Portugal. In this country he also emigrated and lived for a period with the deposed royals. This situation gave him the opportunity to travel extensively as an official companion of the queen and to meet famous people. In 1947 the Portuguese government appointed him a chairman in theInstitute of Tropical Diseases of Lisbon where he could continue his research in the fields of tropical medicine, tropical dermatology, bacteriology and mycology. His comital title was elevated to the marquisate: Marquis of Chisimaio.

The 3 October 1971 died in Lisbon.



  • Cantarano E, Carini L, History of Medicine and Assistance for Health Professions, Rome, UniversItalia 2013, pag.

  • Castellani A, "Between microbes and Kings", Editori Rusconi and Paolazzi, Milan, 1961.

  • Porter R, (edited by), Biographical Dictionary of the History of Medicine and Natural Sciences (tome I AE), Franco Maria Ricci publisher, 1985-1988, Milan.