IN 1817, the natural philosopher Karl August Weinhold removed the brain from a living kitten and replaced it with a mix of zinc and silver, essentially a battery. According to Weinhold, the animal “opened its eyes, looked straight ahead with a glazed expression… hobbled about, and then fell down exhausted”.
The following year, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was published to a public hungry for the author’s take on one of the most pressing scientific issues of the day: is electricity the key to animal life? And if so, can a short sharp jolt reanimate the dead?
Recent history had blurred the once a clear divide between life and death. There were reports of flickers of what looked like life in freshly guillotined heads in revolutionary France, and the invention of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation allowed people who had seemingly drowned to spring back to life.
Sharon Ruston covers this historical ground well, and takes it further, revealing Shelley’s firm grip on the scientific issues of her day – in particular, the growing understanding of the role of electricity in life.
In the last decades of the 1700s, it was believed that animal life was driven by something called animal electricity, thought to be distinct from the kind that flows through metal. The idea came from the physician Luigi Galvani to explain why the muscles in the legs of dead frogs twitched when hit by an electrical spark.
Galvani’s nephew, Giovanni Aldini, took these experiments further in theatrical events in which a current was passed through corpses. The bodies then opened their eyes, clenched their fists, raised their arms, beat their hands against the table or moved as though attempting to stand or sit up.
As Ruston writes, in Shelley’s book, Victor Frankenstein’s anguished description of the moment his Creature awakes “sounds very like the description of Aldini’s attempts to resuscitate 26-year-old George Forster”, one of the corpses experimented on after he was hanged for the murder of his wife and child in 1803.
The Science of Life and Death in Frankenstein is both a great introduction and a serious contribution to understanding Frankenstein. Through Ruston’s eyes, we see how the first sci-fi novel captured the imagination of a science-hungry public.
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