Sir Aldo Castellani, an Italian pathologist and microbiologist was the first director of the Medical Research Institute (MRI) which was known as the ‘De Soysa Bacteriological Institute’ at its inception in 1900. Castellani introduced various laboratory tests in bacteriology that were carried out at the clinical bacteriology laboratory, the pioneering unit, also called the ‘ main lab’ of the MRI. The Italian doctor served in Sri Lanka (Ceylon) from 1903 to 1915 and called them the ‘happiest years of my life’ in his autobiography titled “ MICROBES, MEN AND MONARCHS” published in 1963. Castellani had arrived in December 1903 having received an official communication in November the same year from the Colonial Office that he had been appointed Professor in the Medical College of Colombo and Director of the Bacteriological Institute.
“My life in Ceylon was a full one: I was Professor of Tropical Medicine and Lecture of Dermatology ( and at one time Professor of Pathology) in the Medical College: Director of the Government Bacteriological Institute for the whole island; Director of the Colombo Clinic for Tropical Diseases: and Physician to the Seaman’s Ward of the Colombo General Hospital,” Castellani writes in his autobiography . He also recounts some amusing and interesting stories of his time in Ceylon , few of which are reproduced below.
One of the Kandyan chiefs - they were famous for their wealth and their voluminous official robes, which traditionally had to bulge most promptly ( with padding if necessary) in correspondence with their abdominal regions – became extremely ill. The district doctor was called in. No improvement after three days of ministrations, so he received his conge , and the vedarallas were asked to take charge. Their efforts had no success, and the chieftain’s condition became worse and worse. As a last hope, the family then summoned the ‘devil dancers.’ The evil spirit , however refused to budge; on the contrary, it penetrated deeper and deeper. The patient seemed to be at his last grasp. The devil dancers were dismissed, and the preparations were then started for a grand funeral befitting the high position of the moriturus.
It was then that one of the garden coolies respectfully approached the lady of the house, and humbly suggested that a young frango (foreign) doctor recently arrived in Ceylon might be called in; the doctor had cured him of an ulcer of the leg which had lasted for three years. The distressed lady, who had expected to become a widow at any moment and deeply regretted the fact, as her husband had always been of a kind and affectionate disposition, was all in favour of the garden collie’s suggestion , but her entourage ridiculed the idea. What could an unknown foreign doctor do where the devil dancers had failed?
However, a car was sent to fetch me , and I saw the patient. He certainly appeared in extremis – he was unconscious , his skin covered with a cold, clammy sweat , his pulse almost imperceptible. But something in his appearance struck me: it might be an atypical form of Malaria, although his temperature was below normal. With a pin I pricked the cold, wrinkled, bluish tip of his forefinger , a droplet of dark blood slowly exuded , which I collected on a slide. I put a cover glass on it and examined the fresh blood under my portable microscope: it was teeming with malaria parasites.
With the help of attendants, the bulky body of the Chief was gently turned over, and I stabbed fifteen grains of quinine ( a huge injection) into each of his two mountainous gluteal protuberances. Within three hours he revived , and the next day he was clamoring for his rice and curry. A miraculous resurrection.
The rumor soon spread that where the devil dancers failed , I had succeeded , and my reputation increased d tremendously – and so did my practice.
A PLAGUE EPIDEMIC
In the summer of 1914, in the Pettah quarter of Colombo, a man, apparently in perfect heath, suddenly dropped to the ground unconscious, and a couple of hours later was dead. After two days a similar case occurred, also in the Pettah. A few days later , a crop of three or four more cases were reported . “Sunstroke” proclaimed the Pettah practitioners but when I heard of these cases I was not at all satisfied with that diagnosis. Cases of sunstroke are rare in Colombo , and why should they all occur in the same quarter of the city?
I had a talk with the Medical Officer of Health (MOH), and we decided to hold a post-mortem examination on the next case. This occurred about a week later. All the organs appeared normal except the spleen , which was much enlarged and diffluent. From its pulp and heart blood I made films and inoculated broth, agar, and other media. I had brought with me a microscope and some stains from the Institute”: the films were stained and examined at once, and lo! Innumerable ‘bipola’ bacilli – end stained ; center clear – were visible . Plague! The microscopical diagnosis was later confirmed by the cultural investigation: I was septicemic plague, that is to say, an acute general plague infection with no bubos.
When the public heard of our findings , there as much skepticism. Plague had raged in India for many year , but Ceylon , although so near, had always escaped , and the people had come to believe that something existed on the Island which kept the scourge away from its shores: perhaps the spicy odours of the cinnamon plantations , which might be repellent to the plague bacillus. Unfortunately, quite a number of further cases occurred: the skepticism in our diagnosis disappeared and was replaced by terror. Energetic prophylactic measure, including plague vaccine, were taken, and the epidemic ceased.”
MY FAVOURITE MICROBE
It is difficult to describe the sentiment one feels for microbes one has discovered. It can, although it may sound far - fetched, best be linked to a paternal affection. Some of the ‘children’ are good and beneficent (yes , there are beneficent microbes….). But whether good or bad one is equally fond of them, just as a parent’s affection is as great for the prodigal son as for the dutiful and steady one.
A favorite is the very first fungus I found. It was in Ceylon. Its produces black patches on the palms of the hands and other parts of the body. Luster was given to my findings in 1910 , when the Chief of Ceylon Medical Service Sir Allan Perry , developed such patches on his hands and came to seek my advice. It has endeared itself to me also by the vicissitudes it has experienced. Over ten years ago a famous mycologist proclaimed to the word that the fugus was not pathogenic ( diseases producing) but was merely an ordinary harmless mould such as could be seen on old leather boots exposed to warm dampness. Naturally , this is a heavy blow to his ‘father’s “ pride . However, in recent year the same mycologist has very honourabley , retracted this aspersion and admitted that he was working with wrong cultures not obtained from my laboratory.
But the chief reason to my affection for this fungus is a spiritual one: it enabled me to pay a humble tribute of gratitude to my great and revered teacher Patrick Manson. Since it was a new species, I could give it a name , and I named it mansoni.
Castellani was born in Florence, Italy in 1874 and died in 1971 in Lisbon, Portugal at the age of 97.