Luigi Galvani, born this week in 1737, is best known for his groundbreaking work in anatomy, specifically the study of the nervous system. In his most famous experiment, Galvani ran a small current of electricity through the spine of a frog. The current caused the legs of the frog to twitch. The discovery opened new paths to understanding the nervous systems of animals, which were later discovered to operate by means of electrical and chemical impulses. Galvani’s work also contributed greatly to the invention of an early type of battery by the Italian physicist Alessandro Volta.
Galvani was born Sept. 9, 1737, in Bologna, Italy. His father was a goldsmith. The family was not aristocratic, but they could afford to allow the young Galvani to pursue a life of study. At first, Galvani was drawn to the church. As a young man, he had aspirations of pursuing a religious life, but he later entered the University of Bologna to study medicine and philosophy. After finishing his studies with degrees in both, Galvani joined the school as a lecturer and professor.
Galvani won fame for his investigations into animal physiology during the 1770’s and 1780’s. He inserted brass hooks in the spinal cords of frogs and attached the hooks to an iron railing. When Galvani stimulated the frogs with an electric charge, their legs twitched. He assumed, albeit incorrectly, that he had proved the existence of a special “animal electricity.”
Volta was a close contemporary and colleague of Galvani. Volta would dispute the idea of animal electricity. The debate between the two men lasted years. Galvani was eventually proven wrong, but his experiments had unknowingly revealed that two metals in contact with a moist environment produce an electric current. Volta later called this effect galvanism in honor of Galvani. The discovery prompted Volta to build an early battery by alternating wet paper and metal disks in a “stack” or “pile.” This type of battery became known as the voltaic pile.