One day in 1929, a tall, frail-looking prelate from the Vatican walked into a Rome oculist's rooms to be fitted with a new pair of spectacles.

From that moment there began a strange friendship between the churchman and the doctor that was to last for the next 29 years.

The prelate was Eugenio Pacelli, destined to become Pope Pius XII. The oculist, who was also a surgeon, was Riccardo Galeazzi-Lisi. He was with the Pope when he died, at Castelgandolfo, on October 9, 1958. Then he was banished from the Vatican for infamous conduct.

After he became Pope in 1939, Pius XII appointed Galeazzi-Lisi his personal physician. For the rest of the Pope's life, the doctor was one of his cherished confidants. He made Galeazzi-Lisi an honorary member of the renowned Pontifical Academy of Sciences. He became one of the Vatican's best-known figures, coming and going at will, taken into confidence by many members of the Papal retinue – and, inevitably, envied and resented by others.

In the wake of a number of recent publications claiming to prove that John Paul I was murdered (or was not murdered) or that Pope Pius XII did nothing to prevent the massacre of the Jews (or did all that he could) this article by well-known foreign correspondent Alan McElwain comes as a breath of fresh air and fine journalism. Annals readers will find the bizarre story of the Pope's doctor fascinating – and true.

This was the man who, owing so much to Pius XII in the Pope's lifetime, rewarded him, in death, by profaning him.

Taking advantage of his professional position, Galeazzi-Lisi stayed interminably at the dying Pope's bedside and, in violation of the rules both of the Vatican and of good taste, took a series of revoltingly candid photographs of the Pope in his death-throes. They were to complement a detailed hour-by-hour diary he kept, setting out, in grisly detail, the Pope's last hours on earth.

Galeazzi-Lisi proceeded to sell story and pictures to publications in Italy and abroad willing to pay top prices for his ghoulish "scoops". In Italy, his articles, liberally illustrated by pictures of the dying Pius XII (and of himself), were on news stands a few hours after the Pope's death. Galeazzi-Lisi had lost no time flogging his wares.

After a storm of protest in Italy and elsewhere, Galeazzi-Lisi had no option but to resign his post as head of the Vatican medical services. The College of Cardinals, conducting the Church's business pending the election of a new Pope, promptly and without comment, accepted the resignation. The speed with which they got rid of Galeazzi-Lisi reflected their distress and indignation over his behaviour.

They had even more against him. The Pope's body would normally have been embalmed in readiness for the traditional lying-in-state in St. Peter's but Galeazzi-Lisi contrived, in some inexplicable way, to keep it from the regular embalmers. He virtually took the body into his own keeping. With brash self-confidence, he and an associate had worked out an embalming system of their own. This, they claimed, although based on ancient formulas, was superior to modern methods and would ensure that Pope Pius' body would resist contamination for at least 100 years. And, of course, if the system, following its spectacular debut, turned out to be a lucrative proposition on the funeral-markets, they wouldn't be averse from that.

The Galeazzi-Lisi miracle system involved encasing the Pope's body in a cellophane bag into which were inserted aromatic herbs, or spices, or some such, used, said one report, by the early Christians, and, said another, by the ancient Egyptians, to preserve their dead. It was all mumbo-jumbo. The whole thing was a ghastly failure from the start; all that Galeazzi-Lisi and his accomplice succeeded in doing was profane the Papal corpse.

When Pope Pius's body, stretched out in its bizarre transparent sheath, was laid on a great raised catafalque in St. Peter's, the multitudes who filed by were horrified to see it literally decomposing before them. When I saw it, several times, it was taking on a progressively yellowish tinge. Each evening, after St. Peter's was closed, Galeazzi-Lisi would climb a ladder to the body and feverishly pour more of his ingredients into the sheath. It was all futile. The funeral of Pope Pius XII came just in time.

More retribution was to follow the Cardinals' expulsion of Galeazzi-Lisi. The Italian Medical Council struck him from its rolls for "infamous conduct". However, the High Court of the Italian Central Health Commission then reversed the council's order on the sheerest technicality; it held that the council had not properly set out its reasons for ousting the doctor. Questions were also asked about him in the Italian Parliament.

Galeazzi-Lisi blustered and protested his innocence for weeks after the storm broke. He argued cold-bloodedly that professional secrecy "died with the patient". Audaciously, he requested a press conference at the Foreign Press Association. He arrived with his "embalming" colleague and, having argued that there was nothing objectionable about the photographs he had taken, paradoxically produced a nauseating set of them to prove it!

Nothing more was heard of him for a couple of years. Then, in the only interview he had given since the scandal, he spoke in his own defence. He had been traveling about a bit before I heard he was installed in a flat not far from his old Vatican stamping ground. I couldn't imagine him agreeing to revive the objectionable business, but I phoned him up on the off-chance. He invited me to see him.

He had an elegant apartment in a new block. He was a shy, mild-mannered, bespectacled little man. He said: "I have been the victim of Vatican intrigue and envy in professional quarters. I have suffered for far too long as a scapegoat for others." He said he intended to take the odd step of appealing to the Court of Cassation, Italy's highest legal tribunal, against the decision in his own favour of the High Court of the Italian Central Health Commission. This meant the council could not bar him from practicing in Italy until it had reopened the case and given him the opportunity of appearing before it again to speak in his own defence.

"I have built up a huge file and now have all the evidence I need to clear myself", he said. "But, believe me, this time I will not keep silent. My past silence stemmed from a warning Pope Pius gave me never to get involved in press controversies. This has been interpreted as admission of guilt on my part and my enemies have got away with things for which I have been carrying the blame."

Unrepentant to the end, he asked me to make a special point of his denial that he ever took any of the much-condemned photographs of Pope Pius's last hours. Other people had plenty of opportunity for taking the prohibited pictures, he insisted, because the Pope died not in the Vatican but at his summer residence in Castelgandolfo, 15 miles from Rome. I couldn't follow this reasoning but let it go. He did admit, superfluously, that he wrote the article about Pope Pius, but, he said, it appeared ten days after other doctors called in for consultation had given press interviews, and there was not much difference between what he wrote and what had already been said.

And, he added, a year before his death. Pope Pius had authorized him to keep a diary about himself and also to take exclusive pictures. Many of these appeared in Galeazzi-Lisi's book, "In the Shadow and Light of Pius XII", published by the top French publishing house, Flammarion.

When I saw him, he said he had closed an extensive Rome practice, but was performing operations in special cases and practising as a consultant. He had patients in various parts of Europe, he claimed, and in Canada, which he had visited not long before, and he was about to go to London to attend some cancer sufferers.

But he stayed mostly in retirement, spending six months of each year in San Remo, 0n the Italian Riviera. The public heard nothing of him until, in 1968, his family announced his death – after he had been quietly buried with only a few members of the family and close friends present. He was 77.

He left a queer reminder of himself in his palmier days which always intrigued me when I happened to glance up at a building on the corner of Via del Tritone and Via Sistina, in the heart of Rome. Galeazzi-Lisi had had rooms on the first floor of the building. Ethical restrictions on professional advertising being sparse in Italy, he had had his name emblazoned in metal letters about two feet high on two sides of the premises. These had been taken down when he vacated the rooms, but they had been there for so long that a faint impression of the name, Galeazzi-Lisi, could still be seen.

From "Annals Australia" July 1989