Knight of the Legion of Honor
Joseph Carbonaro, Ragusan doctor
Gino CarbonaroTranslation in English
by Douglas Ponton
The Order of the Legion of Honour was instituted in 1802 by Napoleon Bonaparte to recognize the merits of "warriors having rendered service fighting for the Republic". As well as soldiers, however, it also recognized the merits of civilians, including foreigners, who were distinguished in cases of exceptional merit. The ten-pointed star of the Legion of Honor, considered one of the most coveted awards in the world, was awarded in 1851 to Dr. Joseph Carbonaro, a Sicilian doctor, for distinguishing himself in the study of cholera.
Cholera - not to be confused with the plague – made its first appearance in Europe, from India via Amsterdam, in 1826, and reached first northern Italy in '32, and Sicily in '37. Cholera victims suffered from acute pain, writhing, vomiting, convulsions and cramps accompanied by high fever and uncontrollable diarrhea. The causes and therapies of the deadly virus were unknown.The only effective defence against the evil was to abandon towns, to prevent contact and contamination. The nobles shut themselves in their country houses, but also priests, doctors and authorities responsible for managing public affairs abandoned their offices and fled. All this took place while the enraged populace looted barns and went looking for scapegoats. Posioners were widely blamed for the epidemic.
On this pandemic are founded the merits and fame of Joseph Carbonaro, a physician born in Ragusa Ibla, 4 May 1800. The son of a notary, he graduated in medicine at the University of Palermo, Naples, and studied surgery in the very years in which the "cholera epidemic" was spreading throughout northern Italy. While everyone fled, Dr. Carbonaro asked the King of Naples, Ferdinand II of Bourbon, for a safe conduct to go to Tuscany where the cholera was raging. The purpose of the young doctor was to study the Asian disease in the field. In Tuscany, Dr. Carbonaro took notes and recorded the symptoms of the disease and made a diagnosis. On his return to Naples he published the "Epitome on the Asiatic cholera disease observed in Livorno in 1835" (Naples, Bari, 1836).
When cholera arrived in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, King Ferdinand appointed him director of the Neapolitan hospitals, and entrusted him with the task of organizing the defence of the city of Naples. From this moment the name of Dr. Carbonaro became known througout Europe and he was invited everywhere to report on his first-hand experiences.
In 1848 the Iblan doctor was asked by the British government to travel to Malta - then an Anglo-Saxon dominion - to diagnose some cases of suspected cholera which had been detected on an arriving ship. The diagnosis was crucial, because if it were cholera, all ships would have to be detained in quarantine, with severe damage to the economy of the island. The diagnosis was therefore crucial.
In 1851, Dr. Joseph Carbonaro was invited to Paris to attend the "International Sanitary Conference." Here, sustained by his wide experience, he described his research on cholera to an audience of doctors. For these reasons, and on that occasion, Dr. Joseph Carbonaro became the first Italian to receive the coveted award of the Knightly Order of the Legion of Honour from the French government. It is recognition that should not be forgotten.
by Douglas Ponton