Dell’uso e dell’attivita dell’arco conduttore nelle contrazioni dei muscoli. – Supplemento al trattato dell’uso ... dell arco conduttore.

Bologna: a S. Tommaso d’Aquino, 1794.

First edition, including the very rare Supplement, of “the first account of Galvani’s electrical experiments without the presence of metals, in which he demonstrated the presence of electrical energy in living tissue by showing that convulsions in frog nerve-muscle preparations could be produced simply by touching nerve to muscle. This observation of the injury current of nerve or demarcation current was the first proof of animal electricity. The key experiment appears in a 23-page “Supplemento” following p. 168” (Garrison-Morton). Galvani (1737-98) carried out experiments with various bent metal conductors, touching one end to the hooks in the spinal cord and the other to the muscles in a frog’s leg. Contractions resulted, their strength depending on the metals used for the hook and the arc. Contractions did not result when a non-conductor replaced the metal in the arc. Galvani interpreted the results of these experiments by postulating that “animals possess in their nerves and muscles a subtle fluid quite analogous to ordinary electricity'” (DSB). Although initially a supporter of Galvani’s theory, “by the end of 1793 [Alessandro] Volta had discarded Galvani’s animal electricity for his own theory of ‘contact,’ according to which conducting bodies of certain kinds, especially metals, can by their mere contact excite electrical fluid, which can in turn stimulate various irritable responses. Galvani was not prepared to concede defeat, and he and his nephew Giovanni Aldini mounted a campaign in the mid-1790s to establish beyond doubt the existence of a special animal electricity. In 1794 and 1797 he announced experiments employing only frog nerve-muscle preparations (without metals) and showed that convulsive contractions could be produced merely by touching nerves to muscles … When Galvani died, prospects for the survival of his theory were very uncertain. Nevertheless, support for the concept of animal electricity survived into the nineteenth century and ultimately led in the 1840s to the basic work of Emil du Bois-Reymond” (ibid.). The precise authorship of this rare work is uncertain. Silvestro Gherardi, the editor of Galvani’s collected works (Bologna, 1841), attributed the work to Galvani alone, but other scholars have considered it to be a collaborative effort between Galvani and his nephew Giovanni Aldini, professor of physics at the University of Bologna, who championed his retiring uncle’s cause and carried on most of the correspondence, publishing and lecturing in the controversy aroused by Galvani’s theory. ABPC/RBH list only this copy (Christie’s, June 16, 1998, lot 462, $12,650).

Provenance: Haskell F. Norman (bookplate on verso of front wrapper).

“By the end of the eighteenth century the connexion between nervous action and electricity had been the subject of investigation for some time. Newton, when discussing the properties of aether, had made suggestions that an electric spirit might convey sensations to the brain along the nerves and produce muscular reactions. Haller also made experiments trying to prove a connexion between electrical action and reflexes of the muscles. It was left to Luigi Galvani, professor of anatomy at Bologna, … to provide, as he thought, dramatic experiments on what he called ’animal electricity’ and afterwards ’galvanism’” (PMM).

“During the 1770’s [Galvani’s] research interests shifted to a considerable extent from largely anatomical to more strictly physiological studies, specifically on nerves and muscles. In 1772 Galvani read a paper on Hallerian irritability to the Istituto delle Scienze, and in 1773 he discussed the muscle movement of frogs before the same body. In 1774 he read a paper on the effect of opiates on frog nerves. These researches fused in his mind with slightly earlier eighteenth-century studies, several of them by Italians, on the electrical stimulation of nerves and muscles. Picking up where Beccaria, Leopoldo Caldani, Felice Fontana, and Tommaso Laghi had recently left off, Galvani began in late 1780 an extensive and meticulous series of investigations into the irritable responses elicited by static electricity in properly prepared frogs” (DSB).

“The initial observation, described by Galvani in his De viribus electricitatis, occurred when a dissected frog lay on a table on which there was an electrical machine. Violent contractions of the muscles of the frog’s limb occurred when an assistant touched the inner crural nerve with the point of a scalpel; and it was observed that the contractions occurred simultaneously with the discharge of a spark from the electrical machine, and only if the scalpel were grounded by the experimenter touching with a finger the iron nails that fastened the blade to the handle – if the experimenter held the bone without touching the nails or blade, so that the blade was insulated, no contractions occurred. What puzzled Galvani was the fact that these contractions occurred even if the frog was completely insulated from the machine and at some distance from it. He did not know that the insulated frog was most likely charged by induction, even though insulated from the machine, and that if the nerve were grounded when the machine was discharged, then the dissected frog would be discharged through the scalpel and experimenter, and that the sudden change of potential at the point where the scalpel was in contact with the nerve would produce a muscle contraction in no way dissimilar to the contractions excited electrically in experiments on living and dead animals for at least thirty years past …

“Galvani was stimulated by his observation and bewildered. But, like any good experimenter, he studied the puzzling phenomenon by varying the parameters. Thus, he changed over from using the charge produced by an electrical machine to the charges naturally produced in thunder-clouds. He found that his frog preparations, hanging by copper hooks from an iron railing, contracted not only during thunder-storms but in calm weather too. Impatient at the long wait between contractions in fair weather, he tells us that he began to scrape and press the copper hook (which was fastened to the backbone of the frog) against the iron railing and discovered that contractions were frequently produced, apparently in independence of variations in the weather. Similar results were produced indoors when the frog was placed on an iron plate and the brass hook was placed against the plate. This last experiment was varied in different ways, being performed in different places and at different times of the day, and using different metals. The major effects noticed were a variation in the intensity of the contractions with different metals and a complete absence of contractions when non-conductors such as glass, gum, resin, stone or dry wood were employed. These results led him to believe that an electric fluid must be in the animal itself and he likened the whole process of a fine nervous fluid flowing from the nerves into the muscles to the passage of electricity in the discharge of a Leyden jar” (Cohen, pp. 27-8).

“Volta’s first public reaction to Galvani’s experiments was given in an address on 5 May 1792 at the Aula of the University of Pavia on the occasion of a ‘promotion’ ceremony. Cameron Walker has pointed out that Volta did not take vigorous exception to Galvani’s work at this time but merely to his conclusions concerning animal electricity. Volta was prepared to suppose that the electricity might possibly come from an inherent animal electricity but he added, ‘I want more convincing proofs to overcome my lack of faith with regard to animal electricity.’ Cameron Walker adds that this lack of faith did not refer to Galvani’s experiments as such but only to the inference that Galvani had thus proved the existence of animal electricity. Various other passages in Volta’s first memoir indicate that he was most cordial to Galvani and full of admiration for his work. It is also clear from internal evidence that on 5 May 1791 he had done little more than digest the contents of Galvani’s treatise and had not yet attempted to repeat his experiments, for he says: ‘The treatise which appeared a few months ago concerning the action of electricity on the movement of muscles, written by Signor A. Galvani, member of the Institute of Bologna and Professor of the University of that place, who has already distinguished himself by other anatomical and physiological discoveries, contains one of those great and brilliant discoveries which deserves to mark a new era in the annals of physics and medicine.’

“To be more specific, Volta believed that the convulsive movements described by Galvani were due to electric currents generated by friction – in short, ‘frictional’ electricity rather than ‘animal’ electricity …

“A rejoinder to Volta’s discourse soon came from the youthful Aldini, who must assuredly have received his uncle’s permission to reply; for he issued from a Mantua press under an imprimatur dated 28 July 1792 a reprint of De viribus electricitatis together with the Galvani-Carminati correspondence, to which is prefixed a 26-page commentary by himself under the title De animalis electricae theoriae ortu atque incrementis.

“From that time on, with but one exception, it is no longer from Galvani that the public hears in defence of animal electricity, but chiefly from the irrepressible Aldini, to whom, rather than to Galvani, Volta addresses some of his published correspondence. In 1793 and again in 1794 Aldini read before the Institute of Bologna a dissertation on the subject, the two having been published together in the latter year” (Cohen, pp. 159-160).

“In 1794 [Galvani] offered a defense of his position in an anonymous book, Dell’uso e dell’attività dell’arco conduttore nella contrazione dei muscoli (‘On the Use and Activity of the Conductive Arch in the Contraction of Muscles’), the supplement of which described muscular contraction without the need of any metal. He caused a muscle to contract by touching the exposed muscle of one frog with a nerve of another and thus established for the first time that bioelectric forces exist within living tissue” (Britannica).

“Although it was published anonymously, its author was certainly Galvani, as several readers had supposed at the time it came out. The choice of anonymity might partially reflect the contributions of other scholars in writing the book … [but] was probably also dictated by the desire to look like an impartial observer, outside the controversy, so as to increase the credibility of his arguments and to be able to criticize Volta from a sort of ‘impersonal’ point of view …

“As its title suggested, the central theme of the work was the ‘conducting arc’, an expression used to refer both to the experimental device (the arc, usually made of metal, used to discharge the electricity accumulated in a state of imbalance) and to the circuit through which the discharge took place … in the title there is no reference whatsoever to the themes of neuromuscular physiology, which in fact constitutes the essential topic of the work …

“The Trattato is important both for the logical arguments being developed in it, and for the experimental results it refers to. As far as the first point is concerned, it is necessary to underline how, in this work, Galvani changed his own hypothesis about the ‘animal Leyden jar’ in some significant respects. He did this by developing a conception that … allowed him to counter more effectively the objections raised by Volta on the basis of the efficacy of bimetallic arcs … The experimental results referred to in the Trattato are also particularly relevant because they showed that it was possible to obtain muscular contractions by circulating animal electricity without using arcs made of metal or other materials extrinsic to the animal. In particular, there is an experiment in which contractions were produced by the direct contact between nerve and muscle, without any conducting body in between … This experiment, argued Galvani, was ‘decisive’ … [it] proved that muscular contractions were produced by an electrical imbalance existing in the animal. More precisely, according to Galvani there was in the animal a special ‘machine’ endowed with these three properties: (1) ‘to contain two opposite [kinds] of electricity’; (2) ‘to keep constantly and essentially separated and isolated these two sorts of electricity’; (3) ‘to keep hold of its electricity so tenaciously, that it does not allow the exit of [its electricity] (so as to manifest it with contractions) if the latter is not brought back to the same point by means of an arc’. As these properties corresponded to those that characterized the Leyden jar, it was thus possible to conclude – as Galvani had already stated in De viribus – that the muscle was an ‘animal Leyden jar.’

“The central aspect of the new explanatory model elaborated by Galvani … was the idea that a continuous circulation of the electric fluid existed in the animal, ‘a continuous torrent’, which flowed from the interior of the muscle through the nerve fibers – defined by Galvani as the ‘internal arc’ – and then exited from nerves to reach the external part of the muscle fiber through the wet tissues and the ‘involucres’ or ‘membranes’ that surrounded the nerve and the muscle (the so-called natural external arc). According to this idea, the electrical circulation did not produce any evident muscle contractions under normal conditions, for ‘when this current flows placidly and evenly, then the muscle seems to be at rest.’ As to the electric flow through the nerve tissue, Galvani conceived the nerve as a hollow conductor surrounded by an insulating membrane, in a way similar to what he had written in De viribus. However, he now thought of the internal conducting matter not as a ‘hypothetical lymph’, but rather as a solid substance composed of ‘some oily parts mixed with many conducting parts.’ The presence of oily parts was necessary to account for … why in normal conditions the electric flow was ‘placid and even’ and did not produce any contractions.

“To explain how a moderate flow of electricity through the insulating nerve sheath was possible, Galvani referred to a physical model, which is very interesting from two points of view. First, to a modern electrophysiologist, it seems to anticipate the notion of ionic channels, that is, the molecular structures that are one of the most important discoveries of modern life sciences. Secondly, and more important, this physical model shows at its best one of the most interesting aspects of Galvani’s scientific attitude, namely his reasoning through analogies taken from different fields of natural investigation and his creativity in designing artificial models to explain natural phenomena …

“In Galvani’s model, contractions occur when the ‘placid electric torrent’ flowing through the natural arc formed by the muscle and nerve tissues is altered by increasing its ‘speed and force’. In experimental conditions, this could be obtained by applying a conducting arc between the nerve and the muscle … [which] would ‘deviate the said torrent from the nerve and force it to make a sort of jump or leap both from one part of the nerve to another, and from one part of the nerve to the muscle’ …

“In the autumn of 1794, shortly after the Trattato, Galvani published a short Supplemento, in which … he focused on the phenomenon of the contractions obtained without using any metal, and especially by directly connecting nerve and muscle … We may note two observations made here [i.e., in the Supplemento] for the first time … The first observation concerned the importance of using the extremity of a severed nerve to make the contact between the animal tissues in order to obtain muscular contractions without the use of any metal. This observation, which Galvani did not explain, … can be understood well only in the light of modern knowledge of electrophysiology … Galvani’s experimental ability and acuteness are testified by a second observation contained in the last pages of the Supplemento that referred again to the circumstances of the experiment on the direct contact between nerve and muscle. When preparing the animal, the surface of the muscle should not be lacerated, as this ‘would much disturb and often even prevent the success of the experiment’ … this observation can also be accounted for by the modern knowledge of electrophysiological phenomena” (Piccolino & Bresadola, pp. 163-175).

Fulton and Stanton, Galvani 24; Garrison-Morton 594:1; Norman 871 (this copy). Cohen, Introduction to: Galvani, Commentary of the Effects of Electricity on Muscular Motion. Translated into English by Margaret Glover Foley, 1953. Piccolino & Bresadola, Shocking Frogs: Galvani, Volta, and the Electric Origins of Neuroscience, 2013.



4to (219 x 159 mm), 96 leaves (light mostly marginal foxing, marginal dampstain to last few leaves). ‘Luigi Galvani’ written on title page (not in his hand). Modern marbled paper wrappers, preserving original pastedown endpapers, edges uncut; folding cloth case.

Item #5126

Price: $35,000.00

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