Great Italian scientists that not everyone knows
Names such as Enrico Fermi, Rita Levi Montalcini and Carlo Rubbia are not the only ones in the history of Italian science; the 'minor' ones are anything but. We have selected five Italian scientific personalities that not everyone knows but are worth learning about. These are people of excellence with an international reach. They played a key role in discoveries and had insights that revolutionised more than one discipline. If you wish to get to know them, read on.
1. Vincenzo Tiberio: the first to discover the properties of penicillin
35 years before Fleming, Tiberio, a young physician, realised the curative potential of moulds. As in the best tradition of science, the intuition for the discovery was quite fortuitous: the sharp minded Vincenzo had noticed that, when cleaning the family cistern, the water was causing intestinal discomfort in those who drank it, discomfort that only disappeared after the mould had reformed. The work he published in 1896, titled “On the extracts of certain moulds”, anticipated Alexander Fleming's conclusions by decades, but from the pages of the “Annals of Experimental Hygiene” (an important yet still limited circulation journal) his sensational findings were not understood. Yet among the moulds he studied there was exactly Penicillium glaucum.
2. Filomena Nitti: the revolution in pharmaceutical chemistry and the birth of chemotherapy
Co-author of 'Structure et activité pharmacodynamique des médicaments du système nerveux végétatif' (considered to be the founding document of psychopharmacology), co-discoverer of pyrilamine and antihistamine drugs, co-inventor of chemotherapy, she was not, however, a co-winner of the Nobel Prize, which the Academy only awarded to her husband Daniel Bovet (in 957) for research carried out together with her and her brother Federico Nitti.
A fighter, determined, stubborn and above all tireless, Nitti was a veritable hurricane in the field of research, with experiences and successes of worldwide resonance. After a long French interlude (Filomena and her family were exiled), she put her knowledge to good use in Italy, first at the Therapeutic Chemistry Laboratory of the Istituto Superiore di Sanità and later at the Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche.
3. Giovanni Battista Marzi: the first to build an automatic telephone switchboard
An eclectic personality and lover of the Latin language, Giovanni Battista Marzi devoted himself passionately to electromechanics and in 1886 put the world's first automatic telephone switchboard into operation. The client was the Vatican City State, clearly driven by an avant-garde spirit. It was not until several years later that a similar device was built in the United States. Curious and volcanic by nature, Marzi did not stop at telephony but invented the carbon microphone, the so-called 'loudspeaker telephone' (a revolutionary loudspeaker in which the vibrating membrane was independent of the electrical device) and many other devices, including the automatic signalling target used in shooting ranges. Its automatic telephone switchboard, however, remains a milestone; it was a tool used as a base for many solutions that later became worldwide standards.
4. Giuliana Luigia Evelina Mameli: the wandering botanist who taught at the university
With more than 200 publications and experiences in various parts of the world (Cuba among them, where she worked on tobacco and sugar cane from 1920 to 1925), Giuliana Luigia Evelina Mameli ranks among the most important scientific personalities of her time. “Eva” (as people called her) was the first woman to obtain a full tenure at an Italian university. Tireless and challenge-loving, she was a leading figure for many nature conservation movements, in particular for her work to protect birds in the period between the two world wars.
5. Giovanni Caselli: the inventor of the first fax machine
It was called the “pantelegraph” and was developed in 1855 by a clergyman, Giovanni Caselli. After the establishment of the French public pantelegraphic line between Paris and Lyon, it is said that the composer Gioacchino Rossini “pantelegraphed” the page of one of his music scores. Approximately 2 metres high and stabilised by a pendulum, the pantelegraph is the forerunner of the fax machine, both in terms of its diffusion (it was adopted throughout France and later in Russia) and in terms of its operation because the transmitting device “scanned” the metal sheet containing the message just like a fax machine (which is why it could transmit text but also drawings). Even Caselli did not limit himself to the pantelegraph; he was the promoter of a scientific journal, devised a system to measure the speed of trains and a special hydromagnetic device to manoeuvre the rudder of ships.