4 December 2015

Luigi Galvani - physicist and biologist

Death of the scientist who seemed to give dead frog new life 

Luigi Galvani, the first scientist to discover bioelectricity, died on this day in 1798 in Bologna.

Luigi Galvani studied medicine at Bologna University
Luigi Galvani studied medicine
at Bologna University

Galvani discovered that the muscles in the leg of a dead frog twitched when struck by an electrical spark. This was the beginning of bioelectricity, the study of the electrical patterns and signals of the nervous system.

The word ‘galvanise’, to stimulate by electricity, or rouse by shock and excitement, comes from the surname of the scientist.

Galvani studied medicine at Bologna University and, after graduating in 1759, became an honorary lecturer of surgery and then subsequently of theoretical anatomy.

He became the first scientist to appreciate the relationship between electricity and animation when he was dissecting a frog one day. His assistant touched an exposed nerve in the leg of the frog with a metal scalpel that had picked up an electrical charge. They both saw sparks and the frog’s leg kicked. The phenomenon was dubbed ‘galvanism’.

In 1797 Galvani refused to swear loyalty to the French, who were then occupying northern Italy, and lost his academic position at the university and also his income.

He died, depressed and impoverished, in his brother’s house in Bologna in 1798.

Travel tip:

The world’s first university was established in Bologna in 1088 and attracted popes and kings as well as students of the calibre of Dante, Copernicus and Boccaccio. You can visit the university’s former anatomy theatre in the oldest university building, the Archiginnasio, which is open Monday to Saturday from 9 am to 1 pm, admission free.

Piazza Maggiore is Bologna's main square
Bologna's Piazza Maggiore

Travel tip:

There is a statue of Galvani in the square named after him, Piazza Luigi Galvani, which faces the palace of the Archiginnasio, just a short walk from Piazza Maggiore and the Basilica di San Petronio in the centre of Bologna.


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