Lives of the fellows

Aldo, Count of Chisimaio Castellani

b.8 September 1877 d.3 October 1971
MD Florence(1899) MRCP(1916) FRCP(1922) FACP(1926) Hon KCMG(1928 withdrawn 1940 restored 1971)

Aldo Castellani was the most famous figure in tropical medicine ever to be produced in Italy. He was born in Florence, the son of Ettore Castellani, one of a long and distinguished line of landowners in the Chianti region, and his wife Violante Giulani, who could claim Santa Veronica in her ancestry. He went to the Liceo Dante, and when he graduated with honours from Florence University he had already demonstrated an outstanding ability in bacteriology. He went to Kruse in Bonn for postgraduate study and developed there his Absorption Test for the differentiation of bacteria in mixed infections. When he continued his studies in London, Sir Patrick Manson quickly recognised his genius and started him off in tropical medicine, which was to occupy his long life.

Medical research became a consuming passion. Another was his Anglophilia - he married in 1910 an Englishwoman, Josephine Ambler Stead; their daughter was to marry Lord Killearn; and their granddaughter Lord Eliot. A treasured award was the honorary Knighthood of the Most Distinguished Order of St Michael and St George, which he was painfully required to relinquish when Italy entered the war on the side of Germany in 1940, and which was restored to him shortly before his death.

This conflict of loyalties was due to the third passion of his life, his patriotism to his native land and to the House of Savoy. He had been made a Senator in 1929, Hereditary Count of Chisimaio in 1936, and received from King Umberto II in 1946 the title of Marchese. He swore never to reside in Italy again until the monarchy was restored.

In 1902 Castellani went with Low and Christie on a Royal Society expedition to Uganda, where he soon made his greatest contribution to science, the discovery of the cause of sleeping sickness. Partly because he first claimed that a streptococcus was responsible, there was considerable controversy over his finding trypanosomes in the spinal fluids of sleeping sickness patients, but Sir Ronald Ross and D Nabarro fully confirmed that the fundamental discovery was his.

Through the influence of Manson, Castellani was appointed bacteriologist to the Ceylon government in 1903 and he spent twelve happy and fruitful years in Colombo. One of his discoveries there, in 1905, was the identification of the spirochaete responsible for yaws, and he demonstrated that the infection could be cured with salvarsan. It was in Ceylon too that he was to make his fame as a dermatologist, mainly through work on fungus infections of the skin, and Castellani’s ‘paint’ has been used throughout the present century. He described also what was almost certainly the first human case of toxoplasmosis.

On the outbreak of the first world war, Castellani returned to Europe and immediately introduced the use of the ‘polyvalent’ vaccine for typhoid and paratyphoid fevers. He served with great bravery in the field and was decorated for gallantry more than once by Italy and Serbia. He showed the same courage in fighting a fearful epidemic of typhus, for which he was awarded the Gold Medal of the Italian Red Cross.

Between the World Wars he simultaneously held chairs of tropical medicine in Naples, Rome and New Orleans, a lectureship in mycology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and he founded (with Sir William Simpson) and directed the Ross Institute, all whilst engaging in an enviably flourishing consultant practice in Harley Street. In his research he identified an important pathogenic amoeba, which was designated Hartmannella castellanii by Mackenzie Douglas.

In the Ethiopian campaign of 1935-36 he was Director General of Medical Services, and in the second world war he was again decorated for valour in the field (at Tobruk) and attained the rank of Lieutenant-General. He ended the war in Rome, giving valuable assistance to the Allies in the department of tropical medicine. After the Plebiscite in 1946 he accompanied the Italian Royal Family into exile, serving as their physician until his death 26 years later, and being appointed a professor of tropical medicine in Lisbon.

Castellani’s brilliant services in tropical medicine and dermatology brought him honours in many countries, including Italy, the United Kingdom, the United States, Spain, Greece, Egypt, France, Portugal and Yugoslavia.

PCC Garnham
Sir Gordon Wolstenholme

[, 1971, 4, 175, 307; Lancet, 1971, 2, 883; Pont. Acad. Scient. Commentarii, 1972, 2, 45, 1-36; J. trop. Med. Hyg., Nov 1971, 233-237]

(Volume VI, page 92)

<< Back to List