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No. 10, June 1997
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Marco Bresadola

Medicine and natural philosophy in Luigi Galvani

Two hundred years after his death, the name of Luigi Galvani (1737-1798) is well known among historians of science and a broader public. His contributions to the investigation of muscular physiology and to the birth of electrodynamics have been firmly established. There are several studies on the debate opened by the publication of his major work, De viribus electricitatis in motu musculari (1791), where he advanced his theory of animal electricity. In a recent workshop held in Bologna, some of the contributors discussed the reception of Galvani’s theory in different national contexts, such as Germany, France and Britain. At the end of the 18th century Galvani’s work was of major interest in some of the most important scientific centres in Europe, and it was highly influential in the development of electrophysiology during the 19th century.

Less well known is the work of Galvani as a physician, as a teacher of surgery, anatomy and obstetrics, as well as the context of his interest in animal electricity and the pathway he followed in his experimental investigation of muscular motion. These topics are at the core of the present dissertation, which reconstructs the professional and scientific activity of Galvani in the period before the publication of De viribus.

Questions addressed in this study are the following: What was Galvani’s education like? In what medical and scientific milieu did he grow up and work? How did the diverse activities in which Galvani was involved interact? And how did they shape his scientific practice?

In order to answer these questions, a wide range of unpublished or previously unknown primary sources have been used, such as Galvani’s manuscripts (some thousands sheets), the inventory of his library, and his collection of scientific instruments. A detailed study of these sources and of the local context provided by the University of Bologna, in which Galvani was educated and carried out his professional and scientific activity, has made it possible to shed new light on the conception of medicine that informed all his activity and the roots of his investigation of muscular motion and, more generally, of animal economy.

The improvement of the art of healing was a fundamental concern for Galvani, and it was an aim that could be reached, according to him, only by an experimental knowledge of the structure and functions of the living being. This conception of medicine fashioned all of Galvani’s anatomical and physiological research and directed his interest to some scientific fields, like electricity and the study of "airs", which in his view were closely connected with animal economy and practical medicine. In fact, in his investigation of muscular motion Galvani applied the instruments, methods and interpretive models of electricity to the study of nerves and muscle contractions, in order to understand both the mechanism of animal motion and the diseases of the nervous system. He adopted a similar approach when he investigated the chemical composition of the animal body by assuming the methods and instruments of the new pneumatic chemistry.

Contemporary readers of De viribus were particularly impressed by the experiments described in Galvani’s memoir. The central chapters of the present study take into account Galvani’s scientific practice, as revealed in his laboratory notebooks. They link Galvani’s activity in his laboratory to his anatomical and surgical background, to the investigations carried out in the context of the debate in Bologna on Albrecht von Haller’s view of "irritability" and "sensibility", and to the fields of electricity and pneumatic chemistry. The last chapter examines the content of De viribus and compares it with Galvani’s investigative pathway in the previous decade, in order to highlight the changes and the new strategies adopted by Galvani when he decided to make his research public.

This study intends to offer a more complex and varied image of Galvani than the standard one, and to place his work in the medical and scientific context of the 18th century. Finally, it is maintained that the detailed reconstruction of Galvani’s investigative pathway can open up new perspectives also on the controversy over animal electricity, and Galvani’s own role in it.

Address: Marco Bresadola, CIS-Department of Philosophy, University of Bologna, Via Zamboni 38, 40126 Bologna-I.

In progress

Bari and Bologna

Raffaella Seligardi

Lavoisier in Italy: Italian reactions to the new chemistry

In 1989 and 1994 the bicentennials of the publication of Lavoisier’s Traité élémentaire de chimie, and of Lavoisier’s death, provided historians with major opportunities to reassess the significance of the so-called chemical revolution and of Lavoisier’s own work. A rich harvest of new studies was produced, and a particular relevance was given to the theme of the diffusion of the new chemistry outside France. Some of the studies focusing on the latter issue have shown how the transferring of a theory, as well as of laboratory practices, from one country to another, depends on the different cultural and scientific traditions, on the degree of institutionalisation of the discipline involved in the different contexts, on the quality and quantity of the laboratory apparatus available, and, sometimes, on the political situation of the different states as well.

The situation of Italy in the late 18th century is quite peculiar in that regard, because of the fragmentation of the Peninsula into many different countries, notwithstanding the fact that the notion of Italy as a cultural unity was relatively widespread in scientific circles. Thus, we cannot assume in the case of Italy a homogeneity of the factors mentioned above. However, attempts at a general assessment of chemistry in Italy in the age of Lavoisier have been made. Ferdinando Abbri opened the path with researches on chemistry in Piedmont, Lombardy, Venice, Tuscany, and the South of Italy. Moreover, he showed how several Italian scientists were well known north of the Alps.

The present dissertation aims at studying the diffusion of the new chemistry in the various Italian states, the influence Italian researchers had abroad, the (possible) common reasons for accepting or rejecting the new chemistry among Italian scientists, and at filling in the gaps in Abbri’s work.

The dissertation will focus on the North of Italy (Piedmont, Lombardy, Venice, and Bologna), but with frequent excursions into Tuscany and the Southern states.

Address: Raffaella Seligardi, CIS-Department of Philosophy, University of Bologna, Via Zamboni 38, 40126 Bologna, Italy.


Paola Bertucci

Sparks of life. Electricity, the human body and the economy of nature in late 18th-century England

This dissertation is a study of medical electricity in 18th-century England. It is structured in two main sections, one of which analyses the interpretations of the role of electricity in the economy of nature, and the other one explores the uses of the human body as an instrument of electrical investigation. Medical electricity is presented as the branch of 18th-century electrical practice where these two lines of research met.

Natural philosophers engaged in experiments to test the effects of electricity on the body. The medical application of electricity provided further experimental evidence of the relation between electricity and life. The dissertation will show that medical electricity, far from being peripheral in electrical research, amplified the interest in electricity, providing a new market for instrument-makers and new opportunities for various kinds of practitioners to make themselves known in learned circles, especially the Royal Society of London.

Instruments, therapies and practitioners of medical electricity are analysed against the scenario of 18th-century natural philosophy, emphasising the connections between different areas of electrical practice. In particular, it is argued that problems arising from investigations on atmospheric, animal and medical electricity (rather than the formulation of comprehensive theories) informed 18th-century electrical research.

Address: Paola Bertucci, Somerville College, OX2 6HD Oxford.

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