To most, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: Or, The Modern Prometheus is a fantastic novel about a scientist, Victor Frankenstein, who brings a monster to life. Perhaps the most surprising part of Shelley’s work is the fact that the story was sparked from a scientific conversation she had with some friends about the effects that electricity has and the man who discovered it, a scientist named Luigi Galvani.
While dissecting and studying a frog, 18th Century scientist Luigi Galvani accidentally reanimated one of them. How does one accidentally reanimate a dead, dissected creature? At the time, Galvani’s experiments required him to use an electrified scalpel. He discovered that when his electrified scalpel made contact with the frog’s legs it made the muscles jump and twitch. He theorized that inside of the body there was “animal electricity.” While this was disputed by Italian scientist Alessandro Volta, his discovery still stood. The sensation was later named “Galvanic Reanimation”, after him.
Years later, Galvani’s nephew, Giovanni Aldini, was inspired by the work his uncle did with frog legs and decided to pursue it further. Aldini experimented with Galvanic Reanimation with larger animals like oxen, dogs, and eventually human body parts. His work went on to earn an expansion of his uncle’s title, “Galvanism”.
Aldini even took his electrical experiments out into the public to teach people the effects of electricity. These proved that Giovanni Aldini was the OG Dr. Frankenstein described in Shelley’s novel. His most famous experiment was on a deceased convict in 1803. George Foster was convicted of having killed both his child and wife. He was hung for his crime. Moments after he died, Aldini used the body for scientific purposes at the Royal College of Surgeons in London. According to the Newgate Calendar, this was the report of the electrical experiment:
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.—From the Newgate Calendar, 1803
Spectators thought the man was coming back to life. He was not, but the reanimation sure did have them fooled. With Galvanism for fuel and the prompt to tell a ghost story while on a trip with her husband, Percy Shelley, it’s safe to say that Mary Shelley really gave the science fiction genre a strong start!