Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has inspired the imaginations of avid readers and movie makers for generations. The tale of the young Doctor Frankenstein and his ill-advised creation has filled us with horror and wonder, and the image of the lumbering, stitched-together man with electrodes protruding from his neck is now firmly embedded in our cultural consciousness. This classic story is now being re-visited yet again by the new film Victor Frankenstein, starring Professor X and Harry Potter…I mean James McAvoy and Daniel Radcliff. This new imagining casts Igor as a friend and assistant to the eccentric and charismatic Victor Frankenstein, with both being cast more in the light of well-meaning and heroic scientists that end up scrambling to fix an experiment gone awry than diabolical mad scientists. Interestingly, the concepts explored in the story of Frankenstein have some basis in the scientific theories of the day. Though it is only hinted at in early editions before being clearly stated in a later revision, one of the most prevalent ideas explored is galvanism.
Galvanism is defined in biology as the contraction of muscles due to an electric current, whereas in physics and chemistry it is the creation of an electrical current from two chemicals with different electronegativities (that is, chemicals with differing abilities to attract electrons). The concept gets its name from the work of Luigi Galvani, a scientist who studied the effects of electricity on dissected animals in the 1780’s and 1790’s. He discovered this when he touched charged electric rods to the bodies of dead frogs and caused their legs to twitch. Later he found that by hanging frog legs from brass hooks and creating a circuit between the frog and the hook with different metals, he could create the same muscle contractions with no direct electrical stimulation!These experiments demonstrated both the biological and physical principles of galvanism. A more famous set of experimental demonstrations of galvanism, however, were done by his nephew Giovanni Aldini. In this famous demonstration at Newgate in London in 1803, he stimulated the limbs of a dead body with electricity. The experiments caused Foster’s facial muscles to twitch, an eyelid to open, his arm to raise and clench, and his thighs and legs to move!
Today, galvanism is only used in biology to designate thoughts and experiments of a historical context. The current term for the study of electrical currents and their usage in the body is electrophysiology. It largely concerns the way the nervous system can create and transmit electrical impulses to control the muscles of the body. Despite the refinement and renaming of the field, the principles of galvanism that Mary Shelley would have heard about are not all that different from those of electrophysiology. In fact, one of the most popular theorized uses of galvanism in the 19th century was to use electricity to bring organisms back to life, which owes a considerable amount of credit to the publication of Shelley’s novel in 1818. In an eerie intersection between science fiction and science fact, today we use electrical impulses to “bring back to life” people whose hearts have stopped beating! So the next time you see a defibrillator kit, or a watch the doctor on your favorite medical show use a pair of defibrillator paddles, remember to thank Luigi Galvani, Mary Shelley, and Victor Frankenstein!