Who Discovered Cholera? - Filippo Pacini & History

Instructor: Artem Cheprasov

Artem has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

This lesson provides a brief history of Filippo Pacini, an important Italian anatomist and microbiologist. It also discusses his work in anatomy, and his connection to cholera and the scientist Robert Koch.


What do the following pairs have in common? First consider Antonio Meucci and Alexander Graham Bell, then Robert Koch and Filippo Pacini. In both cases, one of these men did something before the other, yet history has only credited one of them for the achievement. In the case of Meucci and Bell, it was the invention of the telephone. In the case of Koch and Pacini, it was the discovery of Vibrio cholerae, the bacterium responsible for a potentially deadly diarrheal illness called cholera.

Let's learn more about Vibrio cholerae, and why it was unclear for so long who originally discovered it.

Filippo Pacini's Life

Filippo Pacini (1812-1883) was born in Pistoia, Italy to a modest family. His father was a cobbler, and very religious as well. As a result, Pacini received a strict religious education as a child, and his parents hoped he would become a bishop.

But Pacini wasn't interested in all that. At 28 he decided to switch careers and study medicine instead. In 1830, he got a scholarship to a medical school called Scuola Medica Pistoia, founded in 1666. After working as a physician, he became the chair of General and Topographic Anatomy at the University of Florence. He was quite skilled with the microscope, and his talent bore fruit.

Filippo Pacini, 1870


Pacini made more than one important discovery. In fact, you have something named after him in your body. A little Pacini lives inside of all of us (by name only, of course).

Hold your arm out in front of you. Now take a finger, press it into your skin, then let go. Do this a couple of times. Do you feel the pressure of the finger as you press inward? And then do you feel how the pressure eases as you let go? These sensations occur thanks to sensory receptors called Pacinian corpuscles. You can easily spot Pacini's last name in that term. He discovered them using a microscope that he purchased himself while still in medical school, sometime around 1835. Pacinian corpuscles are found in other parts of the body, too, including the joints, where they provide information to the central nerve system about the joints' position.

He wasn't done discovering things, though. In 1854, an outbreak of cholera occurred in Florence. Pacini used his skills to perform autopsies on patients who had died from the disease, and was able to identify the bacterium that he believed caused it. In the years to follow, he further developed his work on the bacterium and how it behaved. For some reason, though, Pacini's work was ignored and forgotten, despite the fact that he published numerous important and accurate works on cholera in the decades to come. One reason his work was ignored was probably because, despite being correct, it contradicted the beliefs of influential Italian physicians and their views on cholera at the time.

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