The era in which Mary Shelley composed Frankenstein (1818) seemed not only occupied, but even intrigued, with not only the human anatomy, but also with the desire and ability to tamper (or tinker) with the human body, with the ability to effect change in it. Studies of human anatomy had already been occurring during the so-called Scientific Revolution of the 17th century; William Harvey had described and detailed the operations of the human circulatory system, and Italian physiologist Marcello Malpighi studied various internal organs. A century later found science now exploring the idea of introducing man-made or natural (with human assistance) forces upon and into the human body to produce some alteration in physiological (concerning bodily processes) operations or even the life essence itself.

Experimentation on the Human Body

In the eighteenth century, science began combining electricity with medicine and proceeded with experiments and medical treatments that applied the force of electricity to animal and human bodies. By Shelley’s time, doctors had been using electricity to treat various physical ailments. One researcher observes that “[d]uring the late 1750s and early 1760s, medical electricity was advocated by its supporters as a therapy that anyone could pursue” because it was cheap and did not require medical knowledge (Bertucci). Italian physiologist Giuseppe Veratti used the force to treat arthritis and paralysis, and Windsor’s Dr. James Lind, who in his elder years befriended Percy Shelley while the latter attended college, expressed a similar interest. James Graham of London performed similar applications and created an ornate, opulent Temple of Health in 1779 that promised the power of electricity to cure impotence and sterility. However, it was Tiberius Cavallo, a so-called medico-electrician, who introduced this natural force into medicine in England.  

From this use of electricity evolved experimentation on corpses, including those of executed criminals. Around 1750, various researchers in Europe began using the force to induce muscular motions. Eighteenth-century scientist Luigi Galvani, theorizing on what he called “animal electricity,” applied electricity through electrodes attached to a dead frog that caused the amphibian's leg muscles to twitch. He concluded that the driving force was “animal electrical fluid.” His name lent itself to the branch of science called galvanism, the study of electricity and its applications. Later, in the winter of 1803, he repeated the same at Bologna, Italy, this time to executed cadavers. Application of electrical current “produced the most horrible contortions and grimaces by the motions of the muscles of the head and face; and an hour and a quarter after death, the arm of one of the bodies was elevated eight inches from the table on which it was supported, and this even when a considerable weight was placed in the hand” ("1803"). Galvani’s experiment preceded several other famous displays. One of the most famous involved his nephew, Giovanni Aldini, who in the same year performed an experiment on condemned murderer George Forster (or Foster, as some spell it) at London’s Newgate Prison and included a detailed description of it in his Account. The results were sensational, and apparently caused a death:

On the first application of the process to the face, the jaws 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. Mr Pass, the beadle of the Surgeons’ Company,

who was officially present during this experiment, was so alarmed that he died of fright

soon after his return home.

“the jaw began to quiver, the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and the left eye

actually opened … The action even of those muscles furthest distant from the points of

contact with the arc was so much increased as almost to give an appearance of re-

animation … vitality might, perhaps, have been restored, if many circumstances had not

rendered it impossible.”

Galvanism was communicated by means of three troughs combined together, each of

which contained forty plates of zinc, and as many of copper. On the first application of

the arcs the jaw began to quiver, the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and the

left eye actually opened." ("Giovanni Aldini")

Some scholars have speculated that Aldini was the inspiration for Victor Frankenstein. Meanwhile, in 1818, the year of Frankenstein’s publication, another famous exhibition involved Scottish doctor Andrew Ure, whose subject was condemned murderer Matthew Clydesdale. Results similar to those with the Aldini experiment occurred:

            every muscle of the body was immediately agitated with convulsive movements … the

            leg was thrown out with such violence as nearly to overturn one of the assistants, who in

            vain attempted to prevent its extension …

Every muscle in his countenance was simultaneously thrown into fearful action: rage,

horror, despair, anguish,and ghastly smiles united their hideous expression in the

murderer’s face …

When the one rod was applied to the slight incision in the tip of the forefinger, the fist

being previously clenched, that finger extended instantly; and from the convulsive

agitation of the arm, he seemed to point to the different spectators, some of whom

thought he had come to life. ("1818")

Executed criminals were not the only ones to become likely subjects for restoration to life. An unconfirmed story circulated that doctors tried to apply electric shock to revive Percy Shelley’s first wife, Harriett, to revive her after she committed suicide.


Meanwhile, science was working to understand and harness the power of electricity. Although Frankenstein never actually mentions electricity as a catalytic force in animating the novel’s creature, it was assumed and, in the novel itself, implied with Victor's witnessing of the force of lightning upon a tree trunk.

While Benjamin Franklin, himself called "The Modern Prometheus," was conducting his famous kite-flying experiment, others were exploring into this natural force as well. Scientists combined their inquiries into this phenomenon with other branches of knowledge, including chemistry.Humphry Davy produced a lecture called “On Some Chemical Agencies of Electricity,” and famous scientist Joseph Priestley in 1767 published The History and Present State of Electricity. Along parallel lines with Davy, Alessandro Volta developed the first electrochemical cell, or voltaic pile. Meanwhile, French scientist C. F. Du Fay discovered positive and negative charges and, similarly, Otto von Guericke developed his frictional electrical machine.

Questions of theory soon turned to practical application. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, scientists began to inquire not only into the uses of electricity, but its advantages to mankind. Giovanni Aldini's Account of the Late Improvements in Galvanism, in what almost intriguingly foreshadows the work of Victor Frankenstein, asserts that while still nascent, the study of electricity might "induce philosophers to continue their researches, which there is reason to suppose may lead to some very curious results"; prefiguring Victor's desire to benefit his race, Account further states that galvanism "holds out such hopes of utility in regard to objects so interesting to mankind" (Aldini Preface).

The potential power of electricity seemed to captivate minds through Europe, and not just the scientific community. Poets would conduct experiments and then compose poems treating nature’s sublime power in electricity. Percy Shelley, notes one scholar, had a “peculiar fascination with science and chemistry, most especially electricity” (Montillo 103), and conducted scientific experiments in his room at Eton. To his friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg, Shelley once exclaimed, “What a mighty instrument would electricity be in the hands of him who knew how to wield it, in what manner to direct its omnipotent energies, and we may command an indefinite quality of the fluid” (Montillo 104). Among the numerous pieces of scientific apparatus that populated Shelley’s dormitory room was a galvanic battery. The topic of electricity became a subject for salon conversations. Davy was a guest at Godwin’s home, where he described his experiments as part of the cultured talk of the day and where Mary, secreted in the room, listened with fascination.

Reanimation Through History

The idea of scientific reanimation, or creation of a human being by man-made means, was not a new idea. Hippocrates and Aristotle espoused the idea of pangenes, minute pieces of human body parts that would combine to create a human being. Centuries later, alchemy appropriated the idea of creation of life and kept the hope of man-made creation alive. Islamic alchemists, notably the eighth-century AD Jabir Ibn Hayyan, strove for the goal of Takwin, the creation of life, including human, by artificial means in the laboratory. The sixteenth-century alchemist and occultist Paracelsus wrote in 1537 a description of how to create the “homunculus” (Latin, “little man”), a miniature human being, out of putrefied sperm and human blood. Later sixteenth-century lore figures the famous story of rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel of Prague, who created a golem, or anthropomorphic (human-shaped) being, named Josef from the clay of a river bank and animated it with Judaic rituals and incantations in order to defend the Jewish community in that city from persecution.

Ties to Alchemy

Even into Mary Shelley’s time, the science of alchemy, with its quest for immortality, continued to captivate interest in various circles, both scientific and literary; among its enthusiasts was Mary’s husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, an avid reader of works such as those of Paracelsus and Albertus Magnus. Mary’s father, William Godwin, reflects the contemporary interest in his 1799 novel St. Leon with a portrayal of his protagonist’s mention of the subject which occupies men’s interest “in its two grand and inseparable branches, the art of multiplying gold, and of defying the inroads of infirmity and death” (Godwin 1). Percy Shelley's 1815 poem Alastor portrays a narrator who mixes talk and looks with a lover "[l]ike an inspired and desperate alchymist."

It was easy, then, for these circles to accept at face value current stories of reanimation that did not reflect facts. Mary’s account in the 1831 Frankenstein text of the June 1816 discussion of Erasmus Darwin’s alleged reanimation of lifeless tissue, specifically vermicelli, rested on a faulty reading of his The Temple of Nature (1802); in fact, Darwin merely described the ability of the vorticella to revive after existing for months in a dry state.  Apparently, some were ready to accept the scientific possibility of reanimation contained within Frankenstein as viable. Percy Shelley's Preface to the 1818 text remarks that "[t]he event on which this fiction is founded is supposed by Dr. [Erasmus] Darwin, and some of the physiological writers of Germany, as not of impossible occurence. I shall not be supposed as according the remotest degree of serious faith to such an imagination."

The Study of Anatomy in the 19th Century

The early nineteenth century saw a continued interest in the human anatomy that had arisen during the Scientific Revolution. There was increased systematization in the description of this anatomy, and two branches experienced advanced study. Histology furthered the study of cell structure, while developmental biology, or the study of the growth and developmental processes in organisms, included the studies of regeneration and aging. By Mary Shelley’s time, there was increased interest in the human body and its processes and operations. One writer has noted that in the year of Frankenstein’s publication, “the study of anatomy was at an all-time high ... [and] [a]ttendance at anatomy classes continued to rise” (Montillo 207, 209). Despite his inclinations and career as a poet, Percy Shelley himself read books on medicine, attended anatomical lectures, and considered being a surgeon.

Medical science’s increased need for human bodies led to grave-robbing for cadavers. Great Britain and Scotland experienced the rise of so-called resurrectionist gangs that exhumed corpses that the gangs then sold to doctors for research; this phenomenon created a number of scandals due to the murders that the gangs committed in order to maintain supply. Morbid fascination with anatomy found its way into poetry; foreshadowing Victor's clandestine visits to tombs for his work, the narrator of Percy Shelley's Alastor states, "I have made my bed in charnels and coffins."

CONTRIBUTOR(S): Garrett C. Jeter

Works Cited

Aldini, Giovanni. An Account of the Late Improvements in Galvanism. London: Cuthell and Martin, 1803. The Public Domain Review. Web. 12 Sept 2013.

Bertucci, Paola. "The Shocking Bag: Medical Electricity in mid-18th-Century London." Web. 6 Sept 2013.

"1803: George Foster, and thence to the reanimation." Web. 6 Sept 2013.

"1818: Matthew Clydesdale, galvanic subject." Web. 6 Sept 2013.

"Giovanni Aldini." Galvanic Reanimation of the Dead: The exploits of nineteenth century scientists with electrical batteries and corpses. Lateral Science. 5 Sept 2013. Web.

Godwin, William. St. Leon: Tale of the Sixteenth Century. London: Henry Colburn and Richard Bentley, 1831. Print.

Montillo, Roseanne. The Lady and Her Monsters: A Tale of Dissections, Real-Life Dr. Frankensteins, and the Creation of Mary Shelley's Masterpiece. New York: William Morrow, 2013. Print.

Further Reading

Heilbron, J.L. "The Contributions of Bologna to Galvanism." Historical Studies in the Physical and Biological Sciences 22:1 (1991). 57-85. Print.

Montillo, Roseanne. The Lady and Her Monsters: A Tale of Dissections, Real-Life Dr. Frankensteins, and the Creation of Mary Shelley's Masterpiece. New York: William Morrow, 2013. Print.