Physician and biologist, regarded as the father of microscopical anatomy and histology, Malpighi was born on March 10, 1628 at Crevalcore near Bologna. He was educated in his native city, entering at the age of 17 the University of Bologna, where he studied Grammar, Philosophy, Physics and Anatomy.
In 1656 he was made a lecturer at Bologna, and then a professor of physics at Pisa. In 1660, Malpighi returned to Bologna and dedicated himself to the study of anatomy, conducting experiments on plants and insects. Because of this work, many microscopic anatomical structures are named after Malpighi, including a skin layer (Malpighian layer) and two different Malpighian corpuscles in the kidneys and the spleen, as well as the Malpighian tubules in the excretory system of insects.
Because Malpighi had a wide knowledge of both plants and animals, he made contributions to the scientific study of both. The Royal Society in London published two volumes of his botanical and zoological works in 1675 and 1679. Another edition followed in 1687, and a supplementary volume in 1697. In his autobiography, Malpighi speaks of his Anatome Plantarum “which, by the great munificence of the Royal Society, is communicated in the most elegant format to the whole literate world.”
His study of plants led him to conclude that plants had tubules similar to those he saw in insects like the silk worm (using his microscope, he probably saw the stomata, through which plants exchange carbon dioxide with oxygen). Malpighi observed that when a ring-like portion of bark was removed on a trunk a swelling occurred in the tissues above the ring, and he correctly interpreted this as growth stimulated by food coming down from the leaves, and being blocked above the ring.
A talented sketch artist, Malpighi seems to have been the first author to have made detailed drawings of individual organs of flowers. In his Anatome plantarum, there is a longitudinal section of a flower of Nigella (his Melanthi, literally honey-flower) with details of the nectariferous organs.
Malpighi had success in tracing the ontogeny of plant organs, and the serial development of the shoot owing to his instinct shaped in the sphere of animal embryology. He specialized in seedling development, and in 1679 he published a volume containing a series of exquisitely drawn and engraved images of the stages of development of Leguminosae (beans) and Cucurbitaceae (squash, melons). Later he published material depicting the development of the date palm.
Malpighi’s investigations of the life cycle of plants and animals led him into the topic of reproduction. He created detailed drawings of his studies of chick embryo development, seed development in plants (such as the lemon tree) and the transformation of caterpillars into insects.
The great Swedish botanist Linnaeus named the genus Malpighia in honor of Malpighi’s work with plants; Malpighia is the type genus for the Malpighiaceae, a family of tropical and subtropical flowering plants.