Luigi Galvani (1737 – 1798)
The next inductee into our Hall of Fame is the Italian anatomy professor, Luigi Galvani. His claim to fame is his experimentation into the world of bioelectricity. In 1776 he was appointed to the Academy of Science at the University of Bologna and his duties included providing practical studies into anatomy which involved human dissections. He was also required to deliver one research paper every year, a task he fulfilled dutifully until his death.
In 1780 he was skinning a frog on a table upon which he had earlier been conducting experiments into static electricity by rubbing frog skin. When his assistant touched an exposed sciatic nerve of the frog with a metal scalpel, they observed the dead frog’s leg kick into life. This observation convinced Galvani of the relationship between electricity and animation and led him to develop the theory that the cause of muscle motion was electrical energy carried by a liquid and not air or fluid as had previously been thought. Our Italian scientist has been credited with the discovery of bioelectricity, a branch of science which became known as Galvanism but is now more prosaically termed electrophysiology.
Of course for every scientist who thinks outside the box, there are legions of ne’ersayers and Galdani’s theories excited the curiosity of one of his rivals, Alessandro Volta from the University of Pavia. Volta repeated our man’s experiments and became convinced that the movements were due to the application of charged metal to the animal’s limbs, not because of any intrinsic electric current contained within the body. Volta’s experiments led him to develop an early prototype of what became the battery.
Anyway, back to our hero. The ability to bring dead limbs back to life, even if you didn’t fully understand why, offered the opportunity for a bit of sport – bear in mind we are talking about a period of time when you had to take your entertainment where you found it. The demonstrations became crowd-pullers and offered the opportunity to make some cash. No one grasped the mantle more readily than Galvani’s nephew, Giovanni Aldini, to whom our man entrusted the task of defending his theories. Aldini toured around Europe demonstrating the powers of Galvanism and his party piece was to carry out the experiments on human bodies.
The most famous exhibition occurred on January 17th 1803 at the Royal College of Surgeons in London when the body of an executed murderer, George Forster, was wired up to a 120 volt battery. When wires were placed on the mouth and ear of the corpse, the jaw muscles quivered and the murderer’s face was seen to convey a grimace of pain. The left eye opened. The finale was to place a wire to the ear and another up the unfortunate corpse’s rectum. The result was astonishing – the corpse gave the appearance of dancing, leading the Times to observe, “It appeared to the uninformed part of the bystanders as if the wretched man was on the eve of being restored to life”.
Galdani’s theory and Aldini’s experiments prompted others to try to electrify bodies in the hope that they would return to life – all experiments proving (unsurprisingly) unsuccessful – and it is thought that the craze for electric animation gave Mary Shelley inspiration for her book, Frankenstein, published in 1816.
Bioelectricity, electrical animation, the battery and Frankenstein – the legacy of Galvani makes him a truly worthy inductee to our Hall of Fame.
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