Arsonval, Arsène D

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Arsonval, Arsène D’

(b. Chateau de la Borie, St. Germain-les-Belles, La Porcherie, France, 8 June 1851; d. Chateau de la Borie, 31 December 1940)


The d’Arsonval family was part of France’s ancient nobility, having held land and wealth in Limoges for centuries. D’Arsonval studied classics at the Lycée Impérial de Limoges and later at the Collège Ste.- Barbe. By the time he received a baccalaureate degree from the Université de Poitiers (1869), d’Arsonval had decided upon a career in medicine. He was the fourth generation to make this decision. His studies began at Limoges, but after the war of 1870 he continued them in Paris. A chance social encounter with Claude Bernard at the Salon de Lachard altered the course of the young physician’s career. Drawn to Bernard’s lectures, d’Arsonval on one occasion was able to correct the faulty wiring in Bernard’s equipment, permitting the completion of a classroom demonstration. Thereafter d’Arsonval became Bernard’s préparateur from 1873 to 1878. After Bernard’s death he assisted C. Brown-Séquard, eventually replacing him at the Collége de France. With Paul Bert’s assistance as Minister of Public Education, the Collége de France was able to establish a laboratory for biophysics at rue St.-Jacques in 1882. D’Arsonval directed the laboratory 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.

Bernard’s influence led d’Arsonval formally to give up a medical career for a life of physiological research. His thesis (1876) was on pulmonary elasticity and circulation. The young scientist adopted Bernard’s organismic philosophy, adding little to it but a belief that electrical potential was one of the physicochemical characteristics of cells.1 D’Arsonval believed life was vital but completely deterministic. The primary manifestation of life was the conversion of various forms of energy for work. As Bernard’s assistant, d’Arsonval’s first projects were on animal heat and body temperature.

In 1882 d’Arsonval was awarded the Prix Montyon of the Académie des Sciences for his ingenious apparatus for studying these problems. His doublechambered calorimeter was remarkably accurate and based upon a new approach. He maintained a constant temperature within its inner chamber by circulating ice water through tubes surrounding the inner chamber. The temperature and quantity of water exchanged was a measure of the heat produced. The constant interior temperature increased the accuracy of gas volume measurements and insured more constant rates of breathing. He also devised thermoelectric needles which allowed Bernard to measure simultaneously the temperature of tissue and blood in adjacent vessels. In 1894 d’Arsonval invented a simplified but less accurate calorimeter for hospital tests.

While assisting Brown-Séquard, d’Arsonval became involved in the former’s famous experiments on endocrine extracts. D’Arsonval took personal charge of preparing the extracts and sterilizing them by immersion in high-pressure carbon dioxide atmospheres.2 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.3.

D’Arsonval’s most outstanding scientific contributions involved the biological and technological applications of electricity. His early studies dealt with the electrical properties of muscle contraction. He recognized that Bell’s new invention, the telephone, provided a perfect device for detecting the current in muscle tissue. Telephones operate on extremely feeble currents similar to animal electricity. Galvanometers then in use drew too much current for sensitive tests. D’Arsonval used a frog muscle to join the mouthpiece of a phone and an induction coil with the receiving portion, which completed the circuit of a functional telephone. This interest in muscle current led to a series of practical inventions in the early 1880’s. They included nonpolarizable silver chloride electrodes for biological research, refinement of carbon-rod microphones, and the invention with Marey of myographic equipment. D’Arsonval, in cooperation with Deprez, invented the mobile circuit galvanometer in 1882.4

Muscle contraction continued to interest him, especially Ranvier’s histological studies of striated muscle and L. Hermann’s discovery that a negative potential reading characterized the point of direct excitation of a muscle and was followed by a positive variation throughout the body of the muscle. D’Arsonval’s own research on contraction led to the same conclusions about the negative activation potential. Using his highly sensitive galvanometer, d’Arsonval found a feeble positive current during normal rest or tonus, which vanished during the act of direct excitation. Experiments showed that the electrical changes were surface phenomena of approximately the same strength as is needed to induce contraction in a muscle adjacent to an excited nerve or muscle. E. DuBois-Reymond explained the negative action potential by assuming a basic bipolarity in muscles. D’Arsonval believed the contractile elements were Ranvier’s disks and that the surface production of electrical charge had a physical explanation. Lippmann had shown that a globule of mercury in acidified water produced a measurable current flow when mechanically deformed. D’Arsonval reversed the argument, stating that every current causes a physical deformation. He theorized that a positive stimulus should cause elongation and a negative variation should cause contraction; he built a model to test his concept. A thin rubber tube was filled with porous plugs impregnated with mercury surrounded by acidified water. When subjected to electrical charges the model acted exactly according to d’Arsonval’s predictions.5 Later studies of the electrical organs of the torpedo fish substantiated his suggestions, which were highly plausible in the absence of an alternate chemical theory.

D’Arsonval also found that high voltage shocks did not always lead to sudden or inevitable death. Artificial respiration could frequently revive victims of accidental electric shock.6 Gradually d’Arsonval’s interests shifted from pure biological research to technological problems. For example, as an aside to his calorimetric work, d’Arsonval designed the first electrically controlled constant temperature incubator for embryological and bacterial research.7 The d’Arsonval incubator was used well into the twentieth century. He was consulted frequently by E. Marey, and he aided Ferrie in constructing the first triode.8 D’Arsonval became known as the foremost authority on laboratory apparatus, especially in regard to electrical equipment.

In later years d’Arsonval became increasingly involved in the application of electricity to industry, a role which he clearly enjoyed and fostered. He was instrumental in founding national (1881) and international (1897) societies for electrical science, a government supported laboratory for electrical research (1888), the École Supérieure d’Électricité (1894), an international society for cryogenic studies (1908), and La Compagnie Générale d’Électro-Céramique (1923), to name only a few. He worked with Georges Claude on industrial methods for the liquefaction of gases (1902), was consulted on high energy electrical transmission equipment, served as government science consultant during World War I, and was a constant promoter of the automobile and airplane.

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. H. Herz, a physicist, built the first high frequency oscillator, and shortly thereafter d’Arsonval used it to experiment upon the effects of high frequency (500,000–1,500,000 c.p.s.), low voltage alternating current on animals. This led him in 1891 to report that no sensory or motor responses were evoked by high frequency currents. As Herz had noted earlier, the only effect was the production of heat.9 The heating effect could be applied to muscle aches, spasms, tetanus, tumors, arthritis, and circulatory and gynecological problems. D’Arsonval correlated the frequency with expected temperatures for a given period of time.

The first high frequency heat therapy unit was established under d’Arsonval’s direction at the Hôtel-Dieu Hospital in 1895. Indeed, electrotherapy was called d’Arsonvalization until the broader term diathermy came into use after 1920. The applications of high frequency treatment were highly successful. D’Arsonval helped to develop apparatus for electrocoagulation which was widely used for surgical excisions and tumor treatments.10 High energy procedures were favored because these wavelengths were antibacterial. By 1910 methods of physiotherapy utilizing high frequency waves, X rays, and radium had become a professional discipline.

D’Arsonval’s international reputation was closely associated with physiotherapy and industrial applications of electricity. He was an active member of societies for electrotherapy, physics, electronics, civil 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). In 1933 the Ministry of Education held an official jubilee for d’Arsonval at the Sorbonne. He was created knight of the Legion of Honor in 1884 and received the Grand Cross in 1931.


1.Lumière électrique, 7 (1882), 302.

2.Bulletin de l’Académie de médicine. Paris, 3rd ser., 27 (1892), 250–261.

3.Comptes rendus des séances de la Société de biologie. Paris, 9th ser., 3 (1891), 235, 248–250; O. Glasser, Medical Physics (1947), pp. 1582–1583.

4.Comptes rendus de l’Académie des sciences94 (1882), 1347–1350.

5.Archives de Physiologie, 5th ser., 1 (1889), 246–252, 460–472; Chauvois (1937), 160–161.

6.Comptes rendus de l’Académie des sciences, 104 (1887), 978–981.

7.Archives de physiologie, 5th ser., 2 (1890), 83–86.

8. Chauvois (1937), p. 377.

9. Glasser, p. 414.

10. Chauvois (1937), pp. 270–271, 359.


I. Original Works. A bibliography of d’Arsonval’s works is L’oeuvre scientifique du Prof. A. d’Arsonval, compiled by the Institut d’Actinologie (Paris, 1933). D’Arsonval’s technological work may be best approached through his Traité de physique biologique 2 vols. (Paris, 1903); “Nouveaux appareils destinés aux recherches d’électrophysiologie,” in Archives de physiologie, 5th ser., 1 (1889), 423–437, and “Appareils a température fixe pour embryologie et cultures microbiennes,” ibid2 (1890), 83–88.

The following articles are only a few of the hundreds of articles written by d’Arsonval: “Les nouvelles applications et les perfectionnements du téléphone,” in Revue scientifique, 1 (1879), 200–212; “Les sciences physiques en biologie,” in Lumière électrique, 6 (1882), 174–177, 329–331, 394–395, 415–416, 512–513, 546–547; 7 (1882), 43–45, 64–65, 222–224, 302–303, 352–353, 421–422, 495–497, 519–522, 543–544, 567–570, 595–598; “Recherches sur le téléphone,” in Comptes rendus de l’Académie des sciences, 95 (1882), 290–292; “Nouvelle méthode calorimétrique applicable a l’homme,” in Comptes rendus de la Société de biologie, 8th ser., 1 (1884), 651–654; “La mort par l’électricité dans l’industrie... Moyens préservateurs,” in Comptes rendus de l’Académie des sciences, 104 (1887), 978–981; “Relations entre la forme de l’excitation électrique et la réaction néuro-musculaire,” in Archives de physiologie, 1 (1889), 246–252; “Recherches d’électrophysiologie,” ibid., 460–472; 2 (1890), 156–167; “De l’injection des extraits liquides provenant des différent tissus de l’organisme....,” in Comptes rendus de la Société de biologie, 9th ser. 4 (1891), 248–250, or Bulletin de l’Académie de médecine, 3rd ser. (1892), pp. 250–261. “Galvanomètre apériodique,” written with Deprez, is in Comptes rendus de l’Acadlémie des sciences, 94 (1882), 1347–1350. Some of d’Arsonval’s letters may be found in L. Delhome, De Claude Bernard et une correspondance Brown-Séquard-d’ Arsonval (Paris, 1939).

II. Secondary Literature. Useful but not always reliable are two works by Louis Chauvois, D’Arsonval, soixante-cinq ans à travers la science (Paris, 1937) and D’Arsonval; une vie, une époque 1851–1940 (Paris, 1945). Other useful articles are J. Belot, “Jubilé du professeur d’Arsonval,” in La presse médicale, 41 , no. 44 (1933), 899–901, and “D’Arsonval (1851–1940),” in Journal de radiologie et d’électrologie, 24 (1941), 49–60; G. Blech, “D’Arsonval’s Service to Surgery,” in Archives of Physical Therapy, 13 (1932), 775–779; G. Bourguignon, “Professor d’Arsonval,” ibid., 717–726; H. Bordier, “L’Oeuvre scientifique de d’Arsonval,” in Paris médical88 (1933), v-viii; and Otto Glasser, ed., Medical Physics (Chicago,1947).

Charles A. Culotta