Pope Pius XII’s Perfidious Physician

More than 60 years after his death, debate still surrounds the action or inaction of Pope Pius XII during the Holocaust. Echoes of controversy that arose upon his death have receded, though. That’s the uproar caused by the actions of the pope’s personal physician.

Born Eugenio Pacelli in Rome in 1876, Pius XII held several Vatican diplomatic positions before becoming pope in March 1939. While serving as the Holy See’s Secretary of State in the 1930s, Pacelli suffered eye-related problems. Dr. Riccardo Galeazzi-Lisi, a Rome ophthalmologist, solved them. Even though the doctor had limited training as an internist, the newly elected pope asked him to treat injuries from a slip and fall. Pius XII then named him Archiatra Pontificio, a pontiff’s personal physician. with limited training as an internist

Galeazzi-Lisi methods raised eyebrows. For example, in the summer of 1952, the pope was stricken with gastritis. Galeazzi-Lisi’s diagnosed “chromic acid poisoning” caused by the pope’s toothpaste, according to John-Peter Pham, an American priest who served in the Vatican diplomatic service. He didn’t mention that he recommended the dentist who prescribed chromic acid, a chemical used in tanning hides. When gastritis recurred the next year, Galeazzi-Lisi called in a Swiss doctor to treat the pope with injections of cell extracts from lamb fetuses, according to Pham. Pius XII received more such treatments in 1954 when gravely ill with gastritis and a hernia of the diaphragm.

Galeazzi-Lisi’s unconventional behavior wasn’t limited to medical matters. In the early 1950s, he sold photos of the pope doing push-ups. Ultimately, the publications decided not to publish the pictures. During the pope’s 1954 illness, which brought him near death, the doctor offered to sell accounts of the pope’s life and illness for $12,000. There were no takers.

Dr. Riccardo Galeazzi-Lisi

Galeazzi-Lisi’s real opportunity came in October 1958, when Pius XII was dying at Castel Gandolfo, the papal summer residence just south of Rome. He agreed to inform an Italian news agency of the pope’s death before any official announcement, according to Pham. Galeazzi-Lisi would open a particular window at Castel Gandolfo to signal that the pope was dead. Someone else, though, cracked the window open to let in some air. As a result, three Italian newspapers ran special editions reporting Pius XII’s death a day before he died.

During the pope’s last days, Galeazzi-Lisi made detailed clinical notes and took pictures of Pius XII in his death throes. Within a week of the pope’s death, Galeazzi-Lisi solicited bids for that material. According to TIME magazine, he wanted $13,320 for a story on his life with the pope, including the clinical details of the pope’s last days; $8,000 for an hour-by-hour account of the pope’s demise; and, $3,200 for the photographs. Two Italian daily newspapers jointly bought the second item for $3,200. Only one printed it, after deleting “certain passages which appeared to us too crude,” TIME reported.

To make matters worse, Galeazzi-Lisi said the pope wanted him to embalm the body. He didn’t follow standard procedures. Instead, Galeazzi-Lisi used a method he claimed was much like that used on Jesus Christ and would allow the body to last indefinitely without decaying. He called the process “aromatic osmosis,” the New York Times reported. Pius XII’s body was enclosed in a cellophane bag after being sprinkled with oils, resins, and deoxidizing chemicals.

The result was a disaster. Placing the wrapped body in a closed casket prevented bodily chemicals and gases from escaping, hastening decomposition, particularly in the autumnal heat. The consequences were soon apparent. During the procession taking the body to Rome, there was a loud “pop” or “bang.” Some said the buildup of gases caused the seals of the casket to rupture. More commonly reported is that the pope’s chest cavity burst open.

By the time Pius XII arrived at St. Peter’s Basilica, his body had turned green and the smell of decay was evident. Embalming experts worked on the body during the night but were unable to slow the decay. Artists applied grease paint and other compounds to make the body presentable. The body was placed on a six-foot-high catafalque so mourners couldn’t see the facial discolorations up close.

Galeazzi-Lisi applied more of the substances he used but without the cellophane. As a result, the New York Times reported, the eyes of those standing vigil “smarted and watered.” Other reports said the four Swiss guards standing watch over the pope’s bier were changed every 15 minutes because of the stench. At some point, the pope’s nose turned black and fell off.

On October 18, 1958, five days after the pope’s funeral, the Vatican publicly reprimanded Galeazzi-Lisi for disclosing information about the pontiff’s final days. The embalming wasn’t mentioned. The New York Times report, though, noted that “many hundreds of thousands” saw its results when viewing the body as it laid in state.

Two days later, following a meeting of the College of Cardinals, Galeazzi-Lisi resigned as head of the Vatican’s medical department. The College, which would soon sit to elect a new pope, ordered Vatican City police authorities to bar Galeazzi-Lisi from entering the 108-acre pontifical state. The Italian Medical Council expelled him for ethical violations, but a court later ordered his reinstatement on procedural grounds. In December 1958, the Rome Medical Association barred him from practice for violating professional ethics in selling information about the pope.

Galeazzi-Lisi, who died in 1968, insisted he’d done nothing wrong. He said he breached no medical confidences because the “medical profession secret ends with the death of the patient.” Instead, any criticism resulted from the “envy” of other physicians. In 1960, he set out his version of events in a book, Dans l’Ombre et la Lumière de Pie XII (“In the Shadow and the Light of Pius XII”). The book used photos of Pius XII on his deathbed and during the embalming.

Ultimately, what may be the most puzzling question was raised by a Milan newspaper. “How could Pius XII entrust his health for so many years to a quack?”

Have you seen a photo of Pius XII? In a James Bond movie, he’d have been the head of SPECTRE.

Umberto Eco, Numero Zero

(Originally posted at History of Yesterday)

Comments are closed.