Luigi Galvani’s Discoveries in Bioelectricity

Luigi Aloisio Galvani
(1737 – 1798)

On September 9, 1737, Italian physician, physicist and philosopher Luigi Aloisio Galvani was born. He is best known for his discoveries in bioelectricity. In particular, he discovered that the muscles of dead frogs legs twitched when struck by a spark. As a legacy, Galvani’s name survives in the Galvanic cell, Galvani potential, galvanic corrosion, the galvanometer and galvanization. Moreover, his reports also heavily influenced famous author Mary Shelley writing her novel ‘Frankenstein’.

Originally, it was Galvani’s wish to enter church which he did at the age of 15. Surprisingly it were his parents who had a hard time persuading him not to stay in this section and to try something different. He enrolled at the University of Bologna in 1755 and gained his interest in medicine, which he continued to study for several years. Next to pure medicine, he also increased his abilities in surgery which helped him to perform his experiments in later years. Galvani became a lecturer at the university and in 1775 even professor. During this period he deepened his knowledge in anatomy which he also taught his students.

Galvani’s Frog Experiment

A few years into research, Galvani discovered his interest in medical electricity and began researching the effects of electricity on the human body. During laboratory experiments, Galvani and his assistant were skinning a frog while the assistant touched a static nerve with a metal scalpel that picked up a charge. Both observed sparks and a kicking of the dead frog’s leg. This accidental experiment was a great influence to the field of medicine and anatomy. It was now understood that muscle movement was based on electrical energy instead of air or fluids, disproving the balloonist theories. Back then, Galvani named this phenomenon describing the force that activates muscle movements as animal electricity. Today, Galvani is credited with the discovery of bioelectricity

Alessandro Volta heard of Galvani’s discoveries and tried repeating them and over a long period the two scientists argued about the  results of the performed experiments. However, with the foundations of Galvani’s experiments, Volta was later able to invent the early battery.

At yovisto you may enjoy a videolecture on the history of bioelectromagnetism, starting with manuscripts from ancient Egypt.

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