Spallanzani, Lazzaro

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Spallanzani, Lazzaro (1729-1799): Italian biologist.

Lazzaro Spallanzani was born at Scandiano and educated at a Jesuit college and then at Bologna University, where he studied Jurisprudence. He became a priest after receiving his doctorate.

His most important experiment, published in 1767, reconsidered John Needham demonstration on the spontaneous generation of microorganisms. Spallanzani, showed that no organism can develop in properly sterilised solutions and hermetically closed recipients. Needham contested the validity of the Italian scientist’s experiments and argued that the excess of heat simply killed the vital principal. Spallanzani replied with ever more accurate experiments, but the controversy went on for a long time: it summarised the two main conceptions of life in the 18th century—those who believed in the preexistence of the germs (against spontaneous generation) and those who believed that the germs had to be created (defending spontaneous generation).

In 1768 he was elected Fellow of the Royal Society. During the same year, he was appointed to the chair of natural history in Pavia, where he also was in charge of the museum.

He made important contributions to the understanding of digestion (he simulated the work of the human stomach by putting gastric acid and food in sealed tubes under his armpits), respiration, blood circulation, and reproduction: he studied and described in details the reproduction of frogs and successfully tried the first artificial insemination on them in his laboratory. An experiment he performed with equal success on a female dog in 1785.

Further Reading:

Sam Epstein; Beryl Williams Epstein; Jane Sterrett, Secret in a sealed bottle: Lazzaro Spallanzani’s work with microbes, 1979.

Baudry Samuel