Enjoying Life and Other Literary Remains


Spallanzani’s dates (1729-1799) form the fons et origo of many important departments of biological research. The genius of Spallanzani touched and adorned so many things that it is impossible to avoid coming constantly upon his work. But the remarkable personality of the man behind the name will possibly come as a surprise to English workers who, if tempted for once in a way to make an incursion into the field of biography, shall find their curiosity in this instance amply justified.

There is a large Italian literature about him.1 Even in his own country and among his own friends, he always was, and still is, regarded as a prophet and a great man, so that his fellow-countrymen have not thought it superfluous to study his life and character in the minutest details, but in the small compass of this article only the bald facts can be given.

His personality is striking. The Abbé Spallanzani was a priest and a savant, although in fact he possessed none of the characteristics one is accustomed by convention to associate with those two vocations. Greedy, ambitious, arrogant, and at times violent, Spallanzani was a bull-moose type of man who charged through life with his head down. There were many obstacles to his success, but he brushed them aside; he had many detractors, but he pinned them down. To his opponents in biological controversy, he never expressed any flabby desire to agree to differ. They were attacked with acerbity, and whether right or wrong he emerged triumphant. False modesty was not one of the Abbe’s faults. When, as a young man conscious of his own genius, he ventured upon a criticism of the illustrious Buffon, he did so with a sardonic expression of his own incompetence. He never showed the smallest inclination to mislead his contemporaries into giving him less than his deserts. He set out to be second to none — not even in salary — and he succeeded and was proud of it.

There is indeed a gamey flavour about Spallanzani, and it is easy to understand his popularity among his students. They must have found it invariably safe to shelter themselves, their hopes, and ambitions within the shadow of a personality so mountainous as his.

Lazzaro Spallanzani was born at Scandiano, in Modena, on the 10th of January, 1729. His father, an advocate, gave him his first lessons, and subsequently he passed into the Jesuit College at Reggio, with the intention, we are told, of entering that body. But, as a matter of fact, he passed into the University of Bologna, and thus entered upon the critical phase in his intellectual development, for his celebrated cousin, Laura Bassi, was Professor of Physics at Bologna, and it is believed that her influence was the principal factor in determining his taste for natural philosophy.

By the year 1758 he had become Professor of Logic and Geometry in the University of Reggio, and in 1760 he was translated to Modena to hold the Chair of Physics. The youthful Professor had already made a reputation when in 1769 he became the first to hold the newly-appointed Chair of Natural History in the University of Pavia, which, at the instigation of Maria Theresa, then ruling over Austrian Lombardy, was being re-organized and re-equipped.

He inaugurated his series of lectures with “an elegant Latin discourse” on the controversy between the Preformists and the Epigenists. Buffon, whose flights of imagination were well calculated to arouse antipathy in a hard-headed and prudent investigator like Spallanzani, was propagating his doctrine of “organic molecules” — a fantastic Buffonesque embroidery of the preformation hypothesis tending towards epigenesis. Spallanzani, an orthodox believer in the preformation faith, mistook it for sheer epigenesis (vide “Dissertations relative to the Natural History of Animals and Vegetables,” Vol. II., p. 160, London, 1784), then accounted a heresy, and, wielding that damaging epithet “imaginative,” made battery and assault on the handsome, speculative Frenchman.

“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” The controversy in a more developed form continues still, and it looked at one time, before Roux’s initial experiments with the frog’s egg were carried further, as if the philosophic attitude of Spallanzani and his supporters might prove to be sound.

More than one of Buffon’s claims were attacked with spirit by Spallanzani, who placed over against Buffon’s interesting speculations his own still more interesting facts obtained under conditions of rigid experiment — notably his work with hermetically sealed flasks in which he showed no life developed if they were subjected to powerful heat. Spallanzani’s methods were an enormous advance upon those previously used, although they by no means set the matter at rest. The old bone of Spontaneous Generation has since been dug up many times and chewed. And it is not buried yet.2

Of course, Spallanzani made mistakes — indeed to his credit it might be said if the ancient adage be true. In those days it used to be thought by some that fecundation was effected by some sort of aura or gas given off by the seed of the male. Spallanzani succeeded in showing that the semen itself is the responsible agent, though he aggressively claimed to have fertilized frogs’ eggs with seminal fluid devoid of spermatozoa, in contravention of the theory of Leeuwenhoek who was advocating the “spermatic vermicelli” as the “immediate authors of generation.” Spallanzani thought he had “irrefragably proved” the falsity of this doctrine. Leeuwenhoek, on the other hand, denied the ovum any important part in the formation of the embryo, regarding it apparently as the nidus in which the spermatozoon developed. It is permissible to feel a certain amount of sardonic satisfaction at the ex cathedra pronouncements the Professor gave upon questions in which Time, the Enemy, has found him out. Spallanzani’s loyalty to his own observations made him over confident, too cocksure.

An incident in connection with his translation of Bonnet’s “The Contemplation of Nature” is worth recording for the illumination it sheds upon his point of view in biology and in University education. Each Professor was required to select a book for the use of the students, and Spallanzani’s choice fell naturally on his translation of Bonnet. But this selection on being submitted did not meet with approval in Vienna, where ideas of University instruction in biology were diametrically opposed to those now in vogue. That is to say, great importance was attached to systematic work to the exclusion of a more philosophical treatment of the subject. The Professor of Natural History in Vienna, a man unknown to fame and the author of a single modest treatise, entitled “Additamenta quaedam ad Entomologiam,” sat in judgment upon the exasperated Spallanzani, and reported that, while he admired the philosophic character of Spallanzani’s selection, he did not believe Bonnet’s book sufficient to give the necessary instruction in nomenclature which was the universal language used by naturalists of many countries to make themselves and their works understood. Spallanzani’s philosophic temper made him already impatient with the systematists at whom he flung the gibe of “nomenclature naturalists"; his contumely was prodigiously increased by this obscure Viennese Professor’s criticisms.

On being requested, Spallanzani wrote out a reasoned programme of the lectures he intended to give on Natural History. This programme amounted really to a defence of his point of view in Natural History, but the higher authorities, in spite of all, were adamant, and Spallanzani was forced to come to terms on the subject of nomenclature instruction with the bribe of a promised increase of salary — always an irresistible lure to the Professor.

But Spallanzani was by nature an intransigeant. And it is hardly probable that he would succumb on a principle of such vital importance to his biological teaching. In fact, there is evidence to show that, as in the early days of his Professorship, he continued to demonstrate respiration in molluscs, fecundation in Amphibia, and other unorthodox phenomena.

To the efficiency of his lectures all his biographers bear witness. Senebier wrote: “Une éloquence simple et vive animait ses discours; la pureté et l’élégance de son élocution seduisaient ceux qui l’entendaient” He possessed the teacher’s gift of inspiring with enthusiasm both students and the men of science who came to hear him from every part of Europe. The tributes of his European contemporaries were generous without reserve. Bonnet said that he had discovered more truths in five or six years than all the Academies in half a century, while “the dying hand of Haller consigned to him the defence of Truth and Nature.”

During the first part of his residence in Pavia, he lodged in an ex-convent with Professor Scopoli, and although when and where is not known, he must have already taken Holy Orders, as he was accustomed to increase his income by conducting Mass in a Church close at hand. On quitting these lodgings he engaged some rooms in a house in the attic of which his famous experiments on bats were carried out. The house has been identified and in the attic some interesting relics were discovered in the strings and dried up pipistrelles used by him in these investigations. He blinded the animals, sometimes by burning the eyes with a red hot wire, and sometimes by removing the organs altogether, and even filling up the orbital cavity with wax. Notwithstanding these mutilations, the little creatures were able to fly as well as before, avoiding the walls, and the strings suspended in the path of their flight. These and other experiments led him to the conclusion that bats find their way in the dark by means of some special sense situated in an unknown organ in the head. It is now generally accepted that this astonishing faculty in bats of directing their flight is due to an exceptional development of the sense of touch, especially in the wing membranes.

Before finding fault with the brutality of Spallan- zani as an experimenter, it is just to remember that his passionate curiosity led him to turn his ruthless hand even against himself. For in his “Studies in Digestion” 3 he describes how he swallowed bone, cartilage, and tendon, concealed in perforated wooden tubes, to be subsequently vomited, and how, in order to obtain gastric juice for the purposes of artificial digestion, he caused himself to vomit on an empty stomach, by tickling the fauces. This knowledge ought to soften the heart of the most fanatical zoophilist towards the Abbé.

In August, 1779, we find him in Switzerland on a visit to his friend Bonnet at the latter’s “delightful villa” at Genthod. Abraham Trembley was also present, and one likes to think of these three, with heads bent and hands folddd behind the back, walking and talking together, each of them engaged upon researches of great moment in biology — Bonnet perhaps on his studies of asexual propagation in aphides, Trembley on regeneration in hydra the fresh-water polyp, and Spallanzani occupied just then in fertilization in toads. In Bonnet’s presence he cut off the hind legs of a male toad during its embrace of the female without effecting a separation. The female, he points out, may begin to discharge eggs later, and the male with his blood flowing all the time continues to impregnate them with his semen. In reply to a question, “he did not hesitate to say that this persistence was less the effect of obtuseness of feeling than vehemence of passion.” In these days of comparative psychology, the idea of a vehemently passionate toad raises a smile.

The Abbé was an enthusiastic traveller, and his expeditions to the Milanese Mountains, to Marseilles, Sicily, and his visits to Vesuvius and the Lipari Isles, brought in a rich harvest of scientific results. Moreover, Spallanzani by no means confined his attention to biology. He studied natural history in the broadest meaning of the term. He helped to lay the foundations of vulcanology and meteorology, he discovered the true explanation of “Ducks and Drakes” on the surface of water (formerly attributed to “elasticity” of the water), he experimented with the water divining rod, and by the aid of Pennet’s instrument, called “the Minerographico,” he and Pennet claimed to have revealed subterranean currents of water in the Courtyard of the University.

In 1784 Spallanzani was projecting his great journey to Constantinople, and entered into a correspondence concerning it with his Excellency Count Formian, the Austrian Minister Plenipotentiary at the Court of Milan. The Professor was a pastmaster in the gentle art of pulling strings, and he had, hitherto, been egregiously successful, not only in obtaining permission to undertake expeditions, but also in obtaining funds for them and in increasing his stipend.

Whether or not the University was at length beginning to kick against the pricks is not evident, but his proposal hung fire, and the arrangements were being protracted.

It was at this juncture towards the end of the year that Spallanzani engineered a piece of admirable bluff — or, as he himself called it, a “giro politico” — by asking to be relieved of his post — with the excuse that the air in Pavia was unsuitable to his health. Vienna straightway, in order “to preserve for the University a celebrated person,” and in order not to prejudice the University in public opinion, promised him handsome compensation in the way of salary if he remained, and also gave him permission to go to Constantinople. And so, “the fogs cleared, the humidity disappeared, and every ill was cured, even the gout,” remarks a commentator, slyly.

Spallanzani stayed nearly a year in Turkey, made many valuable observations, was received by the Sultan, and, on his way home overland, stopped in Vienna, to be presented by Joseph II. with a gold medal. The return home was a triumphal progress, for on reaching Pavia he was met and acclaimed outside the city gates by numbers of his students and escorted by them through the streets.

It is a well-known fact that the Museum at Pavia was founded by Spallanzani. As he himself claimed, it had been born under his hands, it had grown under his direction, and owed its prosperity to his correspondence, activity, and travels. Now during Spallanzani’s absence in Turkey, Canon Volta, acting as Curator of the Museum, made the discovery that several objects, though mentioned in the catalogue, were missing from the Museum. Volta, alas! was among the few who knew that at Scandiano the Professor owned a private museum. So, pretending to set out on an excursion to Tuscany, Volta went to Scandiano, and, under a false name, asked to see the Spallanzani Museum. On coming out, he went straight to an inn and made a note of all he had seen. He next wrote to Counsellor don Luigi Lambertenghi in Milan, informing him that the numerous objects missing from the Museum at Pavia were to be found in Spallanzani’s Museum in Scandiano, and that some of the objects were still marked with their original numbers, the jars for the most part having the red labels of the jars at Pavia. He requested the Counsellor to see that the Government verified his assertions. He also gave information to the Supreme Ecclesiastical Commission and the Commission of Studies, and in Pavia he talked frequently of “Spallanzani’s thefts,” so that the scandal soon came to be divulged.

Professors Scopoli, Scarpa, and Fontana were also drawn into the conspiracy, which went to the incredible length of sending to persons in authority, to Spallanzani’s friend Bonnet, to Tissot and others, to the heads of the Italian Universities, and generally of distributing throughout the Continent a circular informing the world at large of the “unexpected,” “ignominious,” “atrocious” crime of their famous colleague.

The motive actuating these men was said to be envy of Spallanzani’s eminence as a man of science, intensified by their fear of showing it on account of his influence at Court. Probably, Spallanzani’s own intolerant attitude towards his intellectual inferiors was scarcely likely to adjust matters. “What wonder,” he exclaims, speaking of Pavia, “that in districts so low, so foggy, so marshy, talents are so rare.”

Confronted with a charge of theft of which he was early advised, Spallanzani hurried home from Vienna. By a special decree of the I4th of September, 1786, the Government of Lombardy was ordered to intervene. The latter sent secretly to Scandiano, where it was reported that, though certain objects missing from the Museum at Pavia were observed, there was no indication to show that they belonged to the Museum at Pavia. Under the Presidency of Wilseck, Minister Plenipotentiary, an enquiry was opened at the Royal Palace of Milan, where Spallanzani’s reply to the charge succeeded conspicuously. The missing birds were badly prepared, had lost their feathers, and were eventually thrown away. The armadillo, the snakes, the seal, the hammer-headed shark, and the sword-fish, had been given away in exchange. Other things had been used in experiments, and finally the rare Conus — “Cono ammirale” — turned up again in the Museum, and had never really been lost.

The Abbé preferred a counter-charge against Volta of breaking up agates and precious stones and distributing the pieces among his friends. He also showed that the Curator often left things out on the table of the Museum when students and workmen were free to come in and out

A report of these lamentable proceedings was forwarded to Vienna, with a letter from the President to the Imperial Chancellor Kaunitz, in which insistence was placed on putting an end to intrigues among the Professors, as it created a spirit of faction among them, and brought discord even among the students.

As a result of the inquiry, Spallanzani was declared innocent, Canon Volta was deprived of his office as Curator of the Museum, and sent away from Pavia, while Professors Fontana, Scarpa, and Scopoli were censored “for the grave prejudice to the reputation of Professor Spallanzani by having imputed to him without proof” so grave a charge as theft.

Spallanzani was delighted. He sent a warm letter of gratitude to Wilseck, his “great protector and great Mæcenas,” and distributed to all the European centres of learning a circular in reply to the one sent by the conspirators showing how his character had been cleared.

In spite of the issue of a royal decree imposing silence upon those concerned in the scandal, the Reverend Abbé was unable to restrain himself from reviling his calumniators with vituperation of a kind that betrayed at least a clumsy wit. Volta was “a bladder, full of wind, an object of abomination and horror.” Scarpa was “a cabalist, one of the most inferior of scholars, a perfect plagiarist.” Scopoli was a “Physis intestinalis,” this being a name published by Scopoli for a portion of probably a bird’s trachea in mistake for an intestinal worm which is given all the usual honours of a figure and description in Scopoli’s book, “Deliciae Florae et Fauna; Insubricae seu Novae aut minus cognitae species Plantarum et Animalium quas in Insubrica Austriaca.” 4 In addition to these sledge-hammer blows he also dealt out the stiletto thrusts of anonymous communications to the newspapers, which have been dealt with by Professor Pavesi in “Il Crimine Scientifico di Spallanzani guidicato” (Milan, 1899).

Some doubts, after all, of Spallanzani’s integrity in the affair have been expressed. These probably originated in the fact that Professor was reported to have subsequently suppressed a part of his first memorial of defence in which he confessed that at Scandiano he kept some of the objects belonging to the Museum at Pavia, but only with the idea of studying them and returning them afterwards to Pavia. His natural astuteness helped him to foresee the danger of such a confession at such a crisis.

Although this was not the only battle the Abbé fought with his aggressors, no one ousted him from his position or deprived him of his reputation. He continued to enjoy his fame, and received many signal honours. He was Dean of the Faculty of Philosophy several times, and in 1778 the students by a majority of votes elected him to the Rectorship. At the Museum, he received many distinguished visitors, including the Emperor Joseph II. It is amusing to read that to the “gentili Signore” he was always happy to show the Museum — “provided they were beautiful and intelligent.” Even this granite character, perhaps, had its softer side.

Although for diplomatic reasons, Spallanzani used often to complain that he was not well in Pavia, he really enjoyed a florid state of good health; and the day before he was attacked by the apoplexy which ended in his death he was pursuing with the most youthful ardour his experiments in respiration, the results of which were published posthumously. Three days after his seizure he had recovered sufficiently to be able to recite verses from Homer, Tasso, and Vergil. But “Canto di cigno,” as Professor Pavesi says — a droll metaphor having regard to Spallanzani’s raptorial countenance, particularly as it must have looked peering above the bedclothes! — “Canto di cigno,” for at 2.30 a.m. on the 11th of February, 1799, after having received the Papal Benediction, he fell back and expired suddenly.

At the post-mortem, his heart was taken out and deposited by his brother Nicolo in the Church at Scandiano. The bladder and urethra being of pathological interest are still preserved in Pavia — mortal relics as notorious as Mr. Babbage’s brain or Lord Darnley’s left femur in the Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons.

Spallanzani’s reputation beyond any doubt has declined from the meridian height it occupied during his lifetime. His genius of character and his attainments were evidently a potent influence among his contemporaries, and the nature of some of his experiments in those dark days were well calculated to excite the wonder and admiration of the crowd. It used to be said that fecundation was among the mysteries of Nature and, like many of her operations, an object of admiration rather than of inquiry. But the Reverend Professor, unwilling to cast too much responsibility on the Divine Power, however agreeable that might be to the idleness of man, set to work and succeeded in artificially fertilizing a bitch spaniel with the spontaneous emissions of a dog injected by a syringe. Sixty-two days afterwards three lively whelps were born. “I can truly say,” he remarks, “that I never received greater pleasure upon any occasion since I cultivated natural philosophy.”

His work in pond life and protozoa — “myriads of which peopled a single drop” — and his observations on Rotifers, “which came to life again” after desiccation, lent colour to the hyperbolic expression of admiration with which a poet suggested that he had divine power.

I trust it is no very cynical asperity to say that there was nothing divine at all about the Reverend Abbé. Spallanzani was not an angel — yet he was something more than a great biologist — he was a great man. A study of the extensive biographical literature which has grown up around him will give the curious reader some idea of his masterful personality and of the way in which it gripped the scientific world in which he lived.

1915. Reprinted from Science Progress.

1 See “Lazzaro Spallanzani,” Pavia, 1871 (Gibelli) and “L’Ahbate Spallanzani a Pavia,” Milan, 1901 (Pavesi, Societa Italiana di Scienze Naturali e Museo Civico di Stovia Naturale di Milano, Vol. VI., Fasc. III).

2 I am referring to the experiments of the late Dr. H. Charlton Bastian.

3 Proving the fact of digestion by solution as against the theory of trituration.

4 I., 1786, p. 46.

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