Giovanni Battista Grassi

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Giovanni Battista Grassi
Giovanni Battista Grassi.jpg
Born (1854-03-27)27 March 1854
Rovellasca, Italy
Died 4 May 1925(1925-05-04) (aged 71)
Rome, Italy
Nationality Italy
Fields Medicine, Entomology, Parasitology
Institutions University of Catania
Sapienza University of Rome
Alma mater University of Pavia
Doctoral students Gustavo Pittaluga
Known for Plasmodium life cycle
malaria control
Notable awards Darwin Medal

Giovanni Battista Grassi (27 March 1854 – 4 May 1925) was an Italian physician and zoologist, most well known for his pioneering works on parasitology, especially on malariology. He also worked on the embryological development of honey bees, on heminth parasites, the vine parasite phylloxera, on migrations and metamorphosis in eels, and on termites. He was the first to describe and establish the life cycle of the human malarial parasite, Plasmodium falciparum, and discovered that only female anopheline mosquitoes are capable of transmitting the disease.[1][2]


Grassi was born in Rovellasca, Italy, in what is now the Province of Como. His father Luigi Grassi was a municipal official, and mother Costanza Mazzuchelli was a noted peasant of unusual intelligence. His early education was at Saronno.

From 1872 he studied medicine at the University of Pavia under professors Camillo Golgi and Giulio Bizzozero and graduated in 1878. After graduation he worked first at Messina in the Naples Zoological Station and the Oceanographic Station founded by Nicolaus Kleinenberg and Anton Dohrn where he studied Chaetognatha, then completed his training at the University of Heidelberg in Germany under the guidance of Karl Gegenbaur and Otto Bütschli. While in Heidelberg, he married Maria Koenen.

In 1883 he became Professor of Comparative Zoology at the University of Catania, studying cestodes, the life cycle of the European eel (Catania) and the Moray eel (Rome). Also in Catania he began to study entomology and wrote a student text "The Origin and Descent of Myriapods and Insects" in addition to scientific papers. He also began to study malaria working with Raimondo Feletti on malaria, especially bird malaria.

In 1895 he was appointed professor of comparative anatomy at Sapienza University of Rome, where he would spend the rest of his life. He joined Angelo Celli, Amico Bignami, Giuseppe Bastianelli and Ettore Marchiafava, who were working on malaria in districts around Rome. Grassi was the group’s entomologist. The group announced at the session of the Accademia dei Lincei on 4 December 1889 that a healthy man in a non-malarial zone had contracted tertian malaria after being bitten by an experimentally infected Anopheles claviger. Between 1900 and 1902, Grassi, Gustavo Pittaluga and Giovanni Noè made intensive studies of malaria at Agro Portuense, at Fiumicino, on the Tiber, and on the plain of Capaccio, near Paestum.

In 1902, Grassi abandoned his study of malaria and began work on the sandfly responsible for Leishmaniasis (Phlebotomus papatasii) and on a serious insect pest of the grape vine (Phylloxera vastatrix ). Endemic malaria returned to Italy during and after the First World War and Grassi resumed his mosquito studies.[3]

He died in Rome in 1925, while reading the proof of his last paper, Lezione sulla malaria.[4]

Professional achievements[edit]

Anatomy and entomology[edit]

Grassi Giovanni Battista

Grassi's earlier works were on anatomy and then entomology. He studied the development of the vertebral column in bony fishes and also endemic goiter. His studies on bees, myriapods and termites were monumental. He also studied the chetognates and the reproduction of eels, and he described a new species of spider, Koenenia mirabilis in 1885, dedicated to his wife.

He also made significant contribution to the study of the phylloxera of grapes, which he pursued for several years. The notes of his observations La questione fillosserica in Italia (1904) influenced the Italian Ministry of Agriculture, which eventually requested him to do an exhaustive study of this subject. In 1912 he produced a monumental investigation of the morphology and biology of the Italian and other European genera of phylloxera. It was a foundation for systematic control of agricultural pests.[3]


In 1876 Grassi investigated his native hometown Rovellasca for the high mortality of cats and discovered that they were heavily infected with the nematode Dochmius balsami. In 1878, while still a student at the University of Pavia, he discovered anchylostomiasis in Italy from by identifying the eggs from the faeces of infected individuals. He continued to made great impacts on the study of Anguillula intestinalis, filarial worms, Trichocephalus dispar, and Bilharzia. He was the first to show that the human dwarf tapeworm Taenia nana is able to go through its entire life cycle in one animal, without the need of an intermediate host, a notion that had long been rejected. He was also the first to show that the flea Pulex serraticeps is the intermediate host of feline tapeworm Taenia elliptica. Thus he proposed that swallowing of infected fleas (for example, with milk) might be the reason for taeniasis in children.[3] In 1879 he published a work on the life cycle of Strongyloides stercoralis, and erected the genus Strongyloides. In 1890 he, with Salvatore Calandruccio, described Dipetalonema reconditum, a non-pathogenic filarial worm of dogs, and showed that the parasite completed its development in human fleas, Pulex irritans.[1]

The first crucial step in understanding the life cycle of the roundworm Ascaris lumbricoides was demonstrated by Grassi in a grotesque fashion. To solve a century-old puzzle of how infection of roundworm is transmitted from one host to another, he ingested the roundworm eggs and identified the similar eggs from his own faeces after several days. Thus proving that the roundworm is transmitted through direct ingestion from contaminated source.[5]

Malaria and the life cycle of Plasmodium[edit]

Grassi made his first contribution on malaria in 1890, when he (with Raimondo Feletti) discovered Haemamoeba vivax, later renamed Plasmodium vivax. He described Proteosoma praecox, the malaria parasite of birds. In 1891 he performed the first inoculation of malaria parasites from one bird into another. He was the first to compile a comprehensive monograph on the identity and impact of different malarial parasites. His work Studi di uno Zoologo Sulla Malaria in 1891 is as relevant today as it was in his time. His description of the specific characteristics responsible for benign tertian (Haemamoeba vivax), malignant tertian (Laverania malariae, renamed P. falciparum) and quartan (Haemamoeba malariae, renamed P. malariae) malaria resolved the confusion of the time. In addition, his monograph also presented the first conclusive depiction that the bite of only female Anopheles mosquitoes could transmit malaria. In a classic experiment, he dispatched 112 volunteers to the Capaccio plains, a malaria-endemic area, protected them from mosquito bites between dusk and dawn, and they did not get malaria (except five of them) compared with 415 unprotected volunteers who all contracted malaria. In 1898 he and Bignami were able to produce the final proof of mosquito transmission of malaria when they fed local mosquitoes (A. claviger) on infected patients and found that uninfected individuals developed malaria through the mosquito bite.[6]


The 1902 Nobel Prize[edit]

The 1902 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to Ronald Ross basically for his discovery of the life cycle of malarial parasite (or as the Nobel citation goes: for his work on malaria, by which he has shown how it enters the organism...). That was where the dispute ignited which lasted till today. Grassi was the first to suggest that there must be some developmental stage of Plasmodium in the white blood cells. In 1897, independent of Ross, he, along with his Italian associates, had established the developmental stages of malaria parasites in anopheline mosquitoes; and they described the complete life cycles of P. falciparum, P. vivax and P. malariae the following year.[7] When the Nobel nomination was called, a modest and self-centered man, Grassi started to have a fiery polemic over priority with a militant Major Ross, which was further exacerbated by the interference of Robert Koch. The initial opinion of the Nobel Committee was that the prize should be shared between Ross and Grassi. Then Ross made a defamatory campaign accusing Grassi of deliberate fraud. The weight of favour ultimately fell on Ross, largely upon the influences of Koch, the appointed "neutral arbitrator" in the committee; as reported, "Koch threw the full weight of his considerable authority in insisting that Grassi did not deserve the honor" (Koch was quite disgraced in 1898 when Grassi pointed out flaws in his methodology on malarial research). Hence, the verdict.[8] The indelible irony was that Ross was definitely the first to show that malarial parasite was transmitted by the bite of infected mosquitoes, in his case the avian Plasmodium relictum. But Grassi's work was much more directly relevant to human health as he demonstrated that human malarial parasites were incriminated only by female Anopheles (Interestingly, Ross never identified the mosquito species, being not a zoologist, "grey mosquito with dappled wings" was all that he could offer). Indeed it was Grassi who identified the species correctly, and in 1898 who first established the complete life cycle of P. falciparum, the first human malarial parasite for which the entire cycle was determined. By today's standard, they should have undoubtedly shared the Nobel.[2][9]

Grassi's law[edit]

Grassi had developed a dogma that "there is no malaria without Anopheles" or simply, "anophelism without malaria". This was dubbed the "Grassi's Law", which is formulated as: infected man + anopheles mosquitoes = malaria. Although the equation is straightforwardly correct, the reverse implication is not so. In many areas, he himself had noted that where anopheline vectors were abundant, malaria was not at all prevalent, and sometimes absent. This caused a little problem in understanding malaria epidemiology for some time. In fact, in 1919 he identified three typical malaria prevalent localities, but which were not affected by malaria in the same way, such as the gardens of Schito near Naples, Massarosa in Tuscany, and Alberone in Lombardia. In 1921, after repeated assessment, he concluded with the assumption of the existence of races of Anopheles, that there were morphologically indistinguishable mosquitoes that do not bite humans, and that therefore did not play a role as vectors.[10][11] The enigma was solved in 1925, a year after his death, by his pupil Falleroni, who demonstrated that there are six cryptic species of which only four bite humans and transmit malaria.[4]


He won the Royal Society's Darwin Medal in 1896 for his contribution to the study of termites.[3]

He was made a senator in Italy by King Victor Emmanuel III.[12]

A stamp commemorating Grassi with his portrait on it was issued by the Italian post office in 1955.[13]

Bibliography (partial list)[edit]

  • 1898. Rapporti tra la malaria e peculiari insetti (zanzaroni e zanzare palustri). R. C. Accad. Lincei 7:163–177.
  • 1899. Ancora sulla malaria. R. C. Accad. Lincei 8:559–561.
  • with Bignami,A. and Bastianelli, G.. 1899. Resoconto degli studi fatti sulla malaria durante il mese di gennaio. R. C. Accad. Lincei. 8:100–104.
  • 1901. Studii di uno Zoologo sulla Malaria.Atti dei.Linncei.Mem.,No. 91:299–516.6 plates in colour.


  1. ^ a b Roncalli Amici R (2001). "The history of Italian parasitology". Veterinary Parasitology 98 (1–3): 3–10. doi:10.1016/S0304-4017(01)00420-4. PMID 11516576. 
  2. ^ a b Cook G (2007). Tropical Medicine: An Illustrated History of The Pioneers. Academic Press. pp. 93–97. ISBN 9780080559391. 
  3. ^ a b c d Franceschini P (2008). "Grassi, Giovanni Battista". Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. Retrieved 31 May 2013. 
  4. ^ a b Capanna E (2008). "Battista Grassi entomologist and the Roman School of Malariology". Parassitologia 50 (3–4): 201–211. PMID 20055229. 
  5. ^ Cox FEG (2006). "History of Human Parasitology". Clinical Microbiology Reviews 15 (4): 595–612. doi:10.1128/CMR.15.4.595-612.2002. PMC 126866. PMID 12364371. 
  6. ^ Cox FEG (2010). "History of the discovery of the malaria parasites and their vectors". Parasites & Vectors 3 (1): 5. doi:10.1186/1756-3305-3-5. PMC 2825508. PMID 20205846. 
  7. ^ Baccetti B (2008). "History of the early dipteran systematics in Italy: from Lyncei to Battista Grassi". Parasstologia 50 (3–4): 167–172. PMID 20055226. 
  8. ^ Esch GW (2007). Parasites and Infectious Disease: Discovery by Serendipity and Otherwise. Cambridge University Press. pp. 137–138. ISBN 9781139464109. 
  9. ^ Capanna E (2012). "Grassi versus Ross: who solved the riddle of malaria?". International Microbiology 9 (1): 69–74. PMID 16636993. 
  10. ^ Fantini B (1994). "The discovery of transmission mechanisms and the fight against malaria in Italy". Medicina nei secoli 6 (1): 181–212. PMID 11640167. 
  11. ^ Majori G (2012). "Short history of malaria and its eradication in Italy with short notes on the fight against the infection in the Mediterranean basin". Mediterr J Hematol Infect Dis 4 (1): e2012016. doi:10.4084/MJHID.2012.016. PMC 3340992. PMID 22550561. 
  12. ^ de Kruif, Paul Microbe Hunters 1956 ed. Pocket Books, p. 291.
  13. ^ Grassi – Mosquito.

Further reading[edit]

  • Conci, C. & Poggi, R. 1996 Iconography of Italian Entomologists, with essential biographical data. Mem. Soc. Ent. Ital. 75 159–382, 418 Fig.
  • Howard, L. O. 1930 History of applied Entomology (Somewhat Anecdotal). Smiths. Miscell. Coll. 84 X+1-564, 51 plates

External links[edit]