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Am J Psychiatry 161:4, April 2004

Images in Psychiatry

Cesare Lombroso, M.D., 1835–1909


esare Lombroso was born in Verona in 1835. He graduated

in 1858 from the University of Pavia after writing a thesis on en-

demic cretinism in Lombardy. The early part of Cesare Lom-

broso’s career was spent in southern Italy working as a medical of-

ficer attached to infantry who were fighting brigandage, in whose

behavioral characteristics he developed a deep interest. In 1863,

he returned to the University of Pavia, where he became the first

professor of mental disease studies.

In 1865, under Lombroso’s guidance, Camillo Golgi, 1906 Nobel

Prize recipient for Medicine or Physiology (1), graduated in med-

icine, sparking his vocation to study the brain. While Golgi soon

left Lombroso’s school in search of an anatomical approach to the

study of the CNS, he always maintained his interest in the clinical

observations of the early part of his career.

In 1872, Lombroso caused a sensation with the publication of

the book Genio e Follia (2), containing his theory that genius was

closely linked to madness and were two faces of the same psycho-

biological reality. He stated that a man of genius was essentially a

degenerate whose “madness” was a form of evolutionary compen-

sation for excessive intellectual development. World famous for

this book, he was invited in 1897 to preside over the mental illness

session at the 12th International Medical Congress in Moscow.

While in Moscow, he arranged to meet a genius of world literature,

Leo Tolstoy, and asked to scrutinize his degenerative aspects. This

visit was a failure because the two men were too disparate to find

a point of mutual understanding. However, it represents one of the

first rounds of continuing debate in the modern era on creativity

and affective illness. It also produced a lasting literary mark; Tol-

stoy used his novel Resurrection to sneer at Lombroso’s theory (3).

Lombroso moved to Turin University. In 1876, he produced his

best-known work, L’uomo delinquente (4), and thus, he can be re-

garded as the founder of modern criminology. In this work, Lom-

broso employed Darwinian ideas of evolution to account for crim-

inal behavior. By studying the autopsies of criminals, he believed

that certain physical stigmata were apparent (e.g., a deviation in

head size and shape from the types common to ethnic groups, eye

defects and peculiarities, pouches in the cheeks like those of some

animals, the abundance, variety, and precocity of wrinkles), and

this was evidence of the biological predisposition to commit

crimes. He also wrote about the phenomenon of tattooing among

criminals, seeking to demonstrate a link to what today we could

call borderline personality disorder.

With good reason, Lombroso’s theories have been scientifically

discredited, but he and his criminal anthropological theories had

the merit of bringing up the importance of scientific studies of the

criminal mind, focusing on the criminal rather than the crime. Fur-

thermore, he consistently emphasized the need for direct study of

the individual, using objective measurements (in 1895, while tutor-

ing his pupil Angelo Mosso, he was the first to use a device that re-

corded bodily changes resulting from the telling of lies) and statis-

tical methods, reflecting the basic idea of cause as a chain of

interrelated events (5). He made the fundamental research error of

confusing correlation with cause, albeit in the contextual rational-

ity and cognitive presupposition of the 19th century (6).

He spent the last years of his life devoted to the disease affect-

ing many farm workers, pellagra (in the Italian vernacular, “skin

that is rough”), speculating that spoiled maize caused pellagra’s

mental symptoms (7) and correctly emphasizing that diet was the

crucial factor. He was unaware of Joseph Goldberger’s intuition

that it was a systemic disease resulting from niacin deficiency.

Cesare Lombroso died on Oct. 19, 1909, in Turin.


1. Mazzarello P: The Hidden Structure: A Scientific Biography of

Camillo Golgi. Oxford, UK, Oxford University Press, 1999

2. Lombroso C: Genio e Follia. Torino, Italy, Bocca, 1894

3. Mazzarello P: Lombroso and Tolstoy. Nature 2001; 409:983

4. Lombroso C: L’uomo Delinquente. Torino, Italy, Bocca, 1896

5. Giacanelli F: Cesare Lombroso, in Anthology of Italian Psychiat-

ric Texts. Edited by Maj M, Ferro FM. New York, World Psychiat-

ric Association, 2002, pp 125–127

6. Renneville M: Contextual rationality and cognitive presupposi-

tion: an epistemological reflection about Lombroso’s case.



Synth 1997; 4:495–529

7. Lombroso C: Trattato Profilattico e Clinico della Pellagra.

Torino, Italy, Bocca, 1892



Address reprint requests to Dr. Carrà, Department of Applied Health and Behavioural Sciences, Section of Psychiatry, University of Pavia, Via Bassi

21, 27100 Pavia, Italy; (e-mail). The authors thank Professors Alberto Calligaro and Mario Maj for their comments on a

draft of the article. Image courtesy of Alberto Calligaro, Museum for the History of the University of Pavia.

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