The discovery of cholera

He was supposed to have become a bishop, his parents wanted him to study theology, but it was medicine that caught the attention of Italian Filippo Pacini. And thankfully he followed that path, for it was Pacini that discovered the organism that causes the disease we now call "cholera". Born to a family of humble means, his parents, nonetheless, were able to provide their son with a good education. Pacini became a physician after completing his medical studies, and specialised in microscopy.

The devastating disease of cholera arrived in Florence in the 1850's. As an experienced dissector, Pacini acquired the bodies of those who died at the hands of cholera. After performing an autopsy he used his microscope to examine the intestines, specifically mucosa (the innermost layer of the gastrointestinal tract). He discovered a bacillus (a rod-shaped bacteria) which he named "Vibrio". In 1854 he published a paper describing his findings, including microscopic slides of the organism. Unfortunately Pacini's important discovery was virtually ignored by the scientific world.

Pacini argued that the massive loss of electrolytes and fluid that is observed in cholera patients is caused by the vibrio bacillus. He suggested that in extreme cases of dehydration the intravenous injection of water mixed with sodium chloride would be effective in fighting the disease. Pacini also, correctly, assumed that cholera was highly contagious. Renowned Italian doctors did not share his opinion, and thus his findings did not receive the attention they should have received.

Fillipo Pacini died in 1883. He died a poor man after spending most of his money on his scientific endeavours, and caring for his two ill sisters. His work was largely forgotten, until Robert Koch independently discovered the bacillus responsible for cholera in 1884.