Monday, June 7, 2010

Of a painter and a doctor

Yesterday was the closing day of an exhibition of paintings by Edward Caruana Dingli (1876-1950), an idealist Maltese artist well known for memorable folkloristic watercolours, as well as iconic portraits of several dignitaries of the time.

Amongst these portraits, one depicting the scientist, doctor and archaeologist Themistocles Zammit (1864-1935) was spotted. In 1905, Zammit discovered that the bacterium Brucella melitensis (Hughes, 1893) was transmitted through goat milk, earning him knighthood and enabling food handlers of the time to drastically limit the infectious pathways of the organism. Brucella melitensis causes undulant fever and was first noticed and studied in Malta, hence its specific name.

Sir Themistocles Zammit - portrait by Edward Caruana Dingli (1926)

Zammit's discovery was extremely important, considering that at the time farmers sold their fresh goats' milk on a door-to-door basis, and pasteurization on an industrial scale was still a long way off. The goat milk vendor has nowadays disappeared from Malta, but he has been immortalized in a number of paintings, amongst which is 'The Milk Vendor', also by Caruana Dingli.

'The Milk Vendor' - Edward Caruana Dingli (undated)

Goat numbers have also declined with the demand for their produce. Goats are indiscriminate eaters and may damage natural ecosystems irreversibly, as can be seen in garigue areas like Magħlaq, where the large majority of plants present are Scilla and Asphodelus, which goats avoid. Unfortunately, some herds still remain grazing at places of high ecological sensitivity, such as Munxar (Gozo), where an extremely rare form of the snail Muticaria macrostoma (Cantraine, 1835) occurs.

Goats grazing in Munxar, Gozo


Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti, 2010. Edward Caruana Dingli: Portraits, Views and Folkloristic Scenes. Malta: Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti, 32 pp.

Wyatt, H. V., 2005. How Themistocles Zammit found Malta fever (brucellosis) to be transmitted by the milk of goats. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 98: 451-454.

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