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Galvanism demonstrated on a pair of frogs legs, published in The Science of Common Things, 1859

Animal Electricity – Galvanism and the strange science of Frankenstein

Posted on 9 September 2019

“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.”

Although it might sound strange enough for science-fiction, this gruesome account of a reanimated corpse comes not from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but from The Newgate Calendar, a factual record of all the executions which took place at Newgate Prison.

The unlucky owner of the body in question had been a man named George Foster, convicted of murdering his wife and child by drowning them in Paddington Canal and executed by hanging on 18 January 1803. Giovanni Aldini, Professor of Physics at Bologna University, had seized the opportunity of an available body to test out a theory of “animal electricity”, famously developed by his uncle, Luigi Galvani.

With Monday 9 September marking Galvani’s 282nd birthday, and with the British Science Festival coming to Coventry this week, we’ve been taking a look back at the strange science of galvanism (or electrophysiology) that helped inspire Mary Shelley, ahead of our new production of Frankenstein this October.

In 1786, while conducting experiments on dissected animals, Luigi Galvani discovered that a pair of frog’s legs twitched when touched by a copper probe and a piece of iron at the same time. Galvani originally believed the effect was caused by “vital fluid” – a kind of invisible, non-physical element separating living creatures from inanimate objects. Later, however, he changed his mind, attributing it to a more scientific-sounding (but still inaccurate) idea of “animal electricity” – that is, electricity generated biologically by the animal.

It was this theory that Aldini was very publicly promoting when he conducted his experiment on the body of George Foster 17 years later. At the time, Mary Shelley would have been just five years old, yet the experiment was such a sensation that it was still a hot topic of discussion by 1816, when she began working on her novel.

In her introduction to the second edition of Frankenstein (first published in 1831), she writes that galvanism had been one of the topics she and her friends had been discussing in the evening before she had the terrifying dream that she claims was the spark for her story. Compare Shelley’s description of Frankenstein’s creation coming to life in Chapter Five with the description in The Newgate Calendar:

“By the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.”

Much like Dr Victor Frankenstein, many of those present for Aldini’s experiment were struck with terror at the sight of it. The Calendar reports that Mr Pass, the beadle of the Surgeons’ Company, was so shocked by what he witnessed that he died shortly after leaving, and that several members of the public watching, “thought that the wretched man was on the eve of being restored to life.”

Cartoon of a galvanised corpse by Henry Robinson, 1836

Despite this, both the writer and most of the “professional gentlemen” present were rather more sanguine and practical than the “uninformed bystanders” – in fact, there was excitement about how the technology might be used for saving lives, “rekindling the expiring spark of vitality” in people on the cusp of dying, such as in cases of drowning or “apoplexy”.

At the time, it was thought it might be used to stimulate the brain or lungs – but it’s easy to see a link between this discovery and the defibrillators that we use to jump-start hearts today.

Thanks in part to the wide-ranging scientific innovations of the late 18th and 19th centuries, the blurring of the boundary between life and death was becoming a cause of increasing concern. In 1774, William Hawes and Thomas Cogan set up the “Society for the Recovery of Persons Apparently Drowned” – later called the Humane Society – to encourage people to resuscitate victims of drowning.

As more and more people who could not swim began living and working around London’s rivers and canals, accidental drowning became a growing problem, so the Society paid people for their attempts to save lives. Every year, it also organised a procession of those “raised from the dead”, and among those rescued thanks to its efforts was Mary Shelley’s own mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, who jumped from Putney Bridge while suffering from depression.

An unintended consequence of this was that people began to worry about how to be sure about whether someone was really alive or dead, and anxieties about being accidentally buried alive grew. James Curry, a physician at Guy’s Hospital and sometime doctor to the Shelleys, wrote a book discussing how to distinguish between states of “incomplete” and “absolute” death, and ways of recovering people on the verge of dying.

Another of the family’s doctors, William Lawrence, had been engaged in a fierce public debate with fellow surgeon John Abernethy about the nature of life itself in the years leading up to Frankenstein’s publication. Abernethy held the conventional belief in a vital principle or spirit “superadded” to the physical body, while Lawrence’s more controversial view was that life is no more than a way of describing the working operation of a body – implying that a separate “soul” did not exist.

So radical was this theory that Lawrence was eventually forced to withdraw the book of lectures he had published and resign his hospital post (although he was later reinstated after publicly denouncing the views he had put forward).

Galvani’s theory of “animal electricity” was ultimately disproved by fellow Italian physicist Alessandro Volta, who demonstrated that the electrical current was produced by interaction between the two metals, rather than by the body itself. He would later develop the first chemical battery using alternating discs of copper and zinc, with brine-soaked cloth or cardboard in between.

Yet while our understanding of electrophysiology has developed since 1803, the questions of where life comes from, and of how we define it, continue to trouble scientists today. One reviewer of Frankenstein described the book as having, “an air of reality attached to it”, and as strange new technologies increasingly dominate our lives, perhaps the comment seems more true than ever…

Frankenstein shows at the Belgrade Theatre 2-12 October as part of our B2 Season of Love and Belonging. Tickets are available to book now. Book for two or more participating shows to claim 20% off in our multi-purchase offer.

The British Science Festival runs at various locations in Coventry from 10-13 September. Visit their website for full listings.

Further Reading

The Newgate Chronicle, 18 Jan 1803
Sparks of Life, Mark Pilkington – from The Guardian, 7 Oct 2004
The Science of Life and Death in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Sharon Rushton – from the British Library, 15 May 2014