Gianfranco Natale, MD and Paola Lenzi, PhD
Department of Translational Research and New Technologies in Medicine and Surgery, University of Pisa, Italy

Title page of Nuovi organi scoperti nel corpo umano
Fig 1.Title page of Nuovi organi
scoperti nel corpo umano
Pacini, 1840; see note 5.
Source: google books

The year 2012 was the bicentenary of the birth of the anatomist and pathologist Filippo Pacini. Born in Pistoia (Tuscany) in 1812, he studied and worked there until 1840; then moved to Pisa and finally to Florence in 18471. While still a medical student in Pistoia, he described the corpuscles present along the digital nerves of the hand. These had been noted before2, but Pacini showed they had a functional role. At first his research was quite ignored3,4. Then, having just arrived in Pisa, he published a book dedicated entirely to history, anatomy, and physiology of the nuovi organi, with experimental procedures adopted during dissection (Fig. 1)5. At last, in 1843, the famous anatomist Henle wrote a letter firmly praising Pacini’s discovery6; and when in 1844 Henle and Kölliker published a book with further observations on the new organs, they named them Pacinischen Körperchen (Pacini’s corpuscles)7, thus paying tribute to Pacini’s discovery. In 1865 an accurate description of the corpuscles appeared in the English Cyclopaedia in the “nervous system” section, where their structure was considered highly singular8.

What Pacini described are large ovoid corpuscles consisting of concentric layers of lamellae of connective tissue encapsulating  nerve ending. He described their microscopic structure, their distribution in the body, and their function concerned with the sensation of touch and deep pressure. He also compared them to the electric organs of some electric fish (such as electric rays and eels), being formed almost like a voltaic pile or primitive electric battery, and accordingly being interpreted as magneto-motors or organs for that peculiar vital energy known as animal magnetism. In that regard it is not surprising that Pacini published some works dedicated to the structure of electric organs9.

Since ancient times man has believed that in all things resided a vital principle or soul (animism), an idea later limited to living beings. Opposed to Cartesian mechanism, the organic philosophy of nature was revived by William Gilbert, who studied the phenomenon of magnetism. In his primary scientific work10, Gilbert proposed “that the whole universe is animated, and that all the globes, all the stars, and also the noble earth have been governed since the beginning by their own appointed souls and have the motives of self-conservation”10.

Vitalism had been in  vogue since the eighteenth century, and one of its most popular expressions was animal magnetism, proposed by Franz Anton Mesmer (hence mesmerism) – according to which the vital force and the health were due to the harmonious flow of a fluid to be identified with the magnetic force. The idea that electro-magnetic phenomena could be generated by anatomical structures diminished the importance of classic vitalism, which invoked the presence of a metaphysic force in living beings. The Pacini’s interpretation offered an anatomical basis to animal magnetism, transforming it into materialistic vitalism. The placing of hands – rich in corpuscles – to cure diseases seemed to have a scientific basis. Since corpuscles were also found in the soles of the foot, some healers practiced the placing of feet. Although Pacini did not clearly pretend to lay down principles for animal magnetism, the interpretation of corpuscles as mesmeric organs rapidly spread and became widely debated;11-14 and their importance emphasized as transmitters of the electro-magnetic fluid during therapeutic sessions15.

Apart from the tactile function, Pacini’s discovery had other implications. The corpuscles provided the scientific basis for some paranormal phenomena such as seances, in which the energy of the participants wanting to call up a spirit is collected thanks to the contact between the hands that are richly provided with these organs. In this respect, in the The Life of the Lord Jesus Christ Pacini’s corpuscles were advocated to explain in a scientific manner the whole energy of the life of the God-man in Christian miracles16. When defending women in her famous book Woman, Church and State, Gage cited Pacini’s corpuscles as anatomical structures responsible for magic powers in witches persecuted in the past17. It was proposed that “many of the persons called witches doubtless possessed a super-abundance of the Pacinian corpuscles in hands and feet, enabling them to swim when cast into water bound, to rise in the air against the ordinary action of gravity, to heal by a touch, and in some instances to sink into a condition of catalepsy, perfectly unconscious of torture when applied”17.

Pacini’s corpuscles also provided the scientific basis for telekinetic phenomena18, clairvoyance and sleepwalking (Fig. 2)19. Thus the theosophist Bjerregaard summarized the role assigned to the Pacini’s corpuscles in the occult sciences20, emphasizing the magnetic points of the fingers, considering the hand “the executive organ of the dynamico-mysterious actions of the spirit of man”, as important as the brain since the entire spiritual-psychical energy for psychico-somatic operations flows out through it:


Fig 2. The magnetic fluid generated by Pacini’s corpuscles.
A) Human hands; B) Animal electro-magnetic fluid coming from human hands; C) Direction of electro-magnetic fluid; D) Nervous system of another body; E) Sensitive spirit; F) Rational spirit; G) The electro-magnetic fluid comes back without the intervention of the rational spirit.
Source: Dei Consoni, 1855, p. 103 (see note 19), google books.

Pacini found in all the sensible nerves of the fingers many small elliptical, whitish corpuscles. He compared them to the electrical organs of the torpedo and described them as animal magneto-motors, as organs of animal magnetism… In the human body, they are found in great numbers in connection with the nerves of the hand, also in those of the foot. Why should they not be in the feet? Let us remember the rhythmical structure of the human body, particularly the feet, and it becomes clear why they are there; the ecstatic dances of the enthusiasts and the not-sinking of somnambulists in water or their ability to use the soles of their feet as organs of perception and the ancient art of healing by the soles of the feet – all these facts explain the mystery. They are found sparingly on the spinal nerves, and on the plexuses of the sympathetic, but never on the nerves of motion. They are most numerous on the small twigs of nerves and generally placed parallel to them, though often at an acute angle. They are more or less oval, sometimes elongated and bent. They are nearly transparent, with a whitish line traversing their axis. The corpuscles of the human subject are from one-twentieth to one-tenth of an inch in length. They consist of a series of membranous capsules, from thirty to sixty or more in number, enclosed one within the other. Inside of these capsules there is a single nervous fibre of a tubular kind enclosed in the stalk, and advancing to the central capsule, which it traverses from, end to end. Sometimes the capsules are connected by transverse bands…This apparatus – almost formed like a voltaic pile, is the instrument for that peculiar vital energy, known more or less to all students as animal magnetism. Since the cat is somewhat famous in all witchcraft, let me state that in the mesentery of the cat they can be seen in large numbers with the naked eye as small oval shaped grains a little smaller than hempseeds. A few have been found in the ox (the symbol of the priestly office); but they are wanting in all birds, amphibia and fishes. From time immemorial the human hand has been regarded as the life-point of a mysterious magical power, but not until Pacini’s discovery did not know its seat. These corpuscles are its seat. Are they perhaps agglomerations of such monads as I have described and thus the media by means of whom the highest spiritual powers perform their work? We find the Elementals under all forms of existence, as mere natural forces, totally, to our perceptions, destitute of any self-conscious life; we find them also attaining a form very near the human. There is no valid reason against supposing them to be the stuff out of which we form thoughts, much less against considering them to be the life-giving elements in the Pacinian corpuscles.

The idea that living matter can generate some form of energy is not completely dormant. Recently, the Nobel Prize winner for medicine 2008 Luc Montagnier, known for his research on HIV virus, published an article in which he claims that some DNA sequences can induce low-frequency electromagnetic signals in highly diluted aqueous solutions21.


  1. For more information about Pacini’s life, see: Bentivoglio Marina, and Pacini, Paolo. “Filippo Pacini: a determined observer.” Brain Research Bulletin, 38 (1995): 161-165; Bianchi, Aurelio. Relazione e catalogo dei manoscritti di Filippo Pacini esistenti nella R. Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze. Roma, Presso i principali librai, 1889; Castaldi, Luigi. “Discorso per la Traslazione delle salme di Filippo Civinini, Filippo Pacini e Atto Tigri nella Chiesa di S. Maria delle Grazie presso lo Spedale del Ceppo in Pistoia.” Rivista di storia delle scienze mediche e naturali, anno 26, serie 4, fasc. 9-10, settembre-ottobre 1935: 289-308; Coturri, Enrico. “Contributo alla storia della divulgazione della scoperta dei “corpuscoli del Pacini”.” Atti e Memorie dell’Accademia di Storia dell’Arte Sanitaria. Appendice alla Rassegna di Clinica Terapia e Scienze Affini, Serie II, Anno XXIII, N. 1, gennaio-febbraio-marzo 1957; Maggini Arreghini, Manuela. Nel paese di Galileo. Vita di Filippo Pacini. Poggibonsi (SI), Lalli Editore, 1987; Niccolai, Gian Carlo. Filippo Pacini di Pistoja. Pioniere della ricerca medica dell’800, Collana personaggi pistoiesi del ‘700 e ‘800, n. 1. Pistoia, Edizioni Brigata del Leoncino, 1998.
  2. Cruveilhier, Jean. Anatomie descriptive. Tome quatrième. Paris, Béchet Jeune, 1836. 822; Haller, Albert. Disputationum anatomicarum selectarum. Volumen II. Gottinga, Apud Abram Vandenhoeck, Acad. Typogr., 1747. 953-972; Lehmann, Johann Gottlob. Dissertatio de consensu partium corporis humani occasione spasmi singularis in manu ejusque digitis ex hernia observati, Wittenberg, 1741; Smith, Robert William. A Treatise on the Pathology, Diagnosis and Treatment of Neuroma. Dublin, Hodges and Smith, 1848; Thompson, Alan J. and Martin, Edward A. “The pacinian corpuscle and John Shekleton.” Neurology 35 (1985): 1747.
  3.  Atti della Prima Riunione degli Scienziati Italiani tenuta in Pisa nell’ottobre del 1839. Seconda edizione. Pisa, Tipografia Nistri, 1840. 157, 202, 221-222.
  4. Pacini, Filippo. “Sopra un particolare genere di piccoli corpi globulari scoperti nel corpo umano.” Nuovo Giornale de’ Letterati. Parte scientifica, tomo XXXII, N. 86, Pisa, marzo e aprile 1836. 109-114.
  5. Pacini, Filippo. Nuovi organi scoperti nel corpo umano. Pistoia, Tipografia Cino, 1840.
  6. Atti della Quinta Unione degli Scienziati Italiani tenuta in Lucca nel settembre del MDCCCXLIII. Lucca, Dalla Tipografia Giusti, 1844. 388.
  7. Henle, Friedrich Gustav Jacob and von Kölliker, Albert Rudolf. Ueber die Pacinischen Körperchen an den Nerven des Menschen und der Säugethiere. Zürich, Verlag von Meyer & Zeller, 1844.
  8. Knight, Charles (conducted by). The English Cyclopaedia. A new Dictionary of Universal Knowledge. Natural History. Volume IV. London, Bradbury and Evans, 1856. 10.
  9. Pacini, Filippo. “Sopra l’organo elettrico del Siluro elettrico del Nilo, comparato a quello della Torpedine e del Gimnoto, e sull’Apparecchio di Weber del Siluro comparato a quello dei Ciprini.” Nuovi Annali delle Scienze Naturali, Serie II, tomo VI (1846): 41-61; Pacini, Filippo. Sulla struttura intima dell’organo elettrico del gimnoto e di altri pesci elettrici, sulle condizioni elettro-motrici di questi organi, e loro comparazione a diverse pile elettriche, Firenze, Tipografia di Mariano Cecchi, 1852.
  10. Gilbert, William. De magnete, magneticisque corporibus, et de magno magnete tellure; Physiologia noua, plurimis & argumentis, & experimentis demonstrata. Londini, excudebat Petrus Short, 1600. English translation: On the magnet. Edited by Derek J. Price. New York, Basic Books, 1958. Chapter XII, book fifth.
  11. “On the Pacinian Corpuscles on the Nerves of Men and Mammals.” The British and Foreign Medical Review or Quarterly Journal of Practical Medicine and Surgery. Edited by John Forbes. Vol. XIX, January-April 1845. No. XXXVII, January 1845. Part first – Analytical and Critical Reviews. Art. VIII. London, John Churchill Princes StreetSoho, 1945. 78-83.
  12. “Report on the progress of Anatomy and Physiology.” 25. Pacinian corpuscles. The Half-Yearly Abstract of the Medical Sciences. Vol. I, January-June 1845. New York, J. & H. G. Langley, 1945. 268.
  13. Ranking, W. H. “Report on the progress of Anatomy and Physiology.” Record of Medical Science. VI. Nervous system. 25. Pacinian corpuscles. The Medical Examiner, and Record of Medical Science. Vol. II, New series, No. XIV, February 1846. Philadelphia, Lindsay & Blakinston, 1846. 116-117.
  14. Zeeman, J. “Het Mesmerisme.” De Gids. Zestiende Jaargang, Nieuwe Serie, Vijfde Jaargang. Amsterdam, P. N. Van Kampen, 1852. 41-102.
  15. Guidi, Francesco. Trattato teorico-pratico di magnetismo animale. Milano, presso Carlo Turati Tipografo-Editore, 1854. 320.
  16. Lange, J. P. The Life of the Lord Jesus Christ: a complete critical examination of the origin, content, and connection of the gospels. Vol. II. Part III. Sect. 9. Point 4. Edinburgh, T. & T. Clark, 1864. 164.
  17. Gage, Matilda Electa Joslyn. Woman, Church and State. A historical account of the status of woman through the Christian ages: with reminiscences of the matriarchate. Second edition. Chapter V. Witchcraft. New York, The Truth Seeker Company, 1893.
  18. Guidi, Francesco. I misteri del moderno spiritismo e l’antidoto contro le superstizioni del secolo XIX, Milano, Libreria di A. Bettoni, 1867. 247.
  19. Dei Consoni, Taddeo. La esistenza e spiritualità dell’anima, Firenze, Coi tipi di Federico Bencini, 1855. 89-106.
  20. Bjerregaard, Carl Henrik Andreas. “The Elementals, the Elementary Spirits and the relationship between them and human beings.” Part II, The Path. Vol. 1, number 11, February 1887.
  21. Montagnier, Luc; Aïssa, Jamal; Ferris, Stéphane; Montagnier, Jean-Luc and Levallée, Claude. “Electromagnetic signals are produced by aqueous nanostructures derived from bacterial DNA sequences.” Interdisciplinary Sciences Computational Life Sciences 1 (2009): 81-90.


GIANFRANCO NATALE, MD is director of the Museum of Human Anatomy “Filippo Civinini” and associate professor of human anatomy at the University of Pisa. He teaches human anatomy at the School of Medicine of the University of Pisa and is interested in history of medicine. His scientific activity concerns the pathophysiology of the gastrointestinal tract with respect to experimental gastric ulcer disease and neurodegenerative disorders.

PAOLA LENZI, PhD cooperates in the management of the Museum of Human Anatomy “Filippo Civinini” and assistant professor of human anatomy at the University of Pisa. She teaches human anatomy at the School of Medicine of the University of Pisa. Her scientific activity concerns the molecular mechanisms involved in neurodegeneration.