| Portrait of Luigi Galvani (1737–1798).
Museum of Palazzo Poggi via Wikimedia.
On a September day in Italy in 1737 it would have been difficult for a goldsmith and his fourth wife to predict that their son would come to establish the field of electrophysiology, and yet by 1787 he would do just that. Although little is known about his life before formal schooling, it is known that he studied medicine at the University of Bologna. He continued studying the natural sciences at the Institute of Sciences in Bologna, around which time Benjamin Franklin had detailed the discovery of an ‘invisible fluid’ which could explain electrical phenomena. Naturally, this discovery made electricity the hot topic of the mid-eighteenth century natural scientists. At this time, the animating force behind muscle contractions was thought to be a type of fluid or air produced in the brain and sent to the muscles, as advocated by the Balloonists, so-named because they explained muscle contraction by inflation of an air or fluid. This theory would eventually give way to a principle advocated by Albrecht von Haller, which posited that an electrically-charged fluid sent from brain to muscle was responsible for contraction. These events would serve as the context in which Galvani would come to find the subject.
While studying medicine and the natural sciences, Galvani also began to take an interest in surgery. The skills he acquired in dissection and ligation would prove to be inexorable prerequisites to do the type of experimental electrophysiology he would later focus on. Following his graduation he served in several academic positions and did research on the physiology of hearing in several species, learning that there were many similar physiological mechanisms between humans and non-hominids. As researchers began to speculate about the benefits of therapeutic electricity, Galvani decided to investigate the anatomy and physiology governing it.
Galvani’s brilliance as a researcher lay in his training as an empirical skeptic at the University of Bologna; he was reductionist, choosing to experiment under carefully prepared conditions with controlled variables. Even more impressive, he was an open-minded researcher who readily altered his explicative theories based on experimental data. Galvani chose to begin his electrophysiology research on the frog, a well-characterized organism that was widely available in the region. His research techniques were particularly impressive considering much of his contemporaries “research” in the field consisted of anecdotal reports and conjecture rather than experimental evidence. Although he had a strong interest in research, he never abandoned his duties as a physician in teaching obstetrics to midwives, anatomy to medical students, and advocating for public health.
In the early 1790s Galvani published a decade of research on bioelectricity in De Viribus Electricitatis in Motu Muscularis to a sensational reception. In it he expounds on his experiments, demonstrating what he called animalis electricitatis, animal electricity, which activated muscle contraction and responded to various objections regarding the presumed electrical properties of nerves. The demand for his work was so great his nephew was enlisted to draft a second copy which further solidified Galvani’s findings.
The sensation created by his work attracted critics. A particular disagreement of note is that between Alessandro Volta, a fellow Italian scientist, and Galvani over the nature of biological electricity. Volta considered it an extension of that found in the atmosphere, whereas Galvani considered it to be a special type of electricity intrinsic to living beings. This episode revealed one of Galvani’s most captivating qualities: his ability to allow his conclusions to be argued on scientific grounds rather than intervene with his weighty reputation. In fact, several years later he would anonymously publish a second tract on animal electricity, allowing the debate to be focused on the science rather than the men around it.
Galvani would eventually die in humiliation after being cast from public office for refusing to swear allegiance to a new French authority occupying Bologna. While Galvani is commonly remembered for accidentally shocking a frog’s legs leading to his discovery of bioelectricity or the eponymous Galvanic cell studied in premedical classrooms, he should just as rightly be remembered as a committed physician, teacher, and a role model of the researcher-clinician-academician. Today as we look towards the emerging field of electroceuticals which involve targeted neuronal electrical therapy, it is important to look to the past to understand how we arrived at this juncture and honor the father of electrophysiology.
- Bresadola M. “Medicine and science in the life of Luigi Galvani.” History of Neuroscience. 1998;46:367-380.
- Pera, M. The ambiguous frog: the Galvani-Volta controversy on animal electricity. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press; 1992.
NOAH DeLONE, BS, MS, is a fourth year medical student and member of the inaugural class at Florida International University College of Medicine in Miami currently applying for residencies in Emergency Medicine, with research interests that include biomedical engineering, neurophysiology, and adaptive neural prosthetics. Other academic interests include Latin, Stoic philosophy, and economics. He received his BS from University of Florida in 2009 and his MS in biomedical engineering from Florida International University in 2013.