The Real Dr. Frankenstein

When asked what inspired her to write her tale of gothic horror, Frankenstein author Mary Shelley often says she wrote her book in a frantic, waking dream. What gets oft forgotten is that she and her friends had spent the night talking about Galvanic Reanimation.

Galvanic Reanimation was discovered by Luigi Galvani in the late 1700s. At this time in history, mankind had just begun discovering how to harness electricity. Galvani, seeking to unlock the secrets of biology as well made an accidental discovery when his electrified scalpel caused a frog he was dissecting to twitch. This put Galvani down a long road of discovering how muscles worked and what electricity could do to animate them.


While Galvani’s discovery is credited with pioneering bioelectricity, his nephew would take Galvanic Reanimation to a whole new level. Entering the world of scientific academia when he was a teenager, Giovanni Aldini learned much from his uncle. Where Galvani stopped with frogs, however, Aldini experimented on much more advanced animals and even humans.

As Aldini learned that he could stimulate different muscles with electric probes, his mastery of biology grew. Eventually, his demonstrations were turned to the public, and he would lug giant batteries from town to town to demonstrate the effects of electricity. Audiences would look on in awe and horror as he cut the heads off of dogs and oxen, then proceeded to make them spasm and twitch with electricity.

His most famous experiment occurred in London, 1803. A man named George Foster had murdered his wife and child. After making a confession, he was sentenced to execution and dissection. Shortly after being hung, his body was carted in for a demonstration by Aldini. The scientist took to the project with ease demonstrating his ability to manipulate the body.

On the first application of the process to the face, the jaws of the deceased criminal began to quiver, and the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and one eye was actually opened. In the subsequent part of the process the right hand was raised and clenched, and the legs and thighs were set in motion.—From the Newgate Calendar, 1803

Newspapers reported that people witnessing the demonstration feared Foster would be returned to life and pondered what that would mean for his death sentence. All across the world, people considered the ramifications of reanimation, but Aldini wasn’t troubled by any of this speculation. Aldini knew he wasn’t bringing anybody back to life. He often reiterated that his goal was not to meddle with the dead but to actually find ways to manipulate the living.

Aldini would go on to work on electrotherapy. In addition to his works in medicine, Aldini served as an engineer, responsible for the design of many lighthouses. Eventually, the Emperor of Austria made him a Knight of the Iron Crown, before Aldini passed away in 1834. Aldini’s legacy, however, remains best remembered in Shelley’s novel.

By the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.—The Creature Awakens, Chapter 5, Frankenstein