Famous Italian Scientists

As we began putting together this page on famous Italian scientists we initially thought we'd divide them into categories such as physicists, physicians and so on. Then we realized we had a problem. Most of these Italian scientists were multi-disciplined, so they fall into more than one category. Our solution was to list them on a single page with their specialties highlighted in bold font.

Here are 14 famous Italian scientists listed according to their year of birth:

1. Girolamo Fracastoro [1483-1553]

Girolamo Fracastoro was born in Verona, northern Italy, and studied at the University of Padua, sharing classes with a student named Nicolas Copernicus. An accomplished physician, poet, geologist and astronomer, Frascstoro is considered to be the world's first epidemiologist (a specialist in the study of epidemics).

In 1538 he wrote a book called A Single Center of the Universe, which posited that the earth revolved around the sun, in opposition to the established belief that the earth was the center of the universe, This was five years before Copernicus published his paradigm-shattering work on the same subject.

In his 1546 publication, On Contagion and Contagious Diseases, Fracastoro proposed that all epidemics were the result of germs being transmitted from person to person. Over 300 years later, French scientist Louis Pasteur confirmed the theory and invented a process called pasteurization.

2. Girolamo Cardano [1501-1576]

Girolamo Cardano was truly a man of the Renaissance. He published two books on mathematics, revealing his talent for equations and defining the rules of algebra.

His contributions to such diverse fields as hydrodynamics (water flow), erosion and other earth sciences, mechanics, probability theory, cryptography and medicine led to later discoveries and refinements in each of those disciplines.

He was one of the most famous physicians of his time in Europe. His published works are available in a 10-volume collection.

3. Andrea Cesalpino [1519-1603]

Andrea Cesalpino was born in Arezzo, Tuscany, in 1519. He was a physician, botanist and philosopher, holding posts as the Director of the Botanical Gardens and Professor of Medicine at the University of Pisa. In 1583 he published The Book of Plants Volumes 1-16, the first full-length botany textbook, and proposed a system of plant classification which profoundly influenced later botanists, including the Swedish Carolus Linnaeus, who laid the groundwork for the modern system of plant classification in his work Systema Naturae, published in 1735.

Cesalpino also studied the circulation of the blood, influencing the work of William Harvey 30 years later. 

4. Galileo Galilei [1564-1642]

Galileo was born in Pisa, northern Italy, in 1564, and is considered by many to be the most influential Italian scientist of all time. The inventor of the scientific method, he was accomplished in astronomy, cartography, entomology, hydrodynamics, mathematics mechanics, physics and timekeeping.

While still in his teens, Galileo discovered the timekeeping properties of the pendulum, laying the foundation for his son's development of the pendulum clock. His early experiments with falling objects at the Leaning Towers of Pisa are legendary. He also discovered the law of inertia, which was redefined by Sir Isaac Newton.

In 1590 he published On Motion, which refuted the hypothesis that the sun revolved around the earth. He later refined the thermoscope, a forerunner of the thermometer, and invented the sector, a forerunner of the drawing compass. 

Galileo built a telescope based on information about a similar instrument invented in Holland, which proved his theory that the earth revolved around the sun. This lead to his trial and conviction for heresy against the Roman Catholic Church, and he was sentenced to house arrest for the rest of his life. The church finally exonerated him in 1992.

5. Evangelista Torricelli [1608-1647]

In 1643 Evangelista Torricelli invented the barometer, a device for measuring the pressure of air which contributed greatly to the science of meteorology. Torricelli was born in Faenza, northern Italy, in 1608. At the age of 32, he published a work called Concerning Movementwhich applied Galileo's' laws of motion to fluids, creating the science of hydrodynamics.  This lead to Galileo inviting him to become his assistant. Upon Galileo's death, Torricelli assumed two of his prestigious posts with the Duke of Tuscany and the Florentine Academy.

Torricelli's work on the motion of fluids is acknowledged in the naming of Torricelli's theorem. He also made major contributions to the science of optics.

6. Francesco Maria Grimaldi [1618-1663]

Francesco Maria Grimaldi was a former Jesuit and the discoverer of the diffraction (bending or deflection) of light, influencing future discoveries in physics and other sciences, His major work on the fluid properties of light was published two years after his death, and contradicted the prevailing theory that light was composed of rapidly moving particles. Albert Einstein later expanded on his work and proved that both theories had validity.

Grimaldi studied philosophy at the Universities of Parma, Ferrara and Bologna. He taught rhetoric and humanities at the University of Bologna, later switching to mathematics, and eventually working in the fields of astronomy and physics. He is credited with the tradition of naming lunar regions after astronomers and physicians.

7. Luigi Galvani [1737-1798]

Luigi Galvani was born in 1737 and graduated with degrees in philosophy and medicine from the University of Bologna in 1759. After his appointment as professor of anatomy and surgery, he began a series of experiments on frogs that led to his publishing a paper on the electrical properties of muscle and skin.

His findings served as a catalyst in the discoveries of his friend and contemporary, Alessandro Volta. Galvani's contribution is acknowledged in the terms “galvanism” and “galvanic skin response”. 

8. Alessandro Volta [1745-1827]

Alessandro Volta was born in Como, Italy in 1745. Although he qualified as a chemist, physician, physicist and inventor, he is best remembered for his work with electricity. Volta was a Professor of Physics at the Como Gymnasium at the age of 29, and in 1775 invented the electrophorous, a device for producing static electricity charges. His work resulted in the discovery of methane gas, and in 1779 he was named Professor of Natural History at Pavia. 

In 1800 Volta created the first battery. His findings were published by the Royal Society of London in their prestigious journal. The volt, the basic unit of electromotive force, was named in his honor.

9. Amedeo Avogadro [1776-1856]

Amedeo Avogadro was born in Turin, northern Italy, and practiced as a lawyer before turning to science, in particular, physics and chemistry. He became Professor of Physics at the University of Turin.

Avogadro discovered the relationship between the density of a gas and the number of molecules in a fixed volume. In a paper published in 1811, he presented his scientific breakthrough, known as Avogadro's hypothesis, which laid the foundation for the way chemical compounds would be analyzed from that time forward. He also coined the termmolecule.

Avogadro's discoveries met with controversy, and his contributions were often ignored. The French scientist André-Marie Ampere was often erroneously credited with Avogadro's discoveries. Fifty years after his death he was finally accorded the recognition he deserved as a father of modern chemistry.

10. Ascanio Sobrero 1812-1888

Ascanio Sombrero was born in Casale Monteferrato, northern Italy, in 1812. He became Professor of Chemistry at the University of Turin. He is remembered as the discovered of nitroglycerine, which lead to Alfred Nobel's invention of dynamite in 1866. Nitroglycerine is also used as a heat medication. 

During his tenure at the University of Turin, Sobrero also published a three-volume series on Chemistry.

11. Stanislao Cannizzaro [1826-1910]

Stanislao Cannizzaro was born in Palermo, Sicily, in 1826 and is known for the determination of true atomic weights, which gave rise to a true system of chemistry based on Amedeo Avogadro's discoveries.

A disciple of Avogadro, Cannizzaro is also the scientist who promoted Avogadro's theories and restored the late scientist's reputation after the older man's death. Together they defined the science of moderchemistry.

12. Camillo Golgi [1844-1926]

Camillo Golgi was born in Corteno, northern Italy, in 1843. He received his medical degree from the University of Padua in 1865. His research into the central nervous system led to the development of his silver nitrate cellular staining process. He also identified two types of nerve cells which are named today Golgi cells types I and II. Other anatomical features which bear his name are the Golgi tendon organ, and the Golgi complex or Golgi apparatus. 

In 1906 Golgi won the Nobel Prize fomedicine and physiology, an honor he shared with Santiago Ramon y Cajal.

13. Guglielmo Marconi [1874-1937]

Guglielmo Marconi was born in Bologna, northern italy, to an Irish mother and an Italian father. In 1985 Marconi, with Russian physicist Aleksandr Popov, invented a radio antenna, which led to the first working radio. A year later, he took out his first patent in London, where he set up the first permanent wireless installation.

The first wireless messages were broadcast across the English Channel in 1899. In 1909 Marconi and Karl Braun won the Nobel Prize for Physics.

14. Enrico Fermi (1901-1954)

Enrico Fermi was born in Rome, central Italy, and received his doctorate in physics from the University of Pisa in 1922. Fermi was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1931 for his work on neutrons. In 1952 at the University of Chicago, Fermi, working with Leo Szilard, built the firs nuclear reactor. 

From 1954-1945, Fermi worked with Albert Einstein and a number of other eminent scientists on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos in New Mexico. The result of their collaboration was the development of the atomic bomb, which was used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to bring about Japan's surrender at the end of World War II.

Is there a famous Italian scientist we've overlooked on our list? If you have a scientist you'd like us to add, please let us know via the Contact Us page.