Biography of Luigi Galvani, Electrophysiology Pioneer

Scientific experiments with frogs

Stefano Bianchetti / Contributor / Getty Images

Luigi Galvani (September 9, 1737–December 4, 1798) was an Italian physician who demonstrated what we now understand to be the electrical basis of nerve impulses. In 1780, he accidentally made frog muscles twitch by jolting them with a spark from an electrostatic machine. He went on to develop a theory of "animal electricity."

Fast Facts: Luigi Galvani

  • Known For: Demonstrating the electrical basis of nerve impulses
  • Also Known As: Aloysius Galvanus
  • Born: September 9, 1737 in Bologna, Papal States
  • Parents: Domenico Galvani and Barbara Caterina Galvani 
  • Died: December 4, 1798 in Bologna, Papal States
  • Education: University of Bologna, Bologna, Papal States
  • Published Works: De viribus electricitatis in motu musculari commentarius (Commentary on the Effect of Electricity on Muscular Motion)
  • Spouse: Lucia Galeazzi Galvani 
  • Notable Quote: "I was fired with incredible zeal and desire of having the same experience, and of bringing to light whatever might be concealed in the phenomenon. Therefore I myself also applied the point of a scalpel to one or other crural nerve at a time when one or other of those who were present elicited a spark. The phenomenon always occurred in the same manner: violent contraction in individual muscles of the limbs, just as if the prepared animal had been seized with tetanus, were induced at the same moment of time in which sparks were discharged."

Early Life and Education

Luigi Galvani was born in Bologna, Italy, on September 9, 1737. As a young man he wished to take religious vows, but his parents persuaded him to go to university instead. He studied at the University of Bologna, where he earned his degree in medicine and philosophy in 1759.

Work and Research

After graduation, he supplemented his own research and practice as an honorary lecturer at the university. His earliest published papers covered a wide range of topics, from the anatomy of bones to the urinary tracts of birds.

By the end of the 1760s, Galvani had married Lucia Galeazzi, the daughter of a former professor. They had no children. Galvani became a professor of anatomy and surgery at the university, taking the position of his father-in-law after he died. In the 1770s, Galvani’s focus shifted from anatomy to the relationship between electricity and life.

Great Discovery

As with many scientific discoveries, a colorful story is told about the accidental revelation of bioelectricity. According to Galvani himself, one day he observed his assistant using a scalpel on a nerve in a frog’s leg. When a nearby electric generator created a spark, the frog’s leg twitched.

This observation prompted Galvani to develop his famous experiment. He spent years testing his hypothesis—that electricity can enter a nerve and force a contraction—with a variety of metals.

'Animal Electricity'

Later, Galvani was able to cause muscular contraction without a source of electrostatic charge by touching the frog’s nerve with different metals. After further experimenting with natural (i.e., lightning) and artificial (i.e., friction) electricity, he concluded that animal tissue contained its own innate vital force, which he termed "animal electricity."

He believed "animal electricity" to be a third form of electricity—a view that wasn’t altogether uncommon in the 18th century. While these findings were revelatory, astonishing many in the scientific community at the time, it took a contemporary of Galvani’s, Alessandro Volta, to fine-tune the meaning of Galvani’s discoveries.

Volta's Response

A professor of physics, Volta was among the first to mount a serious response to Galvani’s experiments. Volta proved that the electricity did not emerge from the animal tissue itself, but from the effect produced by the contact of two different metals in a moist environment (a human tongue, for instance). Ironically, our current understanding shows that both scientists were right.

Galvani would attempt to respond to Volta’s conclusions by doggedly defending his theory of "animal electricity," but the onset of personal tragedies (his wife died in 1790) and the political momentum of the French Revolution prevented him from pursuing his response.

Later Life and Death

Napoleon’s troops occupied Northern Italy (including Bologna) and in 1797 academics were required to take an oath of allegiance to the republic declared by Napoleon. Galvani refused and was forced to leave his position.

Without income, Galvani moved back to his childhood home. He died there on December 4, 1798, in relative obscurity.

Legacy

Galvani’s influence lives on, not only in the discoveries that his work inspired—like Volta’s eventual development of the electric battery—but in a wealth of scientific terminology as well. A "galvanometer" is an instrument used to detect electric current. "Galvanic corrosion," meanwhile, is an accelerated electrochemical corrosion that occurs when dissimilar metals are placed in electrical contact. Lastly, the term "galvanism" is used in biology to signify any muscular contraction stimulated by an electrical current. In physics and chemistry, "galvanism" is the induction of electrical current from a chemical reaction.

Galvani has a surprising role in literary history as well. His experiments on frogs evoked a haunting sense of reawakening in the way they motivated movement in a dead animal. Galvani's observations served as a noted inspiration for Mary Shelley’s "Frankenstein."

Sources