Delicately, the practiced hand of the anatomist pealed back the skin of the once living frog to reveal the intricate network of muscles and nerves within. Meanwhile, electrical sparks flashed and crackled as his assistant dutifully turned the crank of the static electricity generator and charged the primitive capacitor known as a Leyden jar. Each worked independently, ignorant of the discovery to come.
No one is quite sure why he reached for one of the dissecting knives from the table where his master worked, but as the assistant did so, an electric spark jumped from the tip of the blade to the exposed leg of the frog. As electricity surged along the sciatic nerve of the amphibian, the leg convulsed violently as if alive. Both men were stunned. They stooped to examine the leg more closely. The doctor prodded the leg with the tip of his own scalpel to assure himself that the frog was indeed dead. Since the assistant no longer cranked the generator, the leg remained still. Had this happened in someone else’s laboratory, it might have been dismissed as a freak occurrence, but this was the laboratory of the great Italian anatomist, Luigi Galvani, and he was intrigued.
In 1780, Galvani was a well respected physician and lecturer at the famed University of Bologna. He had produced a number of significant writings on anatomy, such as his well regarded treatise on the kidneys of birds. However, like many scientists at the time, he had become fascinated with electricity. Benjamin Franklin’s groundbreaking work on lightning in the 1750’s had made the study of electricity all the rage among researchers in both the New and Old World. Galvani was one of many who eagerly sought the primitive electrical apparatus of the day to explore this new phenomenon.
The accident with the frog caused Galvani wonder. Could electricity somehow animate the unliving tissue of the frog? Could there be some connection between sparks of electricity and the spark of life itself? He immediately began to investigate the possibility. Being a trained scientist and meticulous experimenter, he carefully set up a series of experiments to replicate the initial accident. In his own words, “For it is easy in experimentation to be deceived, and to think one has seen and discovered what we desire to see and discover.”
Galvani tried to see if the material with which he touched the frog’s leg had an effect. An iron rod duplicated the original results, but a glass rod did not. He tried attaching the leg to a long wire while he cranked the generator. When he touched the wire, the leg again convulsed. Again and again he repeated his experiments, changing one variable and then another. In one of his more ghoulish attempts, he attached the spinal cords and legs of several dissected frogs to brass hooks. The hooks were then hung from an iron railing surrounding Galvani’s garden. Under the proper atmospheric conditions, they would twitch and contract. One can only imagine what it must have been like to sit in the garden and watch a line full of disembodied frog legs dance to the accompaniment of thunder and lightning.
Galvani used these experiments and subsequent ones over the course of ten years to develop his theory of animal electricity, what today we would call bioelectricity. In 1791, he published his results in De Viribus Electricitatis in Motu Musculari Commentarius, in English: On the Effects of Electricity on the Motion of Muscles. It was met with widespread acclaim at the time.
Most of us associate the image of the mad scientist using the wondrous powers of electricity to revive the flesh of the dead with the work of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly, but it should be remembered that Luigi Galvani published his work six years before she was born and almost thirty years before the first publication of Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus. Perhaps it would be more accurate to credit him with burning this iconic image into the popular psyche. Galvani, the real life scientist, therefore is better deserving of the title Modern Prometheus.