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Updated:  Aug 12, 2013
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Luigi Galvani

Physician, b. at Bologna, Italy, September 9, 1737; d. there, December 4, 1798

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* Published by Encyclopedia Press, 1913.

Galvani, LUIGI, physician, b. at Bologna, Italy, September 9, 1737; d. there, December 4, 1798. It was his original intention to study theology and to enter a monastic order. His family, however, persuaded him to abandon that idea. He took up the study of the natural sciences from the point of view of the anatomist and physiologist. After maintaining his thesis on the nature and formation of the bones, he was appointed public lecturer at the University of Bologna and at the age of twenty-five taught anatomy at the Institute of Sciences. He became especially noted as a surgeon and accoucheur. In 1790, after thirty years of wedded life, he lost his wife Lucia, the daughter of Dr. Galeazzi, one of his teachers. He kept his chair at the university until April 20, 1798, when he resigned because he would not take the civil oath demanded by the Cisalpine Republic, it being contrary to his political and religious convictions. As a result he had to take refuge with his brother Giacomo and broke down completely through poverty and discouragement. Soon after this his friends obtained his exemption from the oath and his appointment, on account of his scientific fame, as professor emeritus. He died before the decree went into effect.

Galvani's work in comparative anatomy and physiology includes a study of the kidneys of birds and of their sense of hearing. He is famous more especially on account of his experiments concerning "the electrical forces in muscular movements", leading up tohis theory of animal electricity. This began with the accidental observation, in 1780, of the twitching of the legs of a dissected frog when the bared crural nerve was touched with the steel scalpel, while sparks were passing from an electric machine nearby. He worked diligently along these lines, but waited for eleven years before he published the results and his ingenious and simple theory. This theory of a nervous electric fluid, secreted by the brain, conducted by the nerves, and stored in the muscles, has been abandoned by scientists on account of later discoveries, but Galvani was led to it in a very logical manner and defended it by clever experiments, which soon bore fruit. Thus he discovered that when nerve and muscle touch two dissimilar metals in contact with each other, a contraction of the muscle takes place; this led ultimately to his discussions with Volta and to the discovery of the Voltaic pile. The name Galvanism is given to the manifestations of current electricity.

Galvani was by nature courageous and religious. It is reported by Alibert that he never ended his lessons "without exhorting his hearers and leading them back to the idea of that eternal Providence, which develops, conserves, and circulates life among so many diverse beings". His works (Opere di Luigi Galvani) were collected and published by the Academy of Sciences of the Institute of Bologna (1841-42). The following are some of the titles, with the original dates of publication in the "Antichi Commentari" of the Bologna Institute: "Thesis: De Ossibus" (1762); "Be Renibus atque Ureteribus Volatilium" (1767); "Be Volatilium Aure" (1768-70); "De Viribus Electricitatis in motu musculari commentarius" (1791), reprinted at Modena, 1792, with a note and dissertation by Gio. Aldini; translated by Mayer into German (Prague, 1793), and again published as a volume of Ostwald's "Klassiker" (Leipzig, 1894); "Dell' use e dell' attivita dell' arco conduttore nelle contrazioni de' muscoli" (1794); "Memorie sulla electricita animale" (1797).


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