Luigi Galvani, Alessandro Volta and animal electricity at the end of the 18th century: A fundamental controversy in the history of (life) sciences

Dipartimento di Scienze Umane, Università di Ferrara, Italy
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At the beginning of 1792 the Bologna physician Luigi Galvani published the results of his experimental research on the role of electricity in muscular motion. From his experiments on frogs and other animals Galvani concluded that nerve conduction and muscular contraction were due to an electric fluid produced in the brain and flowing through the nerves. He supposed that the muscle fibre was analogous to an electrical capacitor, in which electricity was in a state of unbalance between the interior and the exterior of the fibre; a stimulus, either organic or artificial, would eliminate temporarily the unbalance, producing the contraction of the muscle.

Galvani’s explanation of muscular contraction and his theory of animal electricity were received by most of his contemporaries as a great discovery in natural philosophy (the 18th century term for science), rich of consequences in the field of medicine. Many scientists from all Europe took an intense interest in Galvani’s research and began to repeat and develop his experiments; among them there was Alessandro Volta, professor of physics at the University of Pavia and one of the main scholars of electricity in that period.

In the 1790s Galvani and Volta were the main protagonists of a lively debate on the role of electricity in animal organisms. From this debate originated significant developments leading to the foundation of two new disciplines, electrodynamics and electrophysiology, that were to play a crucial role in the scientific and technological progress of the last two centuries.

The Galvani-Volta controversy has been repeatedly reconstructed, sometimes in the attempt to identify the merits and the errors of one or the other of the two protagonists, sometimes with the aim of demonstrating that the theories elaborated by the two Italian scholars were irreconcilable and reflected completely different ways to look at phenomena and to conceive scientific research. Here a different interpretation is offered, based on the discussion of the scientific issues which were central to Galvani’s and Volta’s research and with reference to the context of science and society of the 18th century.

Session IX.  Italian Heritage and the Galvani-Volta Controversy
Saturday, 24 June 2006, 2.00 - 2.25 pm

11th Annual Meeting of the International Society for the History of the Neurosciences (ISHN)

Pavia, Italy, 2006