Luigi Galvani and neuroscience

Raffaella SIMILI and Miriam FOCACCIA
University of Bologna


In 1791, Luigi Galvani, professor of Anatomy and Obstetrics at the University of Bologna, published a memoir entitled De Viribus electricitatis in motu musculari, in the transactions of the Bolognese Istituto delle Scienze. In this work he summarised the results of a long series of experiments on electro-physiology that he began in the early 1780s. In this seminal memoir, Galvani presented his ideas on the relation between electrical forces and the contraction of animal muscles. His crucial discovery was that the contraction of the muscles of some dead animals, and frogs in particular, was due to an electrical spark obtained by an electrical machine.

Galvani concluded that he had discovered the presence in nature of a new kind of natural electricity, detectable by studying the contractions of animal muscles.

The discovery of animal electricity was an extraordinary response to the solution of all the problems faced by the supporters of the old theory of irritability.

The point is that Galvani, faithful to Malpighi’s and Newton’s ideas, believed in an organism understood as a dynamic system of communication, with a proper internal organisation based on the brain, not the heart, as Haller held. From this point of view, Galvani also kept in touch with the anti-Hallerian positions of Robert Whytt and William Cullen.

In the last part of De Viribus, Galvani claimed: “Now inasmuch as we have already shown that electric fluid is carried through the nerves of the muscles, it must therefore be transmitted through all of the nerves. Furthermore all these nerves must draw it from a single common source, namely the cerebrum. Otherwise [...] they do not seem to be adapted to activating and secreting one and the same fluid. We believe, therefore, that the electric fluid is produced by the activity of the cerebrum, that it is extracted in all probability from the blood, and that it enters the nerves and circulates within them in the event that they are hollow and empty, or, as seems more likely, they are carriers for a very fine lymph or other similarly subtle fluid which is secreted from the cortical substance of the brain, as many believe. If this be the case, perhaps at last the nature of animal spirits, which has been hidden and vainly sought after for so long, will be brought to light with clarity. But however this may be, I think no one in the future will have doubts concerning their electrical nature in view of our experiments”.


18th Century Neuroscience Symposium -- Function in the "Long" 18th Century: The Transition from Medieval Cell Doctrine to Cortical Localization Doctrine
[Poster Session]
Saturday, 26 June 2004, 9:00 am - 6:30 pm

Ninth Annual Meeting of the International Society for the History of the Neurosciences (ISHN)

Montreal, Quebec, Canada