Contents Index

Lewis Galvani

in William Nicholson's British Encyclopedia; or, Dictionary of arts and sciences. Comprising an accurate and popular view of the present improved state of human knowledge. 6 vols. (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Orme, 1809), III, unpaginated.

GALVANI (Lewis) a modern physiologist, who has had the honour of giving his name to a supposed new principle in nature, was born in 1737, at Bologna, where several of his relations had distinguished themselves in jurisprudence and theology. From his early youth he was much disposed to the greatest austerities of the Catholic religion, and particularly frequented a convent, the monks of which attached themselves to the solemn duty of visiting the dying. He shewed an inclination to enter into this order, but was diverted from it by one of the fraternity. Thenceforth he devoted himself to the study of medicine in its different branches. His masters were the Doctors Beccari, Jacconi, Galli, and especially the professor Galeazzi. who received him into his house, and gave him his daughter in marriage. In 1762, he sustained with reputation an inaugural thesis "De Ossibus," and was then created public lecturer in the University of Bologna, and appointed reader in anatomy to the institute in that city. His excellent method of lecturing drew a crowd of auditors, and he employed his leisure in experiments and in the study of comparative anatomy. He made a number of curious observations on the urinary organs, and on the organ of hearing in birds, which were published in the Memoirs of the Institute. His reputation, as an anatomist and physiologist, was established in the schools of Italy, when accident gave birth to the discovery which has immortalised his name. His beloved wife, with whom he lived many years in the tenderest union, was at this time in a declining state of health. As a restorative, she made use of a soup of frogs; and some of these animals, skinned for the purpose, happened to lie upon a table in her husband's laboratory, upon which was placed an electrical machine. One of the assistants in his experiments chanced carelessly to bring the point of a scalpel near the crural nerves of a frog, lying not far from the conductor. Instantly the muscles of the limb were agitated with quick convulsions. Madame Galvani, a woman of quick understanding, and a scientific turn, was present, and, struck with the phenomenon, she immediately went to inform her husband of it. He came and repeated the experiment; and soon found that the convulsion only took place when a spark was drawn from the conductor, at the time the scalpel was in contact with the nerve. It is unnecessary in this place to mention the series of experiments by which he proceeded to investigate the law of nature, of which accident had thus given him a glimpse, for which our article GALVANISM must be consulted.

In conjunction with these enquiries, his duties as a professor, and his employment as a surgeon and accoucheur, in which branches he was very eminent, gave full occupation to his industry. He drew up various memoirs upon professional topics, which have remained unedited, and regularly held learned conversations with a few literary friends, in which new works were read and commented upon. He was a man of an amiable character in private life, and possessed of great sensibility, which he had the misfortune of being called to display on the death of his wife in 1790, an event which threw him into a profound melancholy. He rarely suffered a day to pass without visiting her tomb in the nunnery of St. Catherine, and pouring out his prayers and lamentations over her remains. He was always, indeed, punctual in practising the minutest rites of his religion, the early strong impressions of which never left him, and this attachment to religion was probably the cause of [his] steadily refusing to take the civic oath exacted by the new constitution of the Cisalpine Republic, in consequence of which he incurred the deprivation of his posts and dignities. A prey to melancholy, and reduced almost to indigence, he retired to the house of his brother James, a man of very respectable character, and there fell into a state of languor and almost imbecility. The republican governors, probably ashamed of their conduct towards such a man, passed a decree for his restoration to his professional chair and its emoluments; but it then was too late. He died on November 5, 1798, at the age of sixty, amid the tears of his friends, and the public regret.