The Alps as a laboratory II: ANGELO MOSSO

Categories : Mountain stories
Share
Baniere-Les-alpes-as-laboratory-II-Angelo-Mosso

Angelo Mosso (1846-1910) was an Italian physician, physiologist and mountaineer. He was interested in the Alps and their impact, not physical, but physiological, on the human body. The Alps were seen as the ideal place to answer some of the burning questions about the human body at the end of the century, such as how the nerves react to changes in the environment, or how energy is expended and how tired people become during experiments. We are therefore far from the Alps as the playground of Europe , as Leslie Stephen put it. Mosso noted that the effects of fatigue are stronger in the mountains, but also last longer.

Portrait of Angelo Mosso
Portrait of Angelo Mosso

It was in the late 1860s that Mosso made his first observations on alpine physiology, in notebooks taken on excursions to the Alps, an environment where the only constant in his view was variety. But it was not until the 1870s that Mosso began to transfer his laboratory research to the field. Mosso took his instruments into the field, particularly to Monte Rosa, and reproduced in the high mountains the experiments he had previously conducted in the laboratory. It is therefore a "laboratory escape".

Mountain sickness: body temperature in the mountains

The exact causes of mountain sickness, a term dating back to the 1840s, have occupied researchers for years. Louis Lortet, director of the Lyon Museum of Natural History, believed that the human body could not fight against a hostile environment such as the high mountains and maintain its normal temperature. Observing that his body temperature had dropped several degrees during his ascent of Mont Blanc, he deduced in 1869 that mountain sickness was due to this body cooling. The Swiss physiologist François-Alphonse Forel refuted Lortet following his own experiments by affirming that, on the contrary, the body temperature increased, invalidating Lorteret's thesis. Mosso confirmed this result at summit of Monviso in 1878, where he measured and recorded his breathing, pulse and body temperature curves.

Mountain sickness: breathing

Paul Bert, in his book La Pression barométrique (1878), asserted that the origin of mountain sickness is to be found in the blood. Mosso, who was so impressed by the book that he took it with him to the Alps, contradicted the Frenchman's assertion that the effects of altitude sickness were due to nerve problems, relying in particular on his research into respiration.

Mosso believed that the body takes in more oxygen on the plains than it actually needs, a result he confirmed in 1882 by conducting experiments (including sleep experiments) and measuring breathing at the Theodulpass, a place where there is only 2/3 of the air on the plains. Mosso's measurements show that breathing not only does not increase, but also decreases slightly, without affecting the body. This result gave him the idea of going even higher in order to find the limits of this luxurious breathing. But it also led him to the conclusion that the seat of the problem of altitude sickness is to be found in the nervous system and not in the blood, contrary to Bert's assertion. Mosso also noticed that during mountain sickness, and especially if it was severe, the pauses between two breaths became longer, a phenomenon also noticed in sleepers.

Mosso carried out extensive physiological research when he spent a month at summit on Monte Rosa, in the Margherita hut, in 1894, a project he had had in mind since the 1870s. One of the aims was to study mountain sickness. Mosso's first lines are barely legible when he arrives at the hut: he speaks of headaches, nausea, vomiting.

Fatigue curves of Mosso and his companions, taken during their stay at Monte Rosa in 1894.
Fatigue curves of Mosso and his companions, taken during their stay at Monte Rosa in 1894.

Over the next few days he tried to accumulate evidence that the mountain sickness was not due to anaemia and a lack of oxygen in the blood. But Mosso later admitted that he was wrong and that the mountain sickness was caused by a lack of oxygen, thus proving Bert right.

First winter ascent of Monte Rosa and colour research

Mosso made the first winter ascent of Monte Rosa in February 1885, which he recounts in Una Ascensione d'inverno al Monte Rosa . Mosso announced in the last pages of his book that he would soon publish another, on the effects of fatigue in the mountains. This book, La fatica, which gave him great success, was not published until 1891. Following this ascent, he copied (in French) in his notebook a verse by Lamartine: "Et moi, me voici seul sur ces confins du monde! At summit, Mosso notes the altitude, time and temperature. He spent 15 minutes at summit. Mosso explains that he was very tired, which explains his shaky handwriting.

Double-page spread of a notebook by Mosso, the one he had at Monte Rosa during his winter ascent in 1895. The verse quoted from Lamartin is at the top left.
Double-page spread of a notebook by Mosso, the one he had at Monte Rosa during his winter ascent in 1895. The verse quoted from Lamartin is at the top left.

Mosso justifies the winter ascent of Monte Rosa by the need to experience great fatigue, especially of the eyes. Mosso believed that he could distinguish between direct fatigue caused by the sun's glare and indirect fatigue caused by muscular work - since Goethe and his Farbenlehre there has been interest in the limits of vision resulting from a blazing sun. Mosso believed that alpine fatigue of the eyes and muscles interfered with colour perception. The breakage of his mercury manometer, with which he thought he was measuring the fatigue of the respiratory muscles, prevented him from verifying his hypothesis. Nevertheless, Mosso paid particular attention to colours during this excursion. He wants to show that even in a world of black rocks and white snow and ice, the changing light produces unexpected lighting effects.

Until the 1920s, Turin physiologists and oculists took colour charts to the mountains to investigate changes in colour perception caused by fatigue. However, almost all of them came to the opposite conclusion to Mosso: colour perception was impaired by eye strain.

German physiologist Adolf Loewy, who worked with Mosso, in an experiment on walking.
German physiologist Adolf Loewy, who worked with Mosso, in an experiment on walking.

Newsletter
Be notified of new articles
Fine Alpine Photography
Scroll

Connection

Register