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Luigi Aloisio Galvani (Latin: Aloysius Galvani) (September 9, 1737 December 4, 1798) was an Italian physician, physicist and philosopher who had also studied medicine and had practised as a doctor, lived and died in Bologna. In 1771, he discovered that the muscles of dead frogs legs twitched when struck by a spark. This was one of the first forays into the study of bioelectricity, a field that still today studies the electrical patterns and signals of the nervous system.
Luigi Galvani was born to Domenico and Barbara Foschi in Bologna, Italy. His father, Domenico, was a goldsmith and his mother Barbara, was Domenico's fourth wife. His family was not aristocracy, but they could afford to send at least one of their sons to undertake a scholarly career. At first he wished to enter the church and joined a religious institution, Oratorio dei Padri Filippini, at 15 years old. He was going to take his religious vows, but was discouraged from doing so. In approximately 1755, Galvani entered the Faculty of the Arts of the University of Bologna. Galvani attended the medicine course, which lasted four years, and was characterized by its 'bookish' teaching. Texts that dominated this course were by Hippocrates, Galen, and Avicenna.
Another discipline Galvani learned alongside of medicine was surgery. He learned the theory and the practice. This part of his history is typically overlooked, but it helped with his experiments with animals and helped familiarize Galvani with the manipulation of a living body. However, Galvani was always interested in electricity.
In 1759, Galvani graduated with degrees in medicine and philosophy. He applied for a position as a lecturer at the university. Part of this process required him to defend his thesis on June 21, 1761. In the following year, he became a permanent anatomist of the university and was appointed honorary lecturer of surgery.
The year 1762 proved to be very important for Galvani. Not only did he receive the new position with the university, but he married Lucia Galeazzi, daughter of one of his professors, Gusmano Galeazzi. Galvani moved into the Galeazzi house and helped Galeazzi with his research. When Galeazzi died in 1775, Galvani was appointed professor and lecturer in Galeazzi's place.
Galvani moved from the position of lecturer of surgery to theoretical anatomy and obtained an appointment at the Institute of Sciences in 1766. His new appointment consisted of the practical teaching of anatomy, which was conducted through human dissections and the use of the famous anatomical waxes.
As a "Benedectine member" of the Academy of Sciences, Galvani had certain commitments. His main one was to present at least one research paper every year at the Academy. Galvani carried out this commitment until his death. There was a periodical publication that collected a selection of the memoirs presented at the institution, and it was sent around to main scientific academies and institutions around the world. However, since publications then were so slow, sometimes there were debates on priority of the topics used. One of these debates occurred with Antonio Scarpa. This debated caused Galvani to give up the field of research that he had presented on four years in a row: the hearing of birds, quadrupeds, and humans. Galvani had announced all of the findings in his talks, but had yet to publish them. It is suspected that Scarpa attended Galvani's public dissertation and may have taken claim on some of Galvani's discoveries without crediting him.
Galvani then began taking an interest in the field of "medical electricity." This field emerged in the middle of the 18th century, following the electrical researches and the discovery of the effects of electricity on the human body.
Late 1780s diagram of Galvani's experiment on frog legs
The beginning of Galvani's experience with electricity has a popular version of the story. Galvani was slowly skinning a frog at a table where he had been conducting experiments with static electricity by rubbing frog skin. Galvani's assistant touched an exposed sciatic nerve of the frog with a metal scalpel, which picked up a charge. At that moment, they saw sparks and the dead frog's leg kick as if in life. The observation made Galvani the first investigator to appreciate the relationship between electricity and animation or life. This finding provided the basis for the new understanding that electrical energy (carried by ions), and not air or fluid as in earlier balloonist theories, is the impetus behind muscle movement. He is poorly credited with the discovery of bioelectricity.
Galvani coined the term animal electricity to describe the force that activated the muscles of his specimens. Along with contemporaries, he regarded their activation as being generated by an electrical fluid that is carried to the muscles by the nerves. The phenomenon was dubbed galvanism, after Galvani, on the suggestion of his peer and sometime intellectual adversary Alessandro Volta. Today, the study of galvanic effects in biology is called electrophysiology, the term galvanism being used only in historical contexts.