1902 Encyclopedia > Luigi Galvani

Luigi Galvani
Italian physiologist
(1737-98)




LUIGI GALVANI (1737-1798), an eminent Italian physiologist, after whom galvanism received its name, was born at Bologna, September 9, 1737. It was his wish in early life to enter the church, but by his parents he was educated for a medical career. At the university of Bologna, in which city he practised, he was in 1762 appointed public lecturer in anatomy, and soon gained repute as a skilled though not eloquent teacher, and, chiefly from his researches on the organs of hearing and genito-urinary tract of birds, as a comparative anatomist. His celebrated theory of animal electricity he enunciated in a treatise, " De viribus electricitatis in motu musculari commentarius," published in the 8th volume of the memoirs of the Institute of Sciences at Bologna in 1791, and separately at Modena in the following year, and elsewhere subsequently. The statement has frequently been repeated that, in 1786, Galvanihad skinned some frogs to make broth for his wife, who was in delicate health ; that the leg of one of these, on being accidentally touched by a scalpel which had lain near an electrical machine, was thrown into violent convulsions ; and that it was thus that his attention was first directed to the relations of animal functions to electricity. From documents in the possession of the Institute of Bologna, however, it appears that twenty years previous to the publication of his Commentary Galvani was already engaged in investigations as to the action of electricity upon the muscles of frogs. The observation that the suspension of certain of these animals on an iron railing by copper hooks caused twitching in the muscles of their legs led him to the invention of his metallic arc, the first experiment with which is described in the third part of the Commentary, wherein it is registered September 20, 1786. The arc he constructed of two different metals, which, placed in contact the one with a nerve and the other with a muscle of a frog, caused contraction of the latter. In Galvani's view the motions of the muscle were the result of the union, by means of the metallic arc, of its exterior or negative electrical charge with positive electricity which proceeded along the nerve from its inner substance. Volta, on the other hand, attributed them solely to the effect of electricity having its source in the junction of the two dissimilar metals of the arc, and regarded the nerve and muscle j simply as conductors. Galvani in one of his recorded the observation that muscular contractions may be caused in a prepared frog merely by bending back the legs and bringing them into contact with the lumbar nerves, as also when a nerve is touched at two different points with a morsel of muscle taken from a living frog, phenomena not satisfactorily explicable on the theories of Volta ; but after the death of the Bologna professor very little was heard of animal electricity till, in 1827, the study of the subject was resumed by Nobili. On Galvani's refusal, from religious scruples, to take the oath of allegiance to the Cisalpine republic on its establishment, he was removed from his professorship. Deprived thus of the means of livelihood, he retired to the house of his brother Giacomo, where he soon fell into a feverish decline. The republican Government, in consideration of his great scientific fame, eventually, but too late, determined to reinstate him in his chair at the university of Bologna. He died December 4, 1798. A quarto edition of his works was published at Bologna in 1841-42, by the Academy of Sciences of the Institute of that city, under the title Opère édite ed inédite del prof essore Luigi Galvani.
See Volta, ' An Account of some Discoveries made by Mr Galvani, of Bologna," in Phil. Trans., 1793, pp. 10-44 ; J. L. Alibert, Elogio Storico di Luigi Galvani, Traduzione dal Francese, Bolog., 1802, fol.; Arago, in "Alexandre Volta," Œuvres Completes, ed. Barrai, t. i. p. 242,1854 ; and H. M. Noad, Manual of Electricity, ehap. x. ; also ELECTRICITY, vol. viii. p. 9, col. 1, and VOLTA.






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