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Luigi Aloisio Galvani was born in Bologna, Italy, on September 9, 1737. He joined a religious institution, Oratorio dei Padri Filippini, at 15 years old intending to take religious vows, but his parents persuaded him to study medicine instead. He entered the Faculty of the Arts of the University of Bologna about 1755, and graduated with degrees in medicine and philosophy in 1759. In 1762 he became a lecturer of anatomy at the University of Bologna and professor of obstetrics at the Institute of Arts and Sciences.
Galvani first gained fame for his research on the organs of hearing and genitourinary tract of birds, but is today best known for his study of "animal electricity." Following the acquisition of an electrostatic machine and a Leyden jar, he began a series of experiments in which he was able to cause muscular contractions in a frog by touching its nerves with electrostatically charged metal. Then, on November 6, 1787, he discovered that a frog muscle could be made to contract by placing an iron wire to the muscle and a copper wire to the nerve. Galvani proposed that animal tissue contained a special form of electricity that was generated by the brain in the form of an "electric fluid," and that the flow of that fluid through the nerves provided a stimulus for the muscles. He published his theory in a treatise, "De viribus electricitatis in motu musculari commentarius", in the 7th volume of the memoirs of the Institute of Sciences at Bologna in 1791, and separately at Modena in the following year.
While many of Galvani's contemporaries supported his theory of "animal electricity," physicist Alessandro Volta did not. Volta believed that the electricity did not come from the animal tissue but was instead generated by the contact of different metals in a moist experiment. The experiments Volta conducted in order to disprove Galvani's theory led to his invention of the storage battery. Galvani, meanwhile, carried on with his own experiments and found that he could cause muscular contraction by touching the exposed muscle of one frog with the nerve of another, further proving that the electricity came from the nerve, not an external source.
Galvani actively investigated animal electricity until the end of his life. He lost his university position in 1797 after refusing to swear loyalty to the Cisalpine Republic. No longer able to support himself financially, he was forced to move into his brother's house, where he died on December 4, 1798.
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This page was last updated on 06/16/2017.