Alexander von Humboldt: Galvanism, Animal Electricity, and Self-Experimentation Part 1: Formative Years, Naturphilosophie, and Galvanism
Journal of the history of the neurosciences | 16 Apr 2013
S Finger, M Piccolino and FW Stahnisch
During the 1790s, Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), who showed an early interest in many facets of natural philosophy and natural history, delved into the controversial subject of galvanism and animal electricity, hoping to shed light on the basic nature of the nerve force. He was motivated by his broad worldview, the experiments of Luigi Galvani, who favored animal electricity in more than a few specialized fishes, and the thinking of Alessandro Volta, who accepted specialized fish electricity but was not willing to generalize to other animals, thinking Galvani’s frog experiments flawed by his use of metals. Differing from many German Naturphilosophen, who shunned “violent” experiments, the newest instruments, and detailed measurement, Humboldt conducted thousands of galvanic experiments on animals and animal parts, as well as many on his own body, some of which caused him great pain. He interpreted his results as supporting some but not all of the claims made by both Galvani and Volta. Notably, because of certain negative findings and phenomenological differences, he remained skeptical about the intrinsic animal force being qualitatively identical to true electricity. Hence, he referred to a “galvanic force,” not animal electricity, in his letters and publications, a theoretical position he would abandon with Volta’s help early in the new century.
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