Electrifying Medicine Pt. 2 – Italian Frog Legs

Onxyfeld, Late Winter 1872

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Luigi Galvani: Friend of Frogs

Welcome to the Enlightenment! The era in which we learned the mass of the earth, invented the steam engine, really invested ourselves in colonialism, and most importantly, played around with the incredible power of electricity without having the foggiest idea what we were doing.

In the first installment of this series, we studied practitioners such as Benjamin Franklin, industriously shocking people as ‘therapy’ for pain and paralysis, gleaned no doubt from his extensive experience risking his life flying kites in storms. Meanwhile in England, the preacher John Wesley, when not inventing Methodism, was using the trust he had gained from his parishioners to get away with mildly electrocuting them. I wish I had that kind of credibility. It takes a tremendous amount of money to lure live subjects into my laboratory for such treatment.

Notable mention should be made of Dr Abildgaard and his work in shock and counter-shock theory. In 1775, he electrocuted and effectively killed a chicken with a powerful electric charge to the chest, and proceeded to revive the poor bird with a further ventricular shock applied to the same place, resulting in presumably mixed feelings on the part of the chicken.

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17th century delicacy : electrocuted chicken. With ketchup.

It was the scientific studies of Luigi Galvani that stood out as fundamentally vital to further discoveries. The previous thousand years had produced little advancement in the understanding of electricity, but despite this deficit of comprehension, it was becoming the centerpiece of a popular form of social entertainment. Encouraged by the spirit of Enlightenment-style curiosity and excitement towards scientific study and rational interpretation of natural phenomena, many people collected together to perform electrical experiments in their homes and at parties, generating static charge in various creative ways and storing it in the ubiquitous Leyden Jar. Nobody really understood the reasons for the dramatic and occasionally fatal effects and it took the discoveries of Luigi Galvani and Allessandro Volta, his primary critic, for extensive moves to be in electrical research and understanding.

Luigi Galvani was a quiet, devout, introspective man, prone to avoiding interaction with others (great minds seldom enjoy social environs). Born in 1737 where he remained almost all his life, he lectured at the University of Bologna, his initial work comprising of the studies into the hearing of animals and humans as well as general anatomy During his studies into the ureters of live chickens, he met his wife Lucia Galeazzi (clearly, theaters of romance were slightly different back then). Apparently chicken ureters really did it for her and the the pair married in 1762, with Lucia joining him as his trusted research assistant. The marriage also had the added benefits of providing Galvani access to the well-equipped laboratory of his father in law, Gusmano Galeazzi, as well granting him the position of lecturer and professor upon the elders death.

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The other half of the frog has many questions.

Common belief at the time stated that there were two types of electricity – atmospheric (natural) and friction (static). Galvani had moved his research focus entirely to studying what he believed was a third type – animal electricity – in which stored energy was applied to the dismembered and skinned bodies of frogs to create a spasmodic reaction. He believed his theories to be confirmed when, by accident, the metal conductors, not in contact with the Leyden Jar, touched the internal sciatic nerve of the frog. Galvani wrote:

“…suddenly all the muscles of its limbs were seen to be so contracted that they seemed to have fallen into tonic convulsions.”

He believed that he was observing was evidence of ‘animal electricity’, and believed that this was inherent in the creature itself, a fluid existing in the nerve cells that flowed from the brain, and the coined phenomenon was named ‘galvanism’. The frog essentially became it’s own Leyden jar, he believed, a self contained electrical machine. He had discovered bioelectricity.

His achievement was an instant sensation and his experiments were reproduced far and wide in salons and houses, where it was most decidedly not a good time to be a frog – his discoveries were so popularly duplicated that large swathes of the Italian frog population were almost completely depleted. Most notable of his initial supporters, Alessandro Volta from the University of Pavia, similarly attempted to reproduce the experiments, but soon came to his own conclusion that the twitching frog leg was the result of dissimilar types of metal used between the contacts. Galvani, a shy man, left the defense of his theories to his enthusiastic nephew, Giovanni Aldini, in whose Galvanic grand tours of Europe both shocked and entertained audiences. We’ll cover Aldini and his fantastic demonstrations next week.

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Alessandro Volta – making Galvani’s life difficult since 1871

Volta’s opposition to galvanic studies was the catalyst that allowed him to develop the battery, which he termed ‘the artificial electric organ’, or the ‘voltaic pile’, utilizing the different conducting metals he had claimed were the true explanation of Galvani’s twitching frog legs. The ensuing debate was fierce as camps loyal to either scientist attempted to prove and disprove the others theories and became as animated as the all the zapped frogs in Italy.

The matter was finally put to rest when Galvani showed how the same reaction was produced without the application of any metal whatsoever, but by this time, the challenge of his theories caused the already private Galvani to entirely withdraw from public life. With the death of his beloved Lucia and his loss of his academic standing at the University due to differences with the new Napoleonic governments, he quickly declined in health and died in in 1798. His work was invaluable and crucial to the development not only of the scientific understanding of electricity but the subsequent application in systems of medicine and therapy.

In our next article we move from the electrocution of dead frogs, to dead people. See you then!

This article was originally published on The Pandora Society on March 4th 2015

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