Animal electricity and the birth of electrophysiology: The legacy of Luigi Galvani

  • Piccolino M
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Abstract

Preceded by a companion paper on Galvani's life, this article is written on the occasion of the bicentenary of the death of Luigi Galvani. From his studies on the effects of electricity on frogs, the scientist of Bologna derived the hypothesis that animal tissues are endowed with an intrinsic electricity that is involved in fundamental physiological processes such as nerve conduction and muscle contraction. Galvani's work swept away from life sciences mysterious fluids and elusive entities like "animal spirits" and led to the foundation of a new science, electrophysiology. Two centuries of research work have demonstrated how insightful was Galvani's conception of animal electricity. Nevertheless, the scholar of Bologna is still largely misrepresented in the history of science, because the importance of his researches seems to be limited to the fact that they opened the paths to the studies of the physicist Alessandro Volta, which culminated in 1800 with the invention of the electric battery. Volta strongly opposed Galvani's theories on animal electricity. The matter of the scientific controversy between Galvani and Volta is examined here in the light of two centuries of electrophysiological studies leading to the modern understanding of electrical excitability in nerve and muscle. By surveying the work of scientists such as Nobili, Matteucci, du BoisReymond, von Helmholtz, Bernstein, Hermann, Lucas, Adrian, Hodgkin, Huxley, and Katz, the real matter of the debate raised by Galvani's discoveries is here reconsidered. In addition, a revolutionary phase of the 18th century science that opened the way for the development of modern neurosciences is reevaluated. © 1998 Elsevier Science Inc.

Author-supplied keywords

  • Action potential
  • Alessandro volta
  • History of science
  • Ion channels
  • Nervous conduction
  • Neurophysiology
  • Voltage clamp

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Authors

  • Marco Piccolino

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