Vincenzo Tiberio, medical officer of Regia Marina, the first Italian discoverer of antibiotics

(To Enzo Cantarano)

The role of fortune, more or less casual (serendipity) or skill-oriented, is not just a prerogative of the game or of all those human or social actions in some way connected to it. The same applies to information and fame, especially if related to power.

Even in the scientific sphere, often the most brilliant research competence, as demonstrated by the discoveries gained, nothing can, despite the best results, against oblivion caused by the ignorance or superficiality of the academic contexts or the relative insignificance of the institutions or countries in the findings of which are achieved and reported. So the researchers and their works remain unknown to the general public, and even to the scientific community. So their efforts not only are not rewarded, but they do not even have the positive effects they should have, sometimes for all mankind.

This is the fate, even to say, of a brilliant Italian physician and biochemist who was also a medical officer at Regia Marina: Vincenzo Tiberio. He was born in Sepino in Molise on May 1 1869 and after brilliant classical studies he enrolled at the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Naples. Before graduating, he devoted passionately to microbiological research in the field of Hygiene and Microbiology that continued throughout his life.

In 1895, on the Scientific Magazine "Experimental Hygiene Annals of the University of Rome", He published an article with the title"On the extracts of some molds"As a record of his work in which he first identified the bactericidal power of certain molds:"The author has observed the action of watery extracts [of various types of mold] on some [Micro] pathogens ... finding them supplied ... of great bactericidal power ... The properties of these molds are a major obstacle for life and for the propagation of pathogenic bacteria."

Despite the extreme accuracy and replicability of the research and its obvious therapeutic results, the discovery did not have any spread or follow in the university. Disappointed in his academic and clinical aspirations, he entered the 1896 in the Marina Director as a medical officer.

He was boarded on several ships and took part in numerous missions, even in distant seas. During these operations he studied, cared for and solved various problems of infectivity and hygiene.

In 1905 he married his cousin, Amalia Teresa Graniero, with whom she had three daughters.

During his rescue efforts to the people affected by Messina's earthquake (1908), his commitment made him merit the mention of honor "for having signaled in industriousness, courage and philanthropy".

In January 1913 was sent to Tobruk, in Libya just conquered, as director of the local infirmary of the Royal Navy. On the publication "Libyan pathology and antithetical vaccination"Reported the results obtained with his antithesis and the use of vaccination: throughout the 1913 in the Tobruk base there were only two cases of slight paratyma. That's why he received a praise from the Military Medical Directorate and the major promotion. He was transferred to the end of 1914 in Naples as director of Cabinet of Hygiene and Bacteriology of the Marina Hospital. He was hoping to resume studying the molds he had been unable to engage in a constant and prolonged service during the service years of the Navy, but he did not have time to do so as a heart attack cut him off the January 7 of 1915, all 'age of only 45 years.

In the last decade of the 800 in which Tiberius attended the Faculty of Medicine and Surgery in Naples, this University was not only a place of education but also, above all, research, especially in the bacteriological field. At that time, Professor Eugenio Fazio published a work on Vital competition between the bacteria of putrefaction and those of anthrax and typhus and Professor Arnaldo Cantani experimented with tuberculosis therapy, applying the principle of antagonism of Louis Pasteur, and obtaining interesting results.

In this environment, Tiberio, still a student in Medicine, began attending the Hygiene laboratories, to check some of his insights. In the courtyard of the house in Arzano, where he lived, there was a cistern for rainwater also used for drinking. Molds were growing on the edge of the cistern which were, for obvious hygienic reasons, periodically eliminated. Well, Tiberius noticed that when the molds were not there were gastrointestinal infections of water users, when the use of water was harmless. He sensed a link between the presence of mold and the growth of pathogenic bacteria in the human body. Subjected to experimental verification of this intuition, Tiberio was able to demonstrate how the therapeutic action of molds was linked to some substances present in them. He also succeeded in isolating some of these substances and testing their beneficial effects until the preparation of a substance with antibiotic effects.

The results of his research, collected in the aforementioned publication, allowed him to observe that: "NeThe cellular substance of the molds tested contains water soluble principles, provided with bactericidal action."The above-mentioned work describes the method of preparation of the culture medium and liquid withdrawal from the plates, the chemical and organoleptic characteristics of the liquid and the techniques of study. The ability to stimulate the response of white globules to infections (chemiotassi), and the bactericidal power of various mold strains Aspergillus on the typhus bacillus were subsequently confirmed by several researchers. Almost at the same time Bartolomeo Gosio, in Rome, in a kind of mold, discovered a metabolite with antibiotic properties, and purified it. Mycophenolic acid (MPA) was the first true antibiotic in history!

Tiberius's scientific activity, which, at the end of 800, completed the entire experimental cycle from observation, verification of the initial hypothesis to the preparation of the antibiotic substance, was far more advanced than that of Alexander Fleming in the 1928 / 29. The latter probably knew about Tiberius' research, and certainly those of Gossius despite their poor dissemination outside Italy, and came to the discovery of penicillin, as he himself reported, because of an error: "inadvertent contamination of a capsule containing Staphilococcus aureus colonies with fungal colonies", Which he then produced"an inhibition of bacterial growth in Staphilococcus aureus colonies". However, Fleming could not experimentally prepare the drug, not closing the research cycle, as they did in Naples, Tiberius and Rome, Gossi.

In 1947, two years after the awarding of the Nobel Prize to Alexander Fleming, the file of the Annals of Experimental Hygiene of the University of Rome of the 1895, where the work was published On the extracts of some molds.

Research results and methods were widespread in national scientific journals, but of course they did not have the resonant deserved.

Today the truth is well known, but the fame of Tiberius is, in spite of everything, known only by lovers of History of Medicine and ignored by most.



  • Benigno P, A precursor of research on antibioticsin Minerva Medica, nº 37, II (1946).

  • Bentley R, Bartholomew Gossius, 1863-1944: An Appreciation. In: Advances in Applied Microbiology. Vol 48, 2001, p. 229-250

  • Bucci R, Galli P, Vincenzo Tiberio: a misunderstood researcher, in Journal of Public Health, vol. 8, nº 4, IX (2011), pp. 404-406.

  • Cantarano E, Carini L, History of Medicine and Assistance for Health Professionals. UniversItalia 2013, page 174.

  • Corcella R, Penicillin? An Italian discovery, in Corriere della Sera, 9 February 2011.

  • De Rosa S, Aruta S (edited by), Proceedings of the conference Vincenzo Tiberio: the "true" discoverer of penicillin, Naples, Agrippinus Association, 2007.

  • The Tiberius case, on URL consulted the 19 May 2014.

  • Buttons L, The Great Medicine. Discoveries that have changed the quality of life, Rome, Donzelli Editore, 2004, p. 191.