Author: Ibon Cancio, UPV/EHU Associated Professor in Cell Biology; researcher in the ‘Cell Biology & Environmental Toxicology’ (CBET) research group of the Plentzia Marine Station (PiE-UPV/EHU); Spanish scientific representative in the EMBRC Committee of Nodes

Salvatore Lo Bianco was born on a boat traveling between Sicily and Naples in a family of Sicilian origin and was registered in the city of Naples on the 10th of June 1860. Salvatore, who grew up in the fishermen's area of the Chiaia quartier, was the son of the doorman at Palazzo Torlonia where Anton Dohrn, director of Stazione Zoologica, lived in Naples. His father, willing to find an occupation with future prospects for his son, approached Dohrn to offer the boy’s services to the station. It was like that, at the age of 14, barely able to read and illiterate, that he joined the Mecca of Marine Biology opened just two years earlier, in 1872. As an expert and skillful technician, provider of marine organisms from the Gulf of Naples, creator of methods to preserve marine animals and responsible of the training of marine scientists and technicians, he became a legend for visiting scientists and for museums and universities worldwide.

Picture of Salvatore Lo Bianco
Picture of Salvatore Lo Bianco (public domain) 

In 1874, the young boy was left under the guidance of August Müller, a German chemist who was in charge of the department of marine animal conservation at Stazione. Lo Bianco learned fast, and learned well, becoming custodian of the station and responsible for its specimen conservation department when Müller died in 1881. He took special care in cultivating his relationship with local fishermen and decided the distribution of their bounty of small marine creatures for the laboratories. His fame was built on his ability to collect, process and conserve even the most fragile marine specimens for scientists visiting the station or for shipment to museums and universities in Europe and the USA. The station published a catalogue of marine organisms preserved in gall jars with a price list that attracted clients from all over the world, and that was an important source of funds for the station. In his 1887 PhD thesis, the Norwegian Peace Nobel Prize winner and marine biologist Fridtjof Nansen said: ‘Quite recently I received a package from that station containing numerous specimens of Amphioxus most excellently preserved in different ways, by Salvatore Lo'Bianco. For this, and many other services, it is a pleasant duty to return Prof. Dohrn my most sincere and grateful thanks’. The famous artists Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka, producing glass reproductions of marine invertebrates in the museum of Dresden, used Lo Bianco’s preserved specimens many times to produce the sculptures that they sold to museums and private collections worldwide.

Image of marine biological samples in preservation
The art in preserving marine invertebrates of Lo Bianco, combined with the art of illustrating, Stazione Zoologica, Merculiano and Scherino (Photo by Ibon Cancio).

In 1890, Lo Bianco published a monograph on the methods he had developed to collect and prepare biological specimens that was translated into various languages. Information included tips on reagents for anaesthesia, fixation and conservation of animals and specific methods for preservation of protozoa, radiolaria, porifera, anthozoa, zoantharia, actiniaria, madreporaria, hydromedusae, medusa, acalephae, siphonophora, ctenophora, echinoderma, enteropneusta, vermes, custacea, pentopoda, mollusca, bryozoa, brachiopoda, tunicates, etc. You name it, you have it! Most of marine biologists worldwide applied Lo Bianco’s methods. For instance, the monograph of the Hertwig (Oscar and Richard) brothers of the neuromuscular system of actiniaria would not have been possible without these methods. The study of these invertebrates in a relaxed state requires avoiding immediate contraction upon extraction from seawater. Various narcotizing approaches existed, some of them using chloroform, ether or cocaine (also published in Lo Bianco’s monography as it follows: ‘A solution of cocaine is produced by dissolving 2 gm of powder in 100 cubic centimetres of 50 percent alcohol. This is a most excellent narcotizing medium, but its high cost prevents its extensive use’). The most effective one though, resulted from applying tobacco in a specially devised chamber. The Hertwig brothers learned it with Lo Bianco himself in Naples.

Monographs book image
The methods monograph published by Lo Bianco in 1890 in Italian and two of its translations into English and Spanish

From 1882 Lo Bianco was also tasked to provide special zoology courses to educate officers and doctors of the Italian, German, Russian and Spanish navies on marine fauna and in the methods for their conservation when captured during oceanic voyages. Those zoology courses were extended for visiting students and scientists, among them the director to be of the marine station of Santander (Spain), José Rioja Marín.

Lo Bianco would also become engaged in his own research as a careful observer of nature and marine biological processes, and between 1888 and 1909 he published around 30 studies on the fauna of the Gulf of Naples. Years of contact with the world leading biologists visiting Stazione and his knowledge of the Gulf of Naples were the best university for him. All this of course, seasoned with a pinch of natural intelligence. For instance, in 1888 he published data on the period of sexual maturity of the animals in the Gulf of Naples, publication that was updated and extended in 1899, and further in 1909. He also described several new species of decapod crustaceans: Richardina frederici,Anchistia kornii, Plesionika caprensis, resulting from sampling both the pelagic and the benthic deep-sea fauna of the Gulf with the yachts “Maja” and “Puritan”.

Plankton Research journal
Image Tweeted by the Journal of Plankton Research in 2019 recognising Salvatore Lo Bianco on the illustration of one of his papers Le pesche abissali eseguite da F. A. Krupp col yacht Puritan nelle adiacenze di Capri ed in altre località del Mediterraneo. Mittheilungen aus der Zoologischen Station zu Neapel. 16: 109-279”. (https://twitter.com/JPlanktonRes/status/1111045032906235904)

Lo Bianco personifies the importance of a technician’s work in marine stations where service provision for in-house and visiting researchers is a sign of identity. He was in essence a technician but he became a member of various academies and scientific societies, such as the Society of Naturalists of Naples, the Spanish Society of Sciences and the Imperial Society of Vienna to name just a few, receiving many honours in Italy, Germany, Russia and Spain. His achievements were recognised with an honorary doctoral degree from the University of Naples in 1911, one year after his death. This was not his only posthumous achievement. The material of fish larval stages that Lo Bianco had collected during his years of service, together with the illustrations thereof prepared in collaboration with Stazione’s artist Comingio Merculiano, became the basis for the impressive monograph ‘Eggs, larvae and juvenile stages of teleosts’. This monograph with the original title ‘Uova, larve e stadi giovanili di teleostei: monografia elaborata con l'uso del materiale raccolto e seriato da Salvatore Lo Bianco’ was edited in three volumes from 1931 to 1956 (21 and 46 years after Lo Bianco’s death) by a group of Italian researchers.

Tribute to Salvatore Lo Bianco at SZN
Lo Bianco and his magic fingers in preserving marine animals still maintain a prominent position at Stazione Zoologica. This small tribute space is reserved for him in the main room of the station, the Fresco Room (Photo by Ibon Cancio).
Sabrina Gaber
Communication Officer

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