Luigi Galvani

Physician, physiologist, physicist, philosopher, academician, professor of medicine, surgery, anatomy and obstetrics (Bologna 1737 – 1798).

The father of electrophysiology, Galvani was the most illustrious Bolognese scientist of the 18th century. Through experimentation on frogs, he studied and grasped the functions of nerves and muscles as conductors and receptors of brain stimuli. His famous quarrel with Alessandro Volta led to a short period of oblivion, after which he rose to become a pillar of anatomy and medical electricity, as well as a “hero” of the newly-formed Italy.

Luigi Galvani Luigi Galvani was born in Bologna in 1737 to the goldsmith Domenico Galvani and the wealthy Barbara Foschi.

As they had done for his half-brother Francesco, who became a professor of canon law, Luigi’s parents spared no efforts to ensure him an education in the city’s finest schools.

In 1752, he began to frequent the Oratorio dei Filippini, which left him with a strong religious bent, in the vein of enlightened Catholicism, and a deeply humble and moderate manner. Two years later, Galvani enrolled in medicine (1754), a discipline that was undergoing a period of rebirth at the time, in part thanks to the anatomical and surgical experimentation of Pier Paolo Molinelli.

Molinelli, the chemist Jacopo Bartolomeo Beccari, the naturalist Giuseppe Monti and the physicist Domenico Gusmano Galeazzi were his main teachers, from whom he learned the critical importance of interdisciplinary experimentation.

After he took his degree in medicine and surgery, followed by one in philosophy, both in 1756, Galvani spared no efforts to secure an internship at Bologna’s Santa Maria della Morte and Sant’Orsola hospitals, where he assisted the distinguished surgeon Giovanni Antonio Galli.

In 1761, he enrolled in the Istituto delle Scienze and, thanks to Galeazzi, who became his father-in-law the following year, he began his rise in academy and university circles.

In 1762, he publicly defended his thesis at the Archiginnasio (his twenty arguments were later collected in the pamphlet De ossibus), and the following year he was appointed honorary (unpaid) lecturer in medicine, followed by lectureships in surgical operations, general surgery and anatomical theory. Finally, in 1768, he secured a paid lectureship in medicine, followed by an appointment as assistant to Galeazzi, who he then replaced following his death in 1775. He held this prestigious post until 1790, when he asked to shift to the rank of professor emeritus, retiring from public teaching.

In the meantime, he had become an associate member of the Accademia delle Scienze (1765), where he spent a decade, starting in 1772, as professor of anatomy and keeper of the anatomical rooms, which can still be visited today in the Museo di Palazzo Poggi. In 1782, he was appointed professor of obstetrics, taking charge of the relative room (which can also be visited today) until the last months of his life

During this long period devoted to teaching, few works by Galvani were published, exceptions being those included in the Commentarii annuali of the Accademia delle Scienze, in which we find dozens of texts on osteology, comparative anatomy, muscular movement, the study of the hypophysis, the study of thermal waters and organic and inorganic gases.

The theories and observations printed in these volumes were the result of years of experimentation, observation with the naked eye and with the microscope and interventions on and handling of the object under examination. Following in the footsteps of Gaetano Gaspare Uttini and G.G. Ballanti, Galvani compared complex beings and simple structures, finding analogies and similarities between organisms of different kinds.

This tireless work of comparison and use of new physical and medical technologies led to the presentation of his De viribus electricitatis in motu muscolari. Commentarius at the Accademia in 1789, followed by its publication in 1791 .

In 1773, Galvani began to develop an interest in electrical experimentation, inspired by the work on medical electricity and “electricism” by Leopoldo Marco Antonio Caldani and Giuseppe Veratti. In the work that won him international fame, the introverted scientist laid down the bases for electrophysiology, demonstrating in four stages his experiment and his revolutionary theory. In the first part of his Commentario, Galvani described the muscular contraction of a frog thigh through an electrical current transmitted by a metal sheet connected to an electrostatic machine. This experiment was then repeated in the second part using different types of electricity. In the third part, the theory took a step further, introducing a new observation: even when not connected to outside sources of electricity, the metal arc made the frog foot move by simply joining its muscle to the spinal marrow. Galvani was thus able to infer, in the fourth and final part, that animals have internal electricity, secreted by the brain and distributed to the muscles through the nerves.

This discovery met with immediate success in intellectual and scientific circles and won the support of many of the leading figures of the time, including, at first, the academician Alessandro Volta. Volta, however, quickly began to counter Galvani’s theories, asserting that the electricity he had found was not intrinsic to the animal, but rather due to the nature of the metals. In 1794, Galvani responded to this about-turn by repeating his experiment without using any metal components. The disquisition did not continue past 1797, however, the year in which he published his Memorie sulla elettricità animale, a work dedicated to the biologist Lazzaro Spallanzani, in which the discoveries published in the De viribus electricitatis were confirmed.

For Galvani, his final difficult years had already begun, following Napoleon’s invasion (1796). Along with other professors, he refused to swear allegiance to the constitution of the nascent Cisalpine Republic, considering it to be irreligious (in 1780, after the death of his wife, he had joined the Third Order of the Franciscans), and he was therefore removed from public posts for a brief period, after which he not longer had the time to be readmitted. He died in 1798, in the house where he was born, and was buried following a modest funeral in the church of the Corpus Domini, next to his beloved wife.

Galvani’s theories continued to be promoted and demonstrated by his nephew Giovanni Aldini, who even attempted to use Galvanism to bring human cadavers back to life. The young physicist’s experiments raised a stir across Europe and even caught the imagination of Mary Shelley, who published Frankenstein just a few years later (1818).

In the meantime, Volta, studying Galvani’s experiments, invented the battery (1800), obscuring the results of his “rival”, which were not picked up again until 1848, when they were given their proper due through the studies of the German physiologist Emil Heinrich Du Bois-Reymond

The city has paid fitting homage to the great scientist, dedicating the piazza in front of the Archiginnasio to him. In the middle of this piazza, since 1879, the statue of Galvani by Adalberto Cencetti has been studying his papers: a monument that evokes the old tombs of the glossators, in a period during which the city was beginning to valorise distinguished figures through civil monuments (the monument to Galvani was the first, followed by others to Cavour, Ugo Bassi, Vitctor Emmanuel II, Garibaldi, Minghetti and Carducci).

One of Bologna’s secondary schools was also named after Galvani, and his centenaries were marked in the 20th-century with celebrations and homages that extolled his brilliance.