How Mary Shelley changed history

It’s not exactly news that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has had a big impact on pop culture, and the well-known story of its inception during a rainy holiday at the Villa Diodati is the stuff of legend, but while I was doing background research for my new novel The Workshop Of Filthy Creation (a title which is itself a quote from Shelley!) I was surprised to find how deeply Frankenstein is rooted in the cutting-edge scientific thinking of its day and how the publication of the book, in turn, affected the development of medicine.

Galvani

Galvanism, the study of electro-chemistry in living organisms, was developed by the Italian scientists Luigi Galvani (hence ‘galvinism’!) and Alessandro Volta (hence ‘voltage’!) Galvani electrified the snipped-off legs of a frog and got them to kick, which he said showed that there was a special type of electricity, literally a life force, which powered living things. Volta disagreed, and in doing so managed to produce a practical electrical battery, which vastly improved the early Leyden jars of the 1740s.

These two innovations: the idea that organic tissue could be activated by electricity, and a reliable source of power to make that happen, helped fuel a scientific shift in attitudes at the end of the eighteenth century, which for the first time saw the human body as a kind of biological machine which could – in theory! – be taken apart, put back together and generally mucked about with.

Aldini’s experiments

Galvani’s nephew, Giovanni Aldini, put galvanism on the map with a series of medical demonstrations across Europe in which a human corpse was made to ‘respond’ by applying current to various muscles (his 1803 demonstration in London is described in detail in the first chapter of The Workshop Of Filthy Creation.) He advocated using electrical current as a medical treatment, as did Benjamin Franklin, who’d already been experimenting with electricity and batteries for years.

Among the many who took an interest in galvanic research, and especially in ideas for reanimating the dead, were the poets Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron. Indeed, Shelley had been a keen amateur scientist since his school days, when he managed to zap one of his teachers with an electric shock. It’s possible that around 1814 he and Mary visited the notorious alchemist Johann Dippel, who is known to have experimented with dead animals and who was closely connected to an old fortress called – believe it or not – Castle Frankenstein. Mary Shelley would have been fully up to date on the subjects of galvanism and reanimation by the time she wrote her most famous book.

Frankenstein was a huge hit, particularly after a number of lurid stage versions had appeared. However, its popularity had an inadvertent consequence. Plenty of scientists were still experimenting with the revival of the dead – for example, in 1817 Karl Weinhold was doing nasty things to kittens in Germany, and the following year the famous ‘Clydesdale Experiment’ in Glasgow went one better than Aldini and apparently got a corpse to breathe – but as the profile of Shelley’s book rose, so the reputation of scientists in this field fell. People began to find this sort of research distasteful and unethical, equating it with the villainy of the fictional Victor Frankenstein. The book wasn’t the only reason that such studies went out of fashion by the 1830s, but it had a radical effect on public opinion.

Which raises an interesting question: if medical science had kept on trying to revive the dead, instead of solving other problems, what medical advances might have been missed (or made?) in the 1800s?

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