The Italian ‘Mad Scientist’ Whose Experiments Inspired Frankenstein

Dr. Giovanni Aldini, a brilliant Italian physicist, pushed the boundaries of science with never-before-tried experiments on creatures and cadavers.

By: Roseanne Montillo, ISDA Contributor 

Luigi Galvani, one of the most renowned physiologists and obstetricians in Bologna. had been waiting for storms.  As of late, he had been delving into experiments that complemented the medical and surgical skills he practiced in the city’s many hospitals.  But for almost a decade now, he had also been studying the field of elettricita’ animale, animal electricity.  As a doctor, the field of electricity in general interested him deeply, particularly as it related to the cure of paralysis.

This so-called cure had been shown to work before.  The Bolognese physiologist Giuseppe Veratti had applied electricity to various diseases, including paralysis and arthritis.  The positive results were then set down in a book published in 1748 that Galvani had most certainly read.

Luigi Galvani (born 1737, died 1798) was a physician famous for pioneering bioelectricity.

Late in the 1760s, Veratti’s experiments had also included the use of frogs and other small animals.  Although those particular findings were never published, he gave a demonstration at the famed Academy of Sciences in Bologna in the years 1769 and 1770, where, at the time, Galvani had been a member and professor for the Institute of Sciences.

Galvani’s choice of experimental animals also included frogs, what Hermann Hellmholtz in 1845 called “the martyrs of science.”  Thousands of these amphibians had been slaughtered in the company of his nephews, assistants, and wife, eventually arriving at one conclusion: There was a fluid inherent to all living creatures that ran from head to toe, and this could be manipulated with an outside apparatus, such as a metallic arc or a rod.  This manipulation allowed the body to restore its inner activity, which in turn aided in the cure of paralysis and other diseases, restoring vitality.

In time Galvani found that pharmacology also influenced the results.  In a lecture he delivered at the Academy of the Institute of Science, he spoke of the effects opiates had on animal electricity.  According to his notes, he injected opium into the frogs’ abdominal cavities, the stomach, or the cerebrum.  While at first the frogs remained splayed and flaccid, they eventually revived and demonstrated a “violent convulsion, either from a slight tremor of the surface upon which they were resting or from contact with some body.”  If he hacked off the frogs’ heads and pumped their bodies with opium, he got the same results.

But on that hot August 17, 1786, he wanted to prove a different theory, one that in part resembled Benjamin Franklin’s famous kite experiment: He wanted to see if he could elicit movements in the frogs’ legs by employing atmospheric phenomena.

Galvani, his wife, Lucia, and his two nephews, who also served as assistants, gathered atop the balcony, the highest point in his house.  Galvani had ordered metal hooks hung on the iron railings, and now a “prepared frog” dangled from each. The prepared frogs, he said, “should be cut transversally below their upper limbs, skinned and disemboweled . . . only their lower limbs are left joined together, containing just their long crural nerves.  These are either left loose or free, or attached to the spinal cord, which is either left intact in its vertebral canal or carefully extracted from it and partly or wholly separated.”

He imbued the frogs with the same attention he gave all of his patients, employing the same expert surgical skills he had obtained at the Hospital of Santa Maria Della Morte, Saint Mary of Death, and S. Orsola.  The movements of his hands were fluid, sinuous and virtually flawless.

Notebook in hand, Galvani took copious notes.  Those that knew him were aware that he brought an almost religious fervor to his work.   Of course, that was not a coincidence.  In his childhood, he had wanted to devote his life to God, a life of obedience and order, going so far as to join the Oratorio Dei Padri Filippini, a religious order.  But, as the first born in the family, his father, Domenico Galvani, and his mother, Barbara, who followed protocol and sent him to university, had chosen his path.  It was at the University of Bologna, in the Faculty of Arts, that he came to realize the possibility of finding spiritual solace in scientific work.  The university  had been founded around the end of the eleventh century and eventually became known all over the world as “Alma Mater Studiorum” for being the oldest university in the western world. It boasted scholars and researchers in many fields, from law to philosophy, but the study of medicine, particularly anatomy, eventually made it notorious.

Lucia was the daughter of one of the most famous anatomists in the city, Domenico Gusmano Galeazzi.  Unlike children of her age, Lucia had grown up privy to her father’s  experiments often involving mangled corpses being anatomized in a laboratory close to the family kitchen.  During her youth, city officials had not precisely condoned anatomizations in private homes, though they had not discouraged them either.

They had turned a blind eye even during seasonal changes, when the weather warmed  and the rotten stench of decaying bodies trickled out, the sickening odor of putrid flesh mingling with the cooking smells of the city.  Even then, officials assumed that anatomists were learning information that would be useful not only for their students, but for people at large.  They were correct.  Through one of those experiments, Galeazzi first detected the presence of iron in the blood, and furthermore, made even more discoveries regarding the body’s gastrointestinal system.

As the boom of thunder neared, Galvani and his crew noticed the amphibians’ legs twitching, and as he later reported in his Commentaries, “just as the splendor and flash of the lightning are wont, so the muscular motions and contractions of those animals preceded the thunders, and, as it were, warned of them . . .”

The frogs behaved as expected, and “in correspondence of four thunders, contractions not small occurred in all muscles of the limbs, and, as a consequence, not small hops and movements of the limbs.  These occurred just at the moment of the lightening . . .”

Although the frogs were dead, skinned, and nearly eviscerated, when zapped by an electrical arc or when they they came in contact with a distant flash of thunder, their legs twitched in a way that made them seem as if ready to hop off the balcony and into the streets below.  While this was happening, Galvani’s tempestuous nephew, Giovanni Aldini, looked on. Standing on that balcony, feeling the hot August wind, watching black clouds roll above his head, and hearing for the first time in days the slight pinging of rain on Bologna’s rooftops, he must have realized that these experiments were more than just his uncle’s folly: they were the very essence of life.

Italian physicist Giovanni Aldini (born 1762, died 1834), the nephew of Luigi Galvani, continued his uncle’s work in dealing with muscular electricity. 

In those moments, the theories that would direct the rest of his life began to form: Could those frogs truly return to life?  And if that happened, what were the implications?  Could his uncle’s ideas later be used on lambs, oxen, sheep, and cows?  And even further, could men benefit from such a thing?  Not only the living, but also the dead?  Could the process of reanimation be proven correct?

In the years that followed, Giovanni Aldini further tested those theories, the climax of his beliefs occurring on January 17th, 1803, at the Royal College of Surgeons, in London, where he performed a never-before-tried experiment on the body of a convicted felon.  By then, many of his earlier experiments performed on animals and humans – some dead and some living – had convinced him that galvanism (the new science named after his uncle) presented an opportunity for restarting one of the body’s main vital organs: The heart.  If that were to happen, the dead could reawaken.

By then, Aldini’s experiments, and the topic of reanimation in general, had become fashionable in all of European society, from the natural philosophers, who began to delve deeper into the powers and possibilities of a vital force existing in humans and nature, to the more amateurish individuals whose dubious endeavors merely allowed for a massive slaughter of frogs, pigs, and dogs, all in the name of science.  It also became a go-to subject not only in the scientific community, but also in the artistic, literary, and crowd-pleasing soirées and salons all over England, France, and Germany.

In the early 1800s, the distinction between a scientist, an artist, a political reformer, and a man of letters was not as clear-cut as it later became.  The disciplines intertwined, the interests overlapped.  As such, scientists like Humphrey Davy and Erasmus Darwin not only studied the topic of electricity and vitalism, but also wrote poems and essays on the subjects, which were published and well-received by the public-at-large.  Poets such as Percy Shelley experimented with galvanic electricity, poisons, and gases, later jotting down long poems and odes that mused on the sublime mysteries of the natural world and the awesome powers of lightening and thunder.

But one particular author, Mary Godwin Shelley, truly combined the urge of scientific endeavors of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the lure of forbidden knowledge, and the power of literary interpretation in her masterpiece, Frankensteinor, The Modern Prometheus.   That it was published in 1818 and written barely a year and a half earlier was not a coincidence.  She was well aware of the scientific procedures occurring around her.  She had heard of Giovanni Aldini’s experiments (earlier from her father’s friend, the medic Anthony Carlisle, who took great interest in such events and is believed to have attended Aldini’s experiments, and later from her lover, Percy Shelley, and of his uncle, Luigi Galvani’s theories on animal electricity.

She knew of Humphrey Davy and was aware of his lectures and writings, even using them, and him, for inspiration in her work.  She had also read Erasmus Darwin’s early theories of evolution.  More importantly, her lover, who later became her husband, Percy Shelly, a poet, science aficionado, and fan of the macabre, was the one who introduced her to many of the scientific properties and theories exploding around her.  He even went so far as to demonstrate certain experiments to her.  Along with all of that, the literary publications of the time provided her with a good foundation.

Thus, it is no surprise, given all Mary Shelley had at her disposal, that she was able to create the archetype of the famed, mad, brilliant scientist of the 19th century: Victor Frankenstein.

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