Luigi Galvani, animal electricity and the creation of Frankenstein

Would Mary Shelley have conceived of Frankenstein without the work of Italian scientist Luigi Galvani? Looking back at its creation, she recalled long conversations with Lord Byron and her husband about Galvani’s ideas. “Perhaps a corpse would be re-animated,” she wrote. “Galvanism had given token of such things.”

Galvani’s great breakthrough had come on 20 September 1786, when he had discovered – by accident – that the spinal cords of a frog carried an electric charge. At the time, Galvani believed he had found proof of what he called ‘animal electricity’, an innate force in the body’s nerves. He compared the frog’s muscle fibres to a Leyden jar.

But it’s likely that Shelley had in mind Galvani’s nephew, Giovanni Aldini, who took up his uncle’s work after he died in 1798, defending his reputation and publicising – some might say vulgarising – the concept of galvanism. It was Aldini who, with much fanfare and not a little theatre, tried to use galvanism to resurrect a newly hanged man.

Despite the fact that Galvani himself tried his process on an amputated arm and foot, he seems a more self-effacing man. “But let there be a limit to conjectures!” he writes at the close of the treatise announcing his discovery. A sentiment that went unheeded.

This piece first appeared in the September 2021 issue of History Today.

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