Spallanzani To the Spallanzani Hospital this morning, for some tests, and my brain is awash with "facts". Wasn't he the guy who put trousers on frogs, thereby proving that the male's contribution to reproduction was important? (But then again, didn't the Greeks think that females provided only a fertile environment?) Or was he the guy who fed dogs meat in a cage and then hoicked up the cage again to prove something about digestion? These facts have been stored invisibly somewhere in my brain for more than 30 years now, and suddenly up they bob. Except that I'm not actually sure whether I know them or not. Well, I know them, but are they true?

That whole fuss about Donald Rumsfeld's musings on knowledge and epistemology, seems to me like he knew (if I may) what he was talking about. There's stuff you know, and know you know. And there's stuff you don't know, and know you don't know. But there's also stuff, like Spallanzani's contraceptive trousers for frogs, that I know I know, but don't know whether it's true. And there's stuff I think I don't know, but it turns out I do, like the next track on an album I haven't heard for years.

So I get home, and I check the guy out on Wikipedia, and that takes me to the Catholic Encyclopedia, and the hospital has a page too (but it's in a frame -- although thanks to them for the image). They all make it clear that Lazzaro was a pretty good experimental scientist. He did investigate reproduction, but nobody mentions the frog trousers. I learn that he performed the first artificial insemination (on a dog) but nothing about meat in cages. Turns out Reamur (he of the absurd thermometer scale?) fed dogs meat in tubes, not cages, while Spallanzani showed that digestion took place if gastric juices were mixed with meat outside the body. No need for a stomach (except to supply the gastric juices). I google "frog trousers" to no avail, though some amusement. But I remain pretty much convinced that I know what I know, and that trousers and frogs were definitely involved. If only I could remember which particular physiology lecturer had imparted this gem, I could maybe check. Or maybe he made it up.

What I didn't know, and didn't know I didn't know, was that Spallanzani also did some pretty neat work against the spontaneous generation of life. Not perfect; that had to wait for Louis Pasteur. But pretty good.

All in all, a pretty good day for the brain.

P.s. 22 January 2016: The hospital's website seems to have abandoned its English language version. And all old Slate links are well dead, unless you know otherwise.

Two ways to respond: webmentions and comments


Webmentions allow conversations across the web, based on a web standard. They are a powerful building block for the decentralized social web.

“Ordinary” comments

These are not webmentions, but ordinary old-fashioned comments left by using the form below.

Reactions from around the web