At Italy On This Day you will read about events and festivals, about important moments in history, and about the people who have made Italy the country it is today, and where they came from. Italy is a country rich in art and music, fashion and design, food and wine, sporting achievement and political diversity. Italy On This Day provides fascinating insights to help you enjoy it all the more.

Monday, 25 September 2017

Agostino Bassi – biologist

Scientist who rescued the silk industry in Italy


Agostino Bassi had lessons from Lazzaro Spallanzani
Agostino Bassi had lessons from
Lazzaro Spallanzani
Bacteriologist Agostino Bassi, who was the first to expound the parasitic theory of infection, was born on this day in 1773 at Mairago near Lodi in Lombardy.

He developed his theory by studying silkworms, which helped him discover that many diseases are caused by micro organisms.  This was 10 years in advance of the work of Louis Pasteur.

In 1807 Bassi began an investigation into the silkworm disease mal de segno, also known as muscardine, which was causing serious economic losses in Italy and France.

After 25 years of research and carrying out various experiments, Bassi was able to demonstrate that the disease was contagious and was caused by a microscopic parasitic fungus.

He concluded that the organism, at the time named botrytis paradoxa, but now known as beauvaria bassiana in his honour, was transmitted among the worms by contact and by infected food.

These findings enabled Bassi to rescue the economically important silk industry in Italy by recommending using disinfectants, separating the rows of feeding caterpillars and keeping farms clean.

A plaque outside the house in Paolo Gorini in Lodi, where Bassi lived and studied, commemorates his life
A plaque outside the house in Paolo Gorini in Lodi, where
Bassi lived and studied, commemorates his life
Bassi announced his discoveries in his work Del mal del segno, calcinaccio o moscarduino, published in 1835.

He also produced scientific works on laboratory cultures of potatoes, on cheese and wine making, as well as the human diseases of leprosy and cholera, after which he made the important generalisation that many diseases of plants, animals and man are caused by animal or vegetable parasites.

Bassi preceded both Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch in formulating a germ theory of disease. He prescribed methods for the prevention and elimination of muscardine, which earned him a lot of prestige.

His father, a wealthy farmer, had wanted Bassi him to look after the family property when he grew up, rather than become a biologist. But he was able to take science lessons from the biologist, Lazzaro Spallanzani, who was one of his relatives.

Louis Pasteur is reputed to have had the portraits of both Spallanzani and Bassi on the walls of his office.

After Bassi’s death in 1856 in Lodi, when the biologist was 82, he was buried in the Romanesque church of San Francesco in his home town.

In 1953 the Italian post office issued a stamp on the 180th anniversary of his birth in 1773, featuring a portrait of Bassi bordered by pictures of silkmoths.

Via Agostino Bassi is the main street in Mairago, where the biologist was born
Via Agostino Bassi is the main street in Mairago,
where the biologist was born
Travel tip:

The comune of Mairago, where Bassi was born, is in the province of Lodi about 40km (25 miles) south east of Milan and about 7km (4 miles) southeast of Lodi. Mairago is surrounded by fields of corn and barley and there is widespread beekeeping in the area.

Agostini Bassi's tomb in the church of San Francesco
Agostini Bassi's tomb in the church of San Francesco
Travel tip:


Agostino Bassi’s tomb is in the 13th century church of San Francesco in Piazza Ospedale in Lodi, set against a wall in the right transept. The church is distinctive because of its two ‘open sky’ double mullioned windows in the façade, an early example of a design that was often repeated in northern Italy during the 14th and 15th centuries.

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