Tullio Terni (1888–1946): The “column” of spinal cardiovascular regulation


Correspondence to: Raffaele De Caro, Department of Human Anatomy and Physiology, Section of Anatomy, Via A Gabelli 65, 35127 Padova, Italy. E-mail: rdecaro@unipd.it


Tullio Terni (1888–1946) was a brilliant anatomist in the School of Medicine of Padova, Italy. He was a versatile scientist who gave fundamental and pioneering contributions in descriptive and experimental cytology, human and comparative morphogenesis, neuroanatomy, embryology and teratology, and regenerative biology. His most famous discovery, which bears his name, is the so-called “Terni's column.” In embryos of chickens, he described the existence in the thoracolumbar region of the spinal cord of a preganglionic nervous center, constituting a longitudinal column of nervous cells between the first thoracic and the second lumbar segments. Tullio Terni embodied the ideal of free science without geographic boundaries. He used cutting-edge tools, demonstrating his very current approach. Terni studied the organization of tissues and organs and the spatial arrangement and the physical state of the tissues of living systems. He also practiced experimental embryology, which formed the basis of modern techniques in organ transplantation. Moreover, he studied multiple species in order to compare multiple organisms. Terni was a multifaceted scientist. Clin. Anat. 26:544–546, 2013. © 2012 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

Tullio Terni was a brilliant anatomist of the School of Medicine of Padova, Italy (Fig. 1). He was born in Livorno on 21 January 1888. He graduated in medicine at the University of Florence, where, as student, he joined the research group of Giuseppe Levi at the Institute of Anatomy, directed by Giulio Chiarugi (Vigliani,1999), the most important Italian anatomist of that era. As an assistant, he followed Prof. Levi at the University of Sassari (1911), Palermo (1915), and Turin (1919; Vigliani,1999). In 1924, he won the position of professor following a national competition, and moved to the University of Padova where the first Chair of Histology and Embryology was established. In 1933, he became Professor of Anatomy and Director of the Institute of Anatomy. In only 3 years (1924–1927), he created a biomedical research center in Padova, which became internationally known and even received substantial funding from the Rockefeller Foundation (Terni,1933). He became a member of the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei in 1932 and joined many other important Italian and foreign Scientific Academies (Venetian Institute of Sciences, Arts and Letters; Galilean Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters; Italian Society of Neurology; Bologna Academy of Medicine; Italian Zoological Union of Naples; Deutsche Anatomische Gesellschaft; Kaiser Deutsche Akademie der Naturforscher) (Vigliani,1999). In 1938, because of his religious beliefs, he was dismissed from the University and from the academies of science following the introduction of the “racial laws” in Italy (Capristo,2002). Thanks to the support of Prof. Carlo Anti, magnificus rector of the University of Padova, Terni was able to work up to 1940 as a guest in his institute to conclude his ongoing research. In 1941, Terni moved with his wife, Mary Sforni, and children, to Florence and then lived hidden in the Tuscan countryside at Tutignano (Florence). During the academic year 1944–45, Terni was reinstated to work at the University of Padova. Levi Montalcini (1987) wrote that she saw him at the end of the war in a state of deep depression. In this state of mind, he received a letter from the new Rector of Padova, Egidio Meneghetti, who distrusted him (Anti,2011). On 4 January 1946, he was removed from the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, together with 35 other members, for having formally supported Fascism in 1922. Giuseppe Levi was on the commission that made this decision (Ventura,2005). Terni committed suicide in 1946 using cyanide that he had obtained during the war when he was afraid of ending up in Nazi hands (Ventura,2005).

Figure 1.

Portrait of Tullio Terni in toga (Furlan C) in the library of the Institute of Anatomy. In the background is a drawing of “Terni's Column” based on his work of 1923 showing a cross section of the spinal cord of a chick embryo at 5 days of incubation at the level of sixth thoracic nerve. [Color figure can be viewed in the online issue, which is available at wileyonlinelibrary.com.]

Tullio Terni was a versatile scientist whose research ranged from descriptive and experimental cytology, histology and human and comparative morphogenesis, to neuroanatomy, general and experimental embryology and teratology, and regenerative biology. He used the method of observation as can be appreciated reading the beginning of his publication of 1923, “A few years ago, experimenting a series of young chick embryos, treated with the method of Cajal, I realized that …” (Terni,1923). He experimented using cell and organ cultures including transplantation techniques, studying both humans and animal models. One of the fields of research to which he devoted many years was the plasticity of the nervous system. Terni demonstrated in the reptile the relationship between the size of the caudal segments and the volume of the ganglia cells destined for their innervation (Terni,1920). In humans, he studied the cells of the sympathetic ganglia from fetal and elderly specimens and found the existence of different populations of cells in the ganglia with structural modifications related to age (Terni,1922). His most famous discovery, was the so-called “Terni's column.” Examining the chick embryos and then extending his observations to reptiles, birds, and mammals, he described the existence in the thoracolumbar region of the spinal cord of a preganglionic nervous center, located in a retro paracentral site in birds and in an intermediolateral site in mammals. This center constitutes a longitudinal column of nervous cells between the first thoracic and second lumbar segments and demonstrated for the first time that their fibers arise in the ventral roots to form the preganglionic communicating branches for the autonomic ganglia (Terni,1923). Searching the literature, Terni's column is cited in 22 articles since 1975 (Yip et al.,2011). In the 40th edition of Gray's Anatomy (Standring,2008), as well as in the four previous editions, the reference to Terni on the autonomic nervous system is always quoted. From the clinical point of view, the neurons of Terni's column, and in general the autonomic innervation, play a crucial role in multiple diseases, such as congenital cardiac malformations (Hildreth et al.,2009). In the cardiac system, the sympathetic innervation is constituted by preganglionic neurons located in the first five to six segments of the thoracic spinal cord from the lateral gray column (Kuntz,1953), which synapse with neurons between the superior cervical and inferior cervical ganglia and in the third and fourth thoracic ganglia of the sympathetic trunk (Mitchell,1953; Kawashima,2005).

Tullio Terni embodied the ideal of science without geographic boundaries. He was an international scientist who actively participated in European and American meetings (Vigliani,1999) and published approximately 120 works in the Italian and German languages. Many international scientists worked in his lab and he sent his coworkers to study the developmental stages at the Carnegie Institution of Washington in Baltimore and Marine Biology Laboratory at Wood's Hole, Massachusetts. Terni himself went to Dahlmen in the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in 1931 and to the Rockefeller Institute of New York in 1937 (Levi,1947). In 1931, Terni received a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, which supported the experimental research of his team (Terni,1933). He was able to purchase equipment and cutting-edge tools (inverted microscopy, microfluorescence, epicondensators, and micromanipulators) and to open labs for tissue culture and experimental biology. The need to gain advanced equipment demonstrates the very current approach of Terni.

Terni planned to open the first Italian school of Anatomical Drawing in Padova. Thanks to the anatomical designers who illustrated drawings of Terni's discoveries. With the removal of Terni, the project did not go forward (Vigliani,1999).

The research activity of Terni and his subsequent discoveries deserve to be highly remembered as they were carried out in a relatively short period of time and were made in a dramatic, social, and political context. For example, in 1938, Italy adopted its “racial laws.” Scholars of Jewish descent were banned from teaching in Italian schools and universities and foreigners of Jewish descent were expelled from the country. In her very large article on the 462 scholars of anatomy whose careers were disrupted by national socialist policies, Hildebrandt (2012) reported that the racial laws affected well-known scholars like the anatomists Levi of Torino and Terni of Padova, both members of the Anatomische Gesellschaft (Anatomical Society).

Terni studied the organization of tissues and organs, the spatial arrangement and the physical state of the tissues of living systems. He investigated the field of experimental embryology across species, which contributed to the techniques of organ transplantation. He was a talented researcher and teacher and successful innovator in the field of anatomy.


The authors are grateful to Prof. Peter Abrahams for his review and Dr. Gloria Sarasin, Anna Rambaldo and Miss Alberta Coi for skillful technical assistance.