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Definition: Galvani, Luigi from Philip's Encyclopedia

Italian physician and physicist. His experiments with frogs' legs indicated a connection between muscular contraction and electricity. He believed a new type of electricity was created in the muscle and nerve.


Summary Article: Galvani, Luigi (1737-1798)
from The Hutchinson Dictionary of Scientific Biography

Place: Italy

Subject: biography, biology

Italian anatomist whose discovery of ‘animal electricity’ stimulated the work of Alessandro Volta and others to discover and develop current electricity.

Galvani was born in Bologna on 9 September 1737. He studied medicine at the University of Bologna, graduating in 1759 and gaining his doctorate three years later with a thesis on the development of bones. In that same year (1762) he married Lucia Galeazzi, a professor's daughter, and was appointed lecturer in anatomy. In 1772 he became president of the Bologna Academy of Science and in 1775 he took up the appointment of professor of anatomy and gynaecology at the university. The death of his wife in 1790 left him griefstricken. In 1797 he was required to swear allegiance to Napoleon as head of the new Cisalpine Republic, but Galvani refused and thereby lost his appointment at Bologna University. Saddened, he retired to the family home and died there on 4 December 1798.

Comparative anatomy formed the subject of Galvani's early research, during which he investigated such structures as the semicircular canals in the ear and the sinuses of the nose. He began studying electrophysiology in the late 1770s, using static electricity stored in a Leyden jar to stimulate muscular contractions in living and dead animals. The frog was already established as a convenient laboratory animal and in 1786 Galvani noticed that touching a frog with a metal instrument during a thunderstorm made the frog's muscles twitch. He later hung some dissected frogs from brass hooks on an iron railing to dry them, and noticed that their muscles contracted when the legs came into contact with the iron - even if there was no electrical storm. Galvani concluded that electricity was causing the contraction and postulated (incorrectly) that it came from the animal's muscle and nerve tissues. He summarized his findings in 1791 in a paper, ‘De viribus electricitatis in motu musculari commentarius’, that gained general acceptance except by Alessandro Volta, who by 1800 had constructed electric batteries consisting of plates (electrodes) of dissimilar metals in a salty electrolyte, thus proving that Galvani had been wrong and that the source of the electricity in his experiment had been the two different metals and the animal's body fluids. But for many years current electricity was called Galvanic electricity and Galvani's name is preserved in the word galvanometer, a current-measuring device developed in 1820 by André Ampère, and in galvanization, the process of covering steel with a layer of zinc (originally by electroplating). Galvani's original paper was translated into English and published in 1953 as ‘Commentary on the effect of electricity on muscular motion’.

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