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.

First Director of the MRI -Sir Aldo Castellani

CHIEFTAIN’S  PROBLEMS

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.