Biography of Jacques-Arsene d’Arsonval


French physicist and physician, D’ Arsonval was a pioneer in electrotherapy, he studied the medical application of high-frequency currents. Among his inventions were dielectric heating and various measuring devices, including the thermocouple ammeter and moving-coil galvanometer.

These measuring tools helped establish the science of electrical engineering. d’Arsonval’s galvanometer, which he invented in 1882 for measuring weak electric currents, became the basis for almost all panel-type pointer meters. He was also involved in the industrial application of electricity.

Jaques-Arsene d’Arsonval was born on June 8, 1851 at the Pigsty, canton Saint-Germain-les-Belles, in his family house of “Borie” known from 14th century. His family had very old and noble roots. Nine children were born in the family, but only two of them including Arsene survived. Arsene d’Arsonval has studied in the Imperial College of Limoges (now LycEe Gay-Lussac).

After the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 he went to Paris where he met the famous physiologist Claude Bernard (1813-1878) and was drawn to Bernard’s lectures at Sainte-Barbe college in Paris (the College bears d’Arsonval’s name since 1959). d’Arsonval was Bernard’s prEparateur from 1873 to 1878. After Bernard’s death he assisted Charles-Edouard Brown-SEquard (1817-1894), giving the latter’s winter courses, and eventually replaced him at the College de France when Brown-SEquard died in 1894. The picture shows him as a student in 1873.

Influenced by Bernard, d’Arsonval gave up his medical career for a life of physiological research. As Bernard’s assistant, d’Arsonval’s first projects were on animal heat and body temperature. He assisted Brown-SEquard the famous experiment on endocrine extract.

Their investigations of the therapeutic properties of animal extracts revealed clues to the later controversial hormone theory of wound healing. They found that testicular extracts from guinea pigs had definite antiseptic properties. D’Arsonval’s most outstanding scientific contributions, however, involved the biological and technological applications of electricity. Much of this work concerned muscle contractions.

In 1871, 20 years old, d’ Arsonval married a young widow, mother of a 3 years old girl. His wife died in 1896. He was married again, but he didn’t have children from the both wifes.

On November 14, 1881, Paul Bert (1830-1886) was appointed minister of public education in Leon Gambetta’s (1838-1882) government. Although Gambetta’s ministry only lasted until January 26, 1882, Bert, physiologist, politician and diplomat, considered the founder of modern aerospace medicine, enabled College de France to establish a laboratory for biophysics at rue St.-Jacques (the laboratory building is shown in the picture). D’Arsonval directed the laboratory from 1882 until 1910, when he moved to the new laboratory at Nogent-sur-Marne, erected with funds raised by public subscription. He directed this laboratory until his retirement in 1931.

Biomedical engineering – the application of engineering science and techniques to the problems of biology and medicine – did not emerge as a field until after World War II. However, Arsene d’Arsonval made important contributions to this area much earlier. Trained as a physician, d’Arsonval studied electrophysiology, animal heat and electrotherapy.

Two key investigators of electrophysiology during the nineteenth century were Jacques Arsene d’Arsonval and Nikola Tesla. d’Arsonval independently reported similar observations on the physiological effects of high frequency currents before the Society of Biology in Paris. In early 1892, Tesla met d’Arsonval on a lecture tour of France where Tesla was pleasantly surprised to find that d’Arsonval used his oscillators to investigate the physiological effects of high frequency currents.

D’Arsonval studied a wide variety of the physiological effects of alternating currents, time varying electric and magnetic fields, induced currents via capacitive or inductive coupling, and high frequency. He also studied the effects of muscle stimulation, pulse changes, perspiration, and nervous stimulation. In 1892 he introduced the use of high-frequency currents to treat diseases of the skin and mucous membranes. The current is now known as the D’Arsonval current.

The medical terms “darsonvalisation” and “diathermy” used in physiotherapy originated from his research. The picture shows a d’Arsonval’s electrical device used for medical applications. In the old dictionaries, you find the word “darsonvalisation” as a synonym for electromedicine. History has not been kind to Tesla in the sense that the credit for all of the pioneering work in the field of electrotherapy has gone almost exclusively to d’Arsonval.

Diathermy therapy

In diathermy, high-frequency electrical currents are used to heat deep muscular tissues. The heat increases blood flow, speeding up recovery. Doctors also use diathermy in surgical procedures by sealing blood vessels with electrically heated probes. The term diathermy is derived from the Greek words therma, meaning heat, and dia, meaning through. Diathermy literally means heating through. The therapeutic effects of heat have long been recognized. More than 2,000 years ago, the Romans took advantage of heat therapies by building hot-spring bathhouses. Since then, various methods of using heat have evolved.

In the early 1890s, French physiologist ArsEne d’Arsonval began studying the medical application of high-frequency currents. The term diathermy was coined by German physician Carl Franz Nagelschmidt, who designed a prototype apparatus in 1906. Around 1925, United States doctor J. W. Schereschewsky began studying the physiological effects of high-frequency electrical currents on animals. It was several years, however, before the fundamentals of the therapy were understood and put into practice.

The original high-voltage transformer generating high frequency current was manufactured in 1895 by the E. Ducrett & L. Lejeune company from Paris based on Tesla’s description (Tesla’s lecture, Paris, 1892). It was used for therapeutical purposes by Dr. d’Arsonval, after whom the way of applying alternating current in medicine was named “darsonvalisation”. In 1892 d’Arsonval demonstrated how a human being could conduct an alternating current strong enough to light an electric lamp.

D’Arsonval’s great solenoid, 1893

Visible effects of larger magnetic fields were first recorded by d’Arsonval in 1896. Anyone who puts his head into a high magnetic field of 18,000 gauss (1.8 tesla) and moves his head around is likely to see flashes of light on the retina. But these visual sensations (magnetophosphenes) are caused by induced electric currents in the retina. People also have observed magnetophosphenes in alternating magnetic fields with frequencies close to power-line frequencies of 60 Hz. The effect occurs either by moving through a magnetic field or by changing a magnetic field. But the magnetic-field intensity must be above 70 gauss.

D’Arsonval’s studied muscle contractions in frogs using a telephone, which operates on an extremely feeble currents similar to animal electricity. Upon these studies he invented in 1882 with Etienne-Jules Marey (1830-1904) and Deprez of what is now known as the d’Arsonval galvanometer. In 1880, Jacques-Arsene d’Arsonval made a dramatic improvement by attaching a small coil to the meter needle and locating both inside the field of a permanent magnet.

This d’Arsonval movement and other rapid changes in electrical technology soon made the tangent galvanometer obsolete. This instrument uses a coil of fine wire suspended between the poles of a permanent magnet. Current is applied through a small wire attached to the top of the coil and exits through a springlike wire attached to the bottom.

With no current applied, the springlike wire keeps the coil in the zero position. When the current is introduced, it establishes a magnetic field in the coil. This field interacts with the magnetic field of the permanent magnet, causing the coil to turn. In some D’Arsonval galvanometers, a fine needle is attached to the moving coil to serve as the indicator. In others, a small mirror is attached to the coil, and a beam of light is reflected off the mirror and onto a scale a distance away.

The galvanometer proposed by d’Arsonval in collaboration with Deprez is also defined as a mobile bobbin galvanometer and differs from those with a mobile magnet in that it is based on the interaction between a fixed magnet and a mobile circuit followed by the current being measured. Among the advantages of this type of galvanometer is a higher sensitivity based on the strong magnetic field inside the bobbin. From this galvanometer are derived all mobile bobbin instruments, both portable and non-portable.

Between the N and S poles of a permanent horseshoe iron magnet, shaped around a cylindrical cavity, is put a nucleus, F, of soft iron which is also cylindrical. Between the poles and the nucleus is a very strong magnetic field, directed radially.

A bobbin, B, which encloses the nucleus, can rotate around the axis of the cavity. If one brings the current to be measured through the bobbin using a coil spring, the bobbin rotates until the effect exerted upon it by the magnetic field is equalized by the torsion of the coil spring. Meanwhile, an indicator, I, connected to the bobbin, moves on a graduated scale, S. Since the direction of rotation is reversed if the direction of the current is reversed, mobile bobbin instruments of this type can be used only to measure continuous currents. In instruments with higher sensitivity, the opposing action of the bobbin is generated not by the torsion of a coil spring, but by the torsion of the wire by which the bobbin is suspended.

In 1879, in partnership with Paul Bert, d’Arsonval improved the telephone. The pictures show telephone units developed by d’Arsonval.

In 1881, d’Arsonval was one of the principal organizers of the international congress of the electricians which unified the system of the units.

d’Arsonval was a high-ranking mainstream scientist, a prolific inventor in lots of different fields. For example, in 1881, Arsene d’Arsonval first suggested harnessing the temperature difference in the tropical seas for the generation of electricity. His idea was given a first test by Georges Claude in Cuba in the 1920′s, and this technology is now ready for producing electricity from sea solar power.

In 1902 d’Arsonval worked with George Claude on the liquefaction of gases and they have started the liquid air industry in Champigny. His contribution to medicine, now overshadowed by the antibiotic era, created a minor revolution in clinical therapeutics. D’Arsonval literally founded the paramedical field of physiotherapy. In 1918 he was elected president of the Institute for Actinology.

D’Arsonval was an active member of societies for electrotherapy, physics, electronics, engineering, electroceramics, and soldering, in addition to being a member of the Society of Biologists, the Academy of Medicine (1888), and the Academy of Sciences (1894). He was created knight of the Legion of Honour in 1884, and received the Grand Cross in 1931.

D’Arsonval was a brilliant man, perhaps a genius – lots of streets and colleges are named after him in France, in 1933 the Ministry of Education held an official jubilee for d’Arsonval at the Sorbonne, but he’s completely forgotten nervertheless!


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