Animal electricity in the ‘long eighteenth century’ with special reference to the Edinburgh medical school

Aston University, Birmingham, United Kingdom

Coleridge, looking back at the end of the ‘long eighteenth century’, remarked that the whole of natural philosophy had been ‘electrified’ by advances in the understanding of electrical phenomena. In this paper I trace the way in which these advances affected contemporary ‘neurophysiology.’ At the beginning of the long eighteenth century, neurophysiology (in spite of Swammerdam’s and Glisson’s demonstrations to the contrary) was still understood largely in terms of hollow nerves and animal spirits. At the end of that period the researches of microscopists and electricians had convinced most medical men that the old understanding had to be replaced. Walsh, Patterson, John Hunter and others had described the electric organs of electric fish. Gray and Nollet had demonstrated that electricity was not merely static, but flowed. Franklin had alerted the world to atmospheric electricity. Galvani’s frog experiments were widely known. Volta had invented his ‘pile.’ But did ‘animal electricity’ exist and was it identical to the electricity physicists studied in the inanimate world? Was the brain a gland, as Malpighi’s researches seemed to confirm., and did it secrete electricity into the nervous system? The Monros (primus and secundus), William Cullen, Luigi Galvani, Alessandro Volta, Erasmus Darwin, Luigi Rolando and François Baillarger all had their own ideas. This paper reviews these ‘long-eighteenth century’ controversies with special reference to the Edinburgh medical school and the interaction between neurophysiology and physics.

Symposium I: 18th and 19th Century Edinburgh Neuroscience
Thursday, 7 July 2005, 10.00 am - 1.00 pm

Tenth Annual Meeting of the International Society for the History of the Neurosciences (ISHN) and
Tenth Meeting of the European Club for the History of Neurology (ECHN)

St. Andrews, Scotland, 2005