The birth of Frankenstein


Giovanni Aldini's electrical experiments on executed criminals in Bologna, from Essai theorique et experimental sur le galvanisme, published in 1804. (Image from the Rare Book and Manuscript Collections at Cornell University Library.)

The experiments of Italian physicist Giovanni Aldini (1762-1834) provided Mary Shelley with some of the inspiration for her classic gothic novel Frankenstein.

Aldini was the nephew of Luigi Galvani, who, in the 1700s, made a major contribution to the understanding of nerve function. In 1798, Aldini became a professor of physics at the University of Bologna, where he conducted research on the potential medical applications of his uncle's discoveries.

Aldini often performed his experiments with electricity on cadavers. In 1803, he came to London to publicly demonstrate his methods at the Royal College of Surgeons. His experiments were described in a series of news stories in The Times of London.

The story below, which was published on January 22, 1803, describes Aldini's demonstration of galvanism on the body of an executed criminal called George Forster.

The body of Forster, who was executed on Monday last for murder, was conveyed to a house not far distant, where it was subjected to the Galvanic Process, by Professor ALDINI, under the inspection of Mr. KEATE, Mr. CARPUE, and several other Professional Gentlemen. M. ALDINI, who is the nephew of the discoverer of this most interesting science, shewed the eminent and superior powers of Galvanism to be far beyond any other stimulant in nature. On the first application of the process to the face, the jaw of the deceased criminal began to quiver, and the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and one eye was actually opened. In the subsequent part of the process, the right hand was raised and clenched, and the legs and thighs were set in motion. It appeared to the uninformed part of the by-standers as if the wretched man was on the eve of being restored to life. This, however, was impossible, as several of his friends who were under the scaffold had violently pulled his legs, in order to put a more speedy termination to his sufferings.

The experiment, in fact, was of a better use and tendency. Its object was to shew the excitability of the human frame, when this animal electricity is duly applied. In cases of drowning or suffocation, it promises to be of the utmost use, by reviving the action of the lungs, and thereby rekindling the expiring spark of vitality. In cases of apoplexy, or disorders of the head, it offers also most encouraging prospects for the benefit of mankind. The Professor, we understand, has made use of Galvanism also in several cases of insanity, and with complete success. It is the opinion of the first medical men, that this discovery, if rightly managed and duly prosecuted, cannot fail to be of great, and perhaps, as yet, unforeseen utility.

More like this

It's truly remarkable that the applications of "animal electricity" foreseen in the article were not fully realized for almost two hundred years, and yet today, they are commonplace. Kind of puts all those fanciful predictions we see in modern science journalism in perspective.

For those of us who claim to live and love science as a search for truth, it is not just healthy but mandatory to regularly absorb the painful lessons here.

There is science of propaganda too, or knowing how to bamboozle the public, and the propagandists are ferociously working overtime to sell more murder against the completely innocent Iranian people.

By gerald spezio (not verified) on 03 Oct 2007 #permalink