Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Exorcizing the animal spirits: Jan Swammerdam on nerve function


For more than 1,500 years, nerves were thought to function through the action of 'animal spirits'. In the seventeenth century, René Descartes conceived of these 'spirits' as liquids or gases, and used the idea to explain reflex action. But he was rapidly proven wrong by a young Dutchman, Jan Swammerdam. Swammerdam's elegant experiments pioneered the frog nerve–muscle preparation and laid the foundation of our modern understanding of nerve function.

Your institute does not have access to this article

Access options

Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: Descartes' illustration of his hypothesis of the movement of the 'animal spirits' in response to burning.
Figure 2: Swammerdam's frog nerve–muscle preparation.
Figure 3: Swammerdam's demonstration of the contractile power of a frog muscle.
Figure 4: Possible electrical stimulation of the frog nerve by Jan Swammerdam.


  1. Descartes, R. De Homine (Moyardum & Leffen, Leiden, 1662).

    Google Scholar 

  2. Harvey, W. De Motu Locali Animalium (Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, UK, 1959).

    Google Scholar 

  3. Galen De Motu Musculorum (Rouillum, Leiden, 1549).

    Google Scholar 

  4. Canguilhem, G. La Formation du Concept de Réflexe aux XVIIe et XVIIIe Siècles (Vrin, Paris, 1977).

    Google Scholar 

  5. Glynn, I. Two millenia of animal spirits. Nature 402, 353 (1999).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Schierbeek, A. Jan Swammerdam 1637–1680. His Life and Works (Swets & Zeitlinger, Amsterdam, 1967).

    Google Scholar 

  7. Ruestow, G. The Microscope in the Dutch Republic (Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, UK, 1995).

    Google Scholar 

  8. Cobb, M. Reading and writing The Book of Nature: Jan Swammerdam (1637–1680). Endeavour 24, 122–128 (2000).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Nordström, J. Swammerdamiana: excerpts from the travel journal of Olaus Borrichius and two letters from Swammerdam to Thévenot. Lychnos 16, 21–65 (1954–1955).

    Google Scholar 

  10. Swammerdam, J. The Book of Nature II 122–132 (Seyffert, London, 1758).

    Google Scholar 

  11. Anonymous (Swammerdam, J.). In Ranis (1665 xx Octob.) in Observationes Anatomicae Selectiores Collegii Privati Amstelodamensis 29–30 (Commelinum, Amsterdam, 1667).

  12. Swammerdam, J. Tractatus Physico-Enatomico-Medicus de Respiratione Usuque Pulmonum (D., A. & A. Gaasbeeck, Leiden, 1667).

    Google Scholar 

  13. Jaynes, J. The problem of animate motion in the seventeenth century. J. Hist. Ideas 31, 219–234 (1970).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Holmes, F. L. The old martyr of science: the frog in experimental physiology. J. Hist. Biol. 26, 311–328 (1993).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Moe, H. Nicolaus Steno: an Illustrated Biography (Rhodos, Copenhagen, 1994).

    Google Scholar 

  16. Lindeboom, G. A. The Letters of Jan Swammerdam to Melchisedec Thévenot (Swets & Zeitlinger, Amsterdam, 1975).

    Google Scholar 

  17. Cobb, M. Malpighi, Swammerdam and the colourful silkworm: replication and visual representation in early modern science. Ann. Sci. 59, 111–147 (2002).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Lux, D. S. & Cook, H. J. Closed circles or open networks? Communications at a distance during the scientific revolution. Hist. Sci. 36, 179–211 (1998).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Pubols, B. H. Jan Swammerdam and the history of reflex action. Am. J. Psychol. 72, 131–135 (1959).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Whitteridge, G. The Wilkins Lecture, 1979. Of the local movement of animals. Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B 206, 1–13 (1979).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Hodgson, E. S. Long-range perspectives on neurobiology and behavior. Am. Zool. 30, 403–505 (1990).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Foster, M. Lectures on the History of Physiology during the Sixteenth, Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, UK, 1901).

    Book  Google Scholar 

  23. Fearing, F. Reflex Action: a Study in the History of Physiological Psychology (Williams & Wilkins, Baltimore, 1930).

    Book  Google Scholar 

  24. von Haller, A. Translated excerpt from Primae Lineae Physiologiae in Usum Praelectionum Academicarum Auctae et Emendatae (1751) in A Source Book in Animal Biology (ed. Hall, T. S.) 282–287 (McGraw–Hill, New York, 1951).

    Google Scholar 

  25. Galvani, L. Translated excerpt from De Viribus Electricitatis in Motu Musculari Commentarius... (1791) in A Source Book in Animal Biology (ed. Hall, T. S.) 199–201 (McGraw–Hill, New York, 1951).

    Google Scholar 

  26. Stillings, D. Did Jan Swammerdam beat Galvani by 134 years? Med Instrum 9, 226 (1975).

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  27. Du Bois-Reymond, E. Untersuchungen über thierische Elektricität (Reimer, Berlin, 1848).

    Book  Google Scholar 

  28. von Helmholtz, H. Translated excerpt from Messungen über den zeitlichen Verlauf der Zuckung animalischer Muskeln und die Fortpflanzungsgeschwindigkeit der Reizung in den Nerven (1850) in A Source Book in Animal Biology (ed. Hall, T. S.) 313–320 (McGraw–Hill, New York, 1951).

    Google Scholar 

  29. Bernstein, J. Untersuchungen über den Erregungsvorgang im Nerven- und Muskelsysteme (Heidelberg, 1871).

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Related links

Related links


Académie des Sciences

Encyclopedia of Life Sciences

Descartes, René

history of physiology

muscle contraction

The Royal Society

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Cobb, M. Exorcizing the animal spirits: Jan Swammerdam on nerve function. Nat Rev Neurosci 3, 395–400 (2002).

Download citation

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

Further reading


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing