Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 16, 2017
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Amphibian magnetism

Are frog legs the key to life’s mysteries?

Many a daydreaming doctor-to-be is born every time a ninth-grade biology teacher breaks out the frogs’ legs for an intro to the art of dissection... perhaps a few French chefs are born, too. Though usually used to teach basic anatomy — and induce classroom hysteria among squealing teenage girls and their eager-to-impress male counterparts — the exercise is actually designed to do more than just weed out the weak-stomached from the strong.

Indeed, slicing and dicing hapless amphibians occupies a noble position in medical history. Aside from grooming future PETA supporters, exposure to the simple workings of frogs legs has inspired some to ponder the most complex mysteries of life. One such pioneering spirit was Luigi Galvani, an Italian physicist and physician.

Beginnings in Bologna

Little Luigi was born on September 9, 1737 in the Italian university town of Bologna. He was gifted with a sharp mind and was provided with an excellent classical education by his father, a well-respected local physician.

Since Luigi enjoyed tinkering about with cables and contraptions, he first wanted to become a mechanic. Presumably that didn’t go over well in the Galvani household, nor did Luigi’s brief dalliance with theology and his desire to become a monk. Luigi was eventually persuaded by his father to attend the medical school in 1755 and continue the family tradition. As it turned out, medicine suited the brilliant young fellow, and he soon became a standout among his peers. Four years later, he completed his undergrad degree in medicine and literature.

Luigi graduated with a Doctor of Medicine in 1762. At first, he planned to become a practising physician like his father, but his plans changed when the university offered him a position as a lecturer in anatomy. He was drawn toward physiology and anatomy, at first studying the hearing, renal and reproductive systems of birds. He also developed an interest in human reproduction and his impressive research and surgical aptitude led to his appointment as a professor of obstetrics at the Institute of Arts and Sciences.

Life was good for the one-day toad torturer. In 1764, he married Lucia Galleazzi, a young woman from a prominent intellectual family. In 1772, at the young age of 35, Luigi became president of the Bologna Academy of Science, perhaps on the recommendation of his father-in-law, who also worked there as a professor. But the discovery for which he would become best known came, as so many great discoveries do, quite accidentally, in the year 1786.

Accidents happen

Beginning in 1773, Luigi was known to have discussed the anatomy of frogs during his comparative anatomy lectures. Within a few years, his discussions often turned to electricity and electrophysiology as well, following his department’s purchase of an electrostatic machine. The machine was used to generate sparks.

As soon as Luigi realized he possessed the power of lightning, he blended his loves of anatomy and electricity and began experimenting with electrical muscle stimulation. He learned, through two separate instances in 1786, that electricity could reanimate the muscles of decapitated frogs.

In the first instance, his wife Lucia noticed that while one of Luigi’s students was at work dissecting a portion of a frog’s leg near its sciatic nerve, the animal’s limb began to quiver when a spark from the brass conductor of a nearby electrostatic machine flew at the scalpel. When repeated, they found they could induce the same reaction in the dead tissue as long as the metal instruments being used had picked up a charge first. At around the same time, Luigi himself observed that when the frog specimens he’d hung outside on brass hooks flapped about in the breeze, they too began to twitch whenever they made contact with the balcony’s iron railing.

But what was causing this amazing effect? Luigi believed that the brain produced an electrical fluid that was delivered to the body’s muscles via the nervous system. He termed this new form of energy “animal electricity,” as opposed to the other known kinds — “artificial electricity,” the result of friction and creator of static, and “natural electricity,” such as lightning. For the first time, Galvani proved that there was indeed an electrical component between muscles and nerves, a component previously thought to have been simple water channels. 

Galvanized into action

Luigi began setting up different experiments to examine the situation, including lightning tests on tissue. He worked quietly over the next five years until he was satisfied with his theory. He published the results in 1791 in a landmark study entitled De viribus electricitatis in motu musculari commentarius. Though many agreed with him, plenty of his contemporaries did not. His main rival was fellow Italian and sometime friend, Allesandro Volta (1745-1847), physicist at the University of Padua and inventor of the first electrical battery in 1800.

Volta disagreed with Galvani on several levels. First, he felt that there was only one kind of electricity, and he had different ideas about the nature of the physiological action of electricity in animal tissue, which had been renamed “galvanism” at the earlier suggestion of Volta himself. Where Galvani believed that electricity was always present in the body’s tissues, Volta believed its source to be an external force introduced into the body via contact with conductors, such as that of differing metals and a moist environment. In a sense, they were both right, and their decade-long discourse remained friendly and respectful.

Galvani also had his hand in a few other pots. His experiments with metal and corrosion, for example, led to galvanized steel. He also wrote numerous treatises on obstetrics and surgery and has a few scientific instruments, as well as a crater on the moon, named in his honour. Of all of his accomplishments, however, nothing compares with the light his electrical experiments brought to bear on some of life’s mysteries.

His experiments sought to answer some extremely pressing questions. What makes us live? What animates us? What is that spark of life that delivers us from simple animal material, flesh, bones and blood, into the living, breathing sentient beings that we are? His studies into the electrical component of our physical selves blew these ancient debates in theology, philosophy and science wide open.

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