Hey, podcast listener! Martha here with a special minicast of A Way with Words. Today I want to tell you a story — and make a request for you to support A Way with Words.
The story is about a guy named Luigi. He was born in 1737 in Bologna, Italy. Studied medicine and philosophy at the university there, then went on to work as a physician and surgeon. In those early years, when he wasn’t practicing medicine, he was researching bird anatomy — the structure of their kidneys, their auditory canals, that sort of thing.
This minicast was released on December 12, 2019.
Eventually, he became a professor there. Luigi and his colleagues spent a lot of time puzzling over the nervous system — specifically, what was the connection between nerves and the muscles they seemed to help move? For centuries, people had guesses about how they worked. The ancient Greeks thought nerves were hollow, but filled with spirits — some kind of mysterious, invisible substances that could cause sensation and motion.
The problem was, nobody could verify any of this by experiment. So other ideas were proposed: maybe the nerves somehow dripped fluid onto muscles to stimulate them, for example. Then, in the early 1700s, some scientists began to suspect that maybe what filled and operated the nerves was … electricity.
In those days, there was a growing fascination with this strange phenomenon called electricity. “Ben Franklin with the key and the kite? You see it right?” That was in 1752.
Back to Luigi, the scientist. A few years after Ben Franklin was experimenting with electricity, Luigi was researching its effect on nerves and muscles. He conducted experiments in his own home — mostly using dead frogs. He’d connect their nerves and muscles to electrical wires. He even hung dead frogs on copper hooks outside his home during thunderstorms, and connected them to a lightning rod with a wire.
One day he noticed that when a dead frog’s legs were touched by both a copper hook and a sheet of iron at the same time, the legs twitched as if they were alive. He went on to hypothesize that electricity must be “inherent in the animal itself.” Maybe, he thought, this “animal electricity” was produced in the brain and then distributed to muscles via the nerves.
In reality, what probably happened was that by touching two different metals to the frog and to each other in that way, he’d simply made a closed circuit. The frog’s body didn’t secrete electricity — it merely conducted it.
In 1791, Luigi wrote an influential scientific paper in Latin about all this. The title translates as Commentary on the Effects of Electricity on Muscular Motion. Luigi’s guess was wrong, of course. But his paper captured the public imagination.
In fact, Luigi’s experiments caught the attention of a 19-year-old Englishwoman who mused that maybe a dead body could be re-animated using electricity — as she would later put it, Luigi’s experiments made her wonder if “perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth.”
That young woman, of course, was Mary Shelley, who in 1818 would go on to publish her novel Frankenstein.
Despite his scientific mistake, Galvani achieved a measure of linguistic immortality as well. For his last name was Galvani. Luigi Galvani. Today you’ll find his name inside a word that means to “jolt” or “jump-start”: galvanize.
If you’d like to see a painting of Luigi and his frog legs, and find more information about him, including diagrams of his experiments, go to our website. Which brings me to my request:
As you can imagine, Grant and I love what we do. We can’t wait to bring you more stories about language and conversation about the topics you’re interested in. But we can’t do it without your help. So please take a moment to go to waywordradio.org, click on the donate button, and do your part to help us keep producing more episodes. Your gift to our nonprofit will help, well, galvanize our show; you’ll jumpstart a whole new year of episodes. Make a difference today. Thanks!