Inventor of the Golgi stain
Winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology Or Medicine, 1906 (with Cajal)

Camillo Golgi shared the Nobel Prize in 1906 for work that helped figure out how cells were arranged in the nervous system, especially the brain. He came up with a technique for applying stains to cells to better see and study them. With his stains, he discovered a cellular structure that we now call the Golgi apparatus. The stain also showed the microscopic structure of nerve tissue in greater detail that had ever been seen before. As a result, Santiago Ramon y Cajal was able to develop the neuron theory; in 1906 Golgi and Cajal shared the prize.

Golgi's early life

Golgi was born in Corteno, Italy, and studied medicine at the University of Pavia. He worked in the labs of Cesare Lombroso and Guilio Bizzozero, and a few years after graduating put forth the theory that mental diseases were caused by actual, physical defects or lesions in the brain. He realized that psychiatry (his field) would not be very helpful in investigating this, and so moved on to histology, the study of tissues, where he would examine brain tissue under the microscope.

Fibers or cells?

When Golgi began his work, scientists knew that many tissues were made of cells, but they didn't know whether nervous tissue (the tissue that makes up the brain, spinal cord, and nerves) was made of cells or not. Nobody had seen brain cells. Golgi supported the reticular theory: nervous tissue is made up of a network of nerve fibers, but no cells. The competing theory, which Santiago Ramon y Cajal worked on, was the neuron theory, that nervous tissue is made up of a lot of cells (neurons) that connect to each other.

Stains and the "black reaction"

There were already stains available that could make a histologist's life easier: you take the tissue you want to study, slice it very thinly with a microtome, and then soak the slice in a special dye that only "impregnates" (soaks into) certain structures. This makes the different features (cells, parts of cells, extracellular matrix) easy to see, and easy to tell apart from each other. However, there were no stains that worked well on brain tissue. Golgi had to invent one.

Golgi referred to his stain as the "black reaction". After the nervous tissue is hardened with potassium bichromate, darkly-colored silver nitrate impregnates only a few of the neurons. (It's still not understood why only a few cells are stained). These cells stand out against the background, and Golgi was able to draw the microscopic structure of the brain in great detail.

Golgi's contributions

Also as a result of observing stained specimens, Golgi was able to describe in detail the features of glial cells (we now know they are "helper" cells that insulate and nourish the neurons); he also detailed the relationship between blood vessels and certain glial cells. Golgi's other important discoveries include the Golgi apparatus inside cells (an organelle that we now know plays an essential role in packaging vesicles); the classification of neurons into "Golgi type I" and "Golgi type II"; and sensory organs within tendons called Golgi corpuscles. In the late 1880's, Golgi turned his attention to the life cycle of the malaria parasite, and showed that part of its life cycle occurred in the red blood cell.

The Nobel Prize

To Golgi, the stained tissue samples showed networks of fibers as predicted by the reticular theory; to others, like Cajal, they showed individual fibrous cells. It turns out that Cajal was right. In 1906, the Nobel committee considered nominating either Golgi or Cajal. Cajal had made the greater discoveries, but probably would not have been able to do so without Golgi's contributions to the field. After much consideration, the 1906 Nobel prize in Medicine was awarded to both Golgi and Cajal. It was the first time a Nobel had been awarded to more than one person.

Some Events in Golgi's life

  • 1843 - Born in Corteno.
  • 1865 - Graduated with medical degree from the University of Pavia.
  • 1872 - Became chief of a hospital in Abbiategrasso.
  • 1873 - Published a paper describing the "black reaction" stain.
  • 1875 - Published a paper on the olfactory bulbs that included the first drawings made from golgi-stained specimens. Returned to the University of Pavia.
  • 1877 - Married Lina Aletti (niece of Bizzozero)
  • 1891 - Based on Golgi's work, Waldeyer-Hartz postulates the neuron theory.
  • 1900 - Became a senator.
  • 1918 - Retired.
  • 1926 - Died in Pavia.

This writeup is part of Everything Quests: The Nobel Prize winners.

References and further reading:

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