Luigi Galvani was born on September 9, 1737 in Bologna, Italy. In his youth, Galvani intended to pursue a theology. Largely due to parental influence, however, when he entered the University of Bologna it was to study medicine. He graduated in 1759 but chose to continue his education at the institution. Galvani received a doctorate in medicine three years later. His thesis focused on the study of the human skeleton and his research primarily was concerned with comparative anatomy. Galvani accepted a position as lecturer at his alma mater following the defense of his thesis. Only a few years later he began teaching obstetrics at the Institute of Sciences as well. By 1772, he gained an appointment as president of the Institute.
In the early 1770s, Galvani began lecturing on the anatomy of the frog and later that same decade initiated experiments employing the basic equipment used for studying electricity at that time, an electrostatic generator for producing an electrical charge and a Leyden jar for storing charge. It was through the accidental overlap of these two seemingly dissimilar areas of scientific effort that Galvani made his greatest discoveries. He noticed that the dissected legs of frogs in his laboratory seemed to jump to life under various conditions. For instance, when one of his assistants placed a scalpel against the exposed nerve of one specimen, which was sitting on a table previously used in electrostatic experiments, the legs of the frog suddenly kicked. In a similar event, when Galvani used a scalpel made of steel to cut the leg of a frog anchored on a brass hook, the leg visibly twitched. Based on such unusual observations Galvani concluded that there was a type of electrical fluid inherent in the body, which he dubbed animal electricity. According to his view, the nervous system delivered animal electricity to muscle tissue.
Galvani knew that his concept of animal electricity would likely be controversial. As a result, he delayed publishing on his work until 1791, when he finally released the treatise “De Viribus Electricitatis in motu musculari commentarius” (“Commentary on the Effect of Electricity on Muscular Motion”). As Galvani anticipated, not all of his contemporaries agreed with his views, though many did, at least initially. The Italian physicist Alessandro Volta, a professor at the University of Pavia, was the most notable opponent of Galvani’s conclusions. Volta proposed that it was not electricity inherent within the body of the frog that caused the twitching legs Galvani witnessed, but rather charge passing between two dissimilar metals, such as the steel of a scalpel and the brass in the hook. Volta described his theoretical electrical fluid as metallic electricity.
Galvani and Volta were respectful of each other despite their scientific disagreement; still, considerable rancor grew between many of their followers. In the end, both scientists were partly correct. Muscular contractions do occur due to electrical stimuli, as Galvani believed, though no unique animal electricity exists, a fact that Volta correctly deduced. Moreover, Volta rightly realized that contact between different metals can cause an electric current to flow, but he incorrectly attributed all electrophysiological effects to such a current source.
The opinions of both men had a tremendous impact on the future of science. Galvani’s work pioneered the field of electrophysiology, the branch of science concerned with electrical phenomena in the body, and Volta’s experiments resulted in his development of the voltaic pile, an early form of the battery.
Interestingly, Galvani’s groundbreaking experimentation not only spurred notable advances in science, but also inspired one of the most famous works in all of English literature. Intrigued by the possible implications of the scientist’s work, Mary Shelley reportedly discussed Galvani with her husband, Percy Shelley, and Byron, both famous British Romantic writers. When she wrote Frankenstein, the prospect that electricity could animate lifeless flesh was clearly seeded in her mind. From a lifeless amalgamation of cadavers, lightning and galvanism (a term coined by Volta in honor of Galvani) produced a conscious monster in her horror novel.
In his latter years, Galvani experienced several disappointments in his personal life. Following the death of his wife, Lucia, in 1790, his health began to decline. Then, in 1796, the army of Napoléon invaded Bologna. Since Galvani would not take an oath of allegiance to the republic declared by Napoléon, the new political powers forced him to leave his academic posts. Having lost his income, he decided to move in with his brother, at the home in which they were born. Galvani died there on December 4, 1798.