We all know the story of Dr. Frankenstein and his monstrous creation- a mad scientist and his assistant assemble body parts and then add a lightening bolt to electrify the corpse back to life. The stuff of pure fiction, right? But at the time when Mary Shelly wrote the original FRANKENSTEIN tale, this practice was based on the real life practice of galvanism. With the movie VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN opening in theaters this week, let’s look back on the macabre scientific practice that inspired the original tale.
During the 1800s, people were fascinated with death, the after life, and if it could be possible to cheat our ultimate demise entirely. Additionally, we were just harnessing the true power of electricity. Shelley was very well-educated and well-traveled, so she would have been witness to the scientific developments in both of these fields. And her regular consorts (Lord Byron and Percy Shelley) love of macabre horror no doubt attracted them to the material as well. At the time of the novel’s creation, galvanism was a practice amongst many of Europe’s more eccentric alchemists and scientists. Shelley was seeing the amazing effects galvanism had on dead bodies, and thus composed the tale around it.
Galvanism was first discovered in the late 1700s. While dissecting a frog, a scientist by the name of Luigi Galvani noticed that if he touched a frog’s muscle a certain way, the dead frog’s legs would kick. He soon realized this muscle contraction and movement could also be recreated using small amounts of electricity. Galvani began experimenting on the corpses of executed criminals. Focusing on their faces, he realized that when electricity was applied to specific muscle groups, the faces of the dead would contort as if they were alive and trying to speak, even opening and closing their eyes and mouths.
For the next several decades, Galvanism became a source of scientific intrigue. If electricity could make a body move, could it bring someone back to life? By the time of Mary Shelley, the practice of Galvanism had become somewhat of a fascinating parlor trick. The wealthy and eccentric would invite scientists to “reanimate the dead” to the shock and awe of their guests, some even set up in town squares creating a large scale show and spectacle.
Seemingly, Galvanism was an archaic art since we soon discovered that the mere application of electricity to a dead body does not bring the person bounding back from the other side. Or does it? It was ultimately the practice of Galvanism that lead scientists to realize that if electricity could jumpstart facial muscles, it could also do the same for someone’s heart. Now, over 200 years later, one of our best life-saving devices is the defibrillation machine and paddles we use to send an electric shock into someone’s chest, kick-starting their heart back into rhythm. This is a practice we now call Cardioversion! So Frankenstein is not quite so fictional after all!