The Golgi Stain, circa 1873

Museo di Storia dell’Università di Pavia

More than three decades after the German biologists Theodore Schwann and Matthias Schleiden first proposed that the cell was the basic functional unit of all living things, in 1838, many of the world’s leading histologists still disagreed about the fine structure of the nervous system. Some maintained that the brain was also made of cells, while others argued that it consisted of a continuous network of tissue, or “reticulum,” formed by the fused processes of nerve cells.

In 1873, the Italian physician Camillo Golgi described a staining technique that helped resolve the issue. Golgi set up a makeshift laboratory in the kitchen of the small-town hospital near Milan where he worked, and spent his evenings preparing brain slices for imaging. Under the glow of candlelight, he discovered that by first hardening a sample of nervous tissue in potassium bichromate...

Golgi and Cajal were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1906—the first time that the Prize was shared between two Laureates. In the English translation of his autobiography, Cajal wrote: “The other half [of the Prize] was very justly adjudicated to the illustrious professor of Pavia, Camillo Golgi, the originator of the method with which I accomplished my most striking discoveries.”

Interested in reading more?

Magaizne Cover

Become a Member of

Receive full access to digital editions of The Scientist, as well as TS Digest, feature stories, more than 35 years of archives, and much more!
Already a member?