Biography of Giovanni Aldini

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Giovanni Aldini, Italian physicist, was Galvani’s nephew and the greatest supporter of Galvani’s theory. Aldini’s work contributed significantly to make Galvani’s discoveries more widely known. Giovanni Aldini was born in April, 1762, in Bologna, Italy. He was a brother of the statesman Count Antonio Aldini (1756-1826) and nephew of Luigi Galvani. He became professor of physics at Bologna in 1798, in succession to his teacher Sebastiano Canterzani (1734-1819).

His scientific work was chiefly concerned with galvanism and its medicalapplications, with the construction and illumination of lighthouses, and with experiments for preserving human life and material objects from destruction by fire. Giovanni Aldini wrote his scientific papers in French and English in addition to his native Italian. Giovanni Aldini was the greatest of all Galvani’s supporters. He helped to organize a society at Bologna to foster the practices of galvanism in opposition to a Volta society established at the University of Pavia.

Aldini traveled all over Europe publicly electrifying human and animal bodies, and his performances were extraordinary theatrical spectacles. In 1802 Giovanni Aldini came to London with a spectacular demonstration. He had a buildup, as a reviewer from 1802 remarked: “A very ample series of experiments were made by Professor Aldini which show the eminent and superior power of galvanism beyond any other stimulant in nature.

In the months of January and February last, he had the courage to applyit at Bologna to the bodies of various criminals who had suffered death at that place, and by means of the pile he excited the remaining vital forces in a most astonishing manner. This stimulus produced the most horrible contortions and grimaces by the motions of the muscles of the head and face; and an hour and a quarter after death, the arm of one of the bodies was elevated eight inches from the table on which it was supported, and this even when a considerable weight was placed in the hand.”

Aldini’s experiments, including attempts like this to revivify dead bodies, were often carried out before audiences in an almost theatrical atmosphere. Such spectacles performed on humans (and ox heads) produced repeated, spasmodic movements of facial muscles, arms, and legs. He stimulated the heads and trunks of cows, horses, sheep and dogs.

An eyewitness reported: “Aldini, after having cut off the head of a dog, makes the current of a strong battery go through it: the mere contact triggers really terrible convulsions. The jaws open, the teeth chatter, the eyes roll in their sockets; and if reason did not stop the fired imagination, one would almost believe that the animal is suffering and alive again”. Though a showman in many respects, Aldini was among the first to treat mentally ill patients with shocks to the brain, reporting complete electrical cures for a number of mental illnesses.

These experiments were described in details in Aldini’s book published in London in 1803 “An account of the late improvements in galvanism, with a series of curious and interesting experiments performed before the commissioners of the French National Institute, and repeated lately in the anatomical theaters of London, by John Aldini.

” It was an influential book on galvanism, that presented for the first time a series of experiments in which the principles of Volta and Galvani were used together. The fine series of plates illustrated the experiments which involved bodies and heads of animals and humans. For the first time a description appears here of the magnetization of steel needles through connection to a voltaic circuit.

Illustrations from Giovanni Aldini, An Account of the Late Improvements in Galvanism (Artist unknown, 1803)

Giovanni Aldini administered electricity to the bodies of decapitated animals and humans and produced twitching and other physical movements. Mary Shelley was well aware of “galvanism” when she wrote Frankenstein.

The flavor of Aldini’s work is captured well in the following extract from his experiment: “The first of these decapitated criminals being conveyed to the apartment provided for my experiments, in the neighborhood of the place of execution, the head was first subjected to the Galvanic action. For this purpose I had constructed a pile consisting of a hundred pieces of silver and zinc.

Having moistened the inside of the ears with salt water, I formed an arc with two metallic wires, which, proceeding from the two ears, were applied, one to the summit and the other to the bottom of the pile. When this communication was established, I observed strong contractions in the muscles of the face, which were contorted in so irregular a manner that they exhibited the appearance of the most horrid grimaces. The action of the eye-lids was exceedingly striking, though less sensible in the human head than in that of an ox.”

The most famous experiment took place at the Royal College of Surgeons in London in 1803, on a hanged man named George Forster. Anatomical dissection had formed part of Forster’s death sentence, but no one could have visualized quite the violation that Aldini was going to inflict on him. Before a large medical and general audience, he took a pair of conducting rods linked to a powerful battery, and touched the rods to various parts of the body in turn. The results were dramatic. When the rods were applied to Forster’s mouth and ear, “the jaw began to quiver, the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and the left eye actually opened.” When one rod was moved to touch the rectum, the whole body convulsed: indeed, the movements were “so much increased as almost to give an appearance of re-animation”.

And so it went on, with Aldini moving the two rods around the body in a different combinations like a switchboard operator. According tonewspaper reports of the time, some of the spectators genuinely believed that the body was about to come to life, and were suitably awestruck even though it did not happen. But Aldini himself gave no indication that he expected any such thing ” although he did describe his ultimate aim as learning how to “command the vital powers.” In practice, he confined himself to concluding that galvanism “exerted a considerable power over the nervous and muscular systems.” He also noted that nothing could be done with the heart.

Giovanni Aldini made many scientific instruments for his experiments and for teaching students. Many of these instruments are still preserved.

Giovanni Aldini’s scientific instruments used in his studies and for teaching. In recognition of his merits, the emperor of Austria made him a knight of the Iron Crown and a councilor of state at Milan, where he died on the 17th of January 1834. He left by will a considerable sum to found a school of natural science for artisans at Bologna. Giovanni Aldini died on January 17, 1834, in Milan, Italy.

Giovanni Aldini by William Brockedon chalk and pencil, 1830.

 
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