How a Real Life Dr. Frankenstein Inspired Mary Shelly & Birthed Electrobiology

Was there a real Dr. Frankenstein?  Yes, there was, his name was Giovanni Aldini and he actually managed to make corpses move with electricity!  However, the gruesome nature of his experiments obscured the fact that he was an amazing scientist who revolutionized biology and medicine all in the name of familial love!  Ready for both a ghoulish and an inspirational story?

On January 18th, 1803, a man named George Forster was put to death for drowning his estranged wife and one of their children.  At the time, dissection and other manipulations of a corpse were considered sacrilege so, as further punishment, after Forster had been hung for his crimes, his lifeless body was taken to a public operating theatre where an Italian Physicist named Giovanni Aldini experimented with the corpse. Aldini was a “Galvanist” or a person who believed that “animal electricity” is what makes animals alive and that certain procedures could release this electricity even when the animal (or person) died!  Aldini proceeded to use a battery to get the dead man’s jaw to shake and even open his left eye.  The highlight (so to speak) was when Aldini stuck one electrified probe in the corpse’s ear and another one in his rectum, which made Forster’s legs kick and his right-hand clench and pump in the air! The warden of Newgate prison recorded that several people who saw this experiment thought that Foster was, “on the eve of being restored to life.”  He also claimed that these demonstrations were so dramatic and disturbing that they caused a church usher to die of fright!

Giovanni Aldini
Giovanni Aldini

Why was Aldini was probing a corpse in the first place?  It had to do with his family.  Aldini’s uncle was a doctor and anatomy professor named Luigi Galvani who was assisted in his work by his wife Lucia.  When Aldini was in college, his aunt and uncle accidentally discovered that if a decapitated, skinned frog was touched with an electrified probe it would “jump” like it was alive. Aldini was fascinated and as soon as he graduated he joined them and helped them electrocute every animal in sight!  They discovered that all animals would respond physically to electricity, although frog legs seemed to have the most dramatic effect.  They also noticed that the convulsions were most pronounced when the electrical probes were connected to an animal’s nerves or muscles.  They weren’t the first to notice that electricity makes animals jump, but they were the first to theorize that electricity is how muscles and nerves normally function. 

While playing with dead frogs they also found that putting both copper and iron into a frog’s body produces electricity with no static electricity or thunderstorms in sight!  Crazy huh?  In the middle of all of this exciting research, Lucia Galvani fell very ill and, despite Luigi’s devoted care, she died from complications from her asthma in 1788.  As a result, Luigi Galvani did not publish his work until 1791.  In this paper, Galvani postulated that all animals have what he called “animal electricity” inside them which is what makes them (and us) alive. Galvani had made the spark of life literal.

Imagine Galvani and Aldini’s dismay when the very next year, Alessandro Volta, Europe’s premier electrical scientist, published a paper that claimed that “animal electricity” was bunk!  Volta had found that two different metals will work to electrify a live frog and he decided that the electricity came from the dissimilar metals, not the frog itself.

Galvani didn’t want to respond.  He was a quiet, soft-spoken religious man who did not like conflict and he was also still morning his wife’s passing.  Aldini, however, was rearing for a fight, especially after Galvani had just nursed him through an illness.  This is how Aldini described what happened in 1794:

 “[My Uncle Galvani] was treating me for a deadly fever. After having escaped, thanks to his generous care and efforts, a nearly unavoidable death, I started to work zealously to bring support to a doctrine that I trusted, despite the attacks under which it came. I felt at ease to be able to pay a tribute to the truth and, at the same time, to provide Galvani with a public account of my gratitude.”

Aldini began writing and traveling throughout Europe electrocuting animals (and people) and promoting his uncle’s theories.  From this time on, Aldini was the face of Galvanism. 

It became a big debate between the Voltists (lead by Volta) and the Galvanists (lead by Aldini).  Was the frog jumping because it possessed an electrical life force or was the frog jumping because two different metals created electricity?  By the way, both sides’ ideas were partially correct and partially incorrect.  The Galvanists were correct in that all living things use and produce electricity to make their muscles move and their nerves transmit signals, so if you artificially add electricity even a dead animal will react.  However, they were wrong in thinking that a dead creature would create its own electricity.  Volta was correct that the two different metals were creating electricity in this experiment.  However, Volta missed was that he was actually studying a chemical reaction: it needed a chemical (an acid or a base) to interact with the metals in order to create electricity.

In 1800, Volta struck another blow to the Galvanist cause.  He had created a device out of metals that would produce a shock without the different metals touching anything alive or formally alive.  Volta had taken discs of silver and zinc and piled them up with cardboard soaked in saltwater between them.  If you touched either end with wet hands you could get a shock out of this pile in a continuous current.  In fact, Volta had invented the battery!  Volta wrote that his research was motivated because he, “found myself obliged to combat the pretended animal electricity of Galvani.”

Although Volta’s battery seemed at first to invalidate Galvani’s theories, in an ironic twist, the battery turned out to be an invaluable tool for the study of electricity in organic systems.

 Aldini began to use Volta’s battery with astonishing results.  By electrocuting the brain of a decapitated ox, he made the ox’s facial muscles move!  In 1802, Aldini started to experiment on the corpses of various criminals and, like with the ox, managed to manipulate their facial expressions by electrifying parts of their brains!  This was the first real glimpse of how the brain works, and even with his crude apparatus Aldini was the first person to realize that one side of the hemisphere of the brain controls the opposite side of the body.

Aldini also created electric shock therapy!  First, Aldini conducted a “long series of painful and disagreeable experiments” on his own head with Volta’s battery to try to get a gauge of how powerful and useful electric jolts could be.  He then gave shocks to a 27-year-old farmer named Louis Lanzarini who was suffering from debilitating depression and was being held in an insane asylum.  According to Aldini, Lanzarini immediately began feeling better and smiling and after several days of shocks, Lanzarini was considered cured and was released from the asylum!  Although electroshock therapy was abused and misused in the 1950s and 60s, it is actually still considered one of the most effective treatments for severe depression that exists today.  Sometimes doctors even electrically stimulate the brain directly (called deep brain stimulations) in a manner that Aldini would have found fascinating. 

In addition, Aldini correctly predicted that electric shocks could be used to force a damaged heart to beat (although he was never successful with his primitive batteries).  In this way, Aldini is the father of the defibrillator and the pacemaker.  

Finally, Aldini’s gruesome experiments grabbed the public’s attention to the extent that “Galvanism” became synonymous with “using electricity to reanimate a corpse”.  This popularity is how, thirteen years after Aldini electrified Foster’s dead body, an 18-year-old woman named Mary had heard of galvanism.  Then when Mary and her friends were trying to entertain each other by writing scary stories during a cold vacation they had a discussion about galvanism and reanimating corpses.  Mary Shelley said that it was this discussion that inspired her to write a horror story called “Frankenstein”.    

However, unlike Dr. Frankenstein in Mary’s famous story, Dr. Aldini was never trying to re-animate anyone.   He merely wanted to “obtain a practice knowledge of how far Galvanism might be employed to revive persons.”  If you think of the pacemaker and the defibrillator, Aldini’s ghoulish demonstrations did end up saving many people’s lives, not to mention inspiring the first, and one of the best, science fiction ghost stories of all time. 

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.