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26 November 2018

The Scientific Origins of Frankenstein

Estimated reading time Time 4 to read

“It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils.” Soon after, those efforts culminated in a portentous and frightening outcome, when Victor Frankenstein observed “the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.”

Two centuries have passed since that fictional November night in which Mary Shelley— then still Mary Godwin, it being prior to her marriage to the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley—placed her famous doctor, breathing life into a creature fashioned from pieces of corpses. Frankenstein; or, the modern Prometheus has endured as one of the best known works of universal literature, the source of over 90 theatrical adaptations and more than 70 films.

Oil painting of Mary Shelley. Author: Richard Rothwell

But Shelley’s work was not a mere fantasy in the style of the phantasmagorical stories that she and her friends exchanged during that odd summer of 1816 in a villa by Lake Geneva. Although that was when the author conceived the plot of her novel, to give it shape she drank from the scientific sources of her time. “Mary was importantly influenced by people that we would call scientists,” says David Guston, director of the School for the Future of Innovation in Society at Arizona State University and co-editor of the book Frankenstein Annotated for Scientists, Engineers, and Creators of All Kinds (MIT Press, 2017), in a conversation with OpenMind.

That is why many authors see Frankenstein as the first science fiction novel, a genre that questions the consequences of scientific advances and their speculative applications.

The first science fiction novel

The first and most obvious of the scientific imprints in the work is the method for bringing the creature to life: curiously, the harnessing of a thunderbolt during a storm never appears in the book—it was a contribution of cinema. The first edition of the novel made only a brief mention of electricity, and resolved the resuscitation of the creature with a vague allusion to “infuse a spark of being.” “The specifics of how he did it weren’t as important,” says Iwan Morus, a historian of Victorian science at the University of Aberystwyth in the United Kingdom. “She didn’t need to spell it out, since her readers would know already how it would be done.”

In fact, electricity was the fashionable scientific mystery of Shelley’s epoch. The Italian Luigi Galvani had shown how a spark infused movement in the legs of dissected frogs. “There is evidence that Mary did see galvanic demonstrations, which were popular at the time,” says Guston. Galvani’s nephew, Giovanni Aldini, went much further when in 1803 he used electricity to reanimate the limbs of George Forster, a criminal executed in London, before the shock of a horrified audience.

Illustration showing Galvani’s experiments animating dead animals with electrical currents.

“Mary and Percy both moved in social circles where discussions about electricity and its relationship to the processes of life would have been commonplace,” says Morus. Mary also knew about the work of William Nicholson and Humphry Davy, pioneers of electricity in Britain and friends of her father. During the composition of the novel, she read Davy’s work Elements of Chemical Philosophy, from which she integrated some phrases into the speech of Dr Waldman, the professor of Victor Frankenstein.

As pointed out by Stuart Prior, an archaeologist at the University of Bristol (United Kingdom), in 1814 Mary and Percy attended a conference of Andrew Crosse, an outlandish experimenter who had transformed his country property of Fyne Court into a large electrical laboratory. “Davy visited Crosse several times at Fyne Court, and encouraged him to give the talk in London,” Prior told OpenMind.

A blurred border between life and death

But beyond the disturbing spectacles of Aldini, the possibility of reviving a corpse with electricity was part of the scientific discussion of the time about whether the human body was only the sum of its parts or whether it was animated by a vital force, something equivalent to the soul. In the British scientific community these two positions had their main defenders in the surgeons William Lawrence and John Abernethy, respectively; the former had been the doctor for Percy Shelley’s family.

The dichotomy between Lawrence’s mechanicism and Abernethy’s vitalism had profound consequences on the scientific thinking of the time, because of its implications for the definition of life and death. The boundary between the two had faded thanks to the rise in the resuscitation of drowned people, according to Sharon Ruston, historian of the science of Romanticism at the University of Lancaster (United Kingdom). Mary did not find these cases strange; before she was born, her own mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, had been revived after attempting suicide by throwing herself into the Thames. “Death, it seems, could be reversed,” Ruston writes.

Illustration from the frontispiece of the 1831 edition of Frankenstein; or, the modern Prometheus. Author: Theodore Von Holst

One of those rescuers was the Scottish doctor James Lind (cousin of James Lind known for studying the cure of scurvy) who worked on a rudimentary cardiopulmonary resuscitation system with which he managed to revive a patient. “Lind has been regarded as a ‘real life Victor Frankenstein’,” says Guston. The reason is that there was a strong link between the Scot and the author of Frankenstein: Lind was more than a mentor, being almost a father to Percy during his school years at Eton. Thanks to the influence of the doctor, “Percy was a science enthusiast and is said to even have attempted to recreate Benjamin Franklin’s kite-and-key experiment as a student,” continues Guston.

In fact, Franklin also appears on the list of candidate models for Mary Shelley’s character: according to Guston, it has been proposed that the author came up with the name for her doctor in homage to the American scientist and inventor, “especially considering that Immanuel Kant called Franklin the modern Prometheus.”

The alchemist who stole corpses

Ruins of castle of Frankenstein. Credit: Pascal Rehfeldt

But of course, among the possible inspirations for Shelley’s iconic character, we cannot forget the German alchemist who is said to have stolen corpses in order to revive them with a potion of his invention, and who was actually born in the castle of Frankenstein? But despite the amazing similarities even in the name, the influence of Johann Conrad Dippel in the gestation of the novel is a matter of debate.

It is documented that in 1814 Mary and Percy visited the German town where the castle is located. However, this is not mentioned in her travel diary, although according to what Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler, authors of The Monsters: Mary Shelley and the Curse of Frankenstein (Little, Brown, 2006), told OpenMind, “the similarities between Dippel’s life and Mary Shelley’s novel are too great to be written off as coincidence.” Mary Shelley took the real answer to the grave—a place from which, in real life, no one has yet returned.


Javier Yanes



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