What is Galvanism, And How Did it Inspire Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein?

Jun 16, 2022 0 comments

On 18 January 1803, George Foster was hanged by the neck. The jury had found him guilty of murdering his wife and child by drowning them in London’s Paddington Canal. The judge sentenced him to death, and as was the practice in those times for violent crimes, his body was awarded to the medical institution to be dissected and experimented. Shortly before his execution at the Newgate prison, Foster made a full confession of his gruesome crime.

After his swift execution, George Foster’s lifeless body was taken to the Royal College of Surgeons, where an audience of doctors and curiosity-seekers had assembled to watch one of the strangest demonstration in medical science, carried out by Giovanni Aldini, an Italian physician and nephew of the late Luigi Galvani. Many of those present in the anatomy theater that day believed they were about to witness a corpse being brought back to life.

Rising of a corpse galvanized by a primitive galvanic battery.

Giovanni Aldini placed electrodes on Foster’s face and connected them to a large battery. When Aldini threw the switch, “the jaws of the deceased criminal began to quiver, and the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and one eye was actually opened.” Application of the same process on Foster’s limbs caused his right hand to be raised and his fist clenched. His legs and thighs were set in motion and his back arched violently. Some of those witnessing the demonstration actually believed that Foster was being restored to life. The Newgate Calendar reported that Mr Pass, the beadle of the Surgeons' Company, was so frightened that his heart gave away.

Giovanni Aldini was demonstrating a phenomenon known as galvanism, which is defined as the contraction of muscles by the application of electrical currents. The effect was named by Alessandro Volta after scientist Luigi Galvani, who investigated the effect of electricity on dissected animals in the 1780's and 1790's.

According to popular legend, Luigi Galvani was investigating an unrelated phenomenon with skinned frogs when his assistant accidentally touched a scalpel to the sciatic nerve of the frog, and its legs kicked. After further experiments, Galvani theorized that all living bodies contained an innate vital force that he called “animal electricity.” This electrical juice, he suggested, was generated in the brain, flowing through the nerves and supplying muscles with power. In 1791, Galvani published his findings in De viribus electricitatis in motu musculari, and his provocative theory created a furor in the world of science.

Late 1780s diagram of Galvani's experiment on frog legs.

Alessandro Volta, a professor of experimental physics in the University of Pavia, was among the first scientists who repeated and checked Galvani’s experiments. But Volta doubted that the conduction were caused by specific electricity intrinsic to the animal's legs or other body parts. Rather, electricity was being generated by the two different metals that Galvani used for conduction. Volta’s findings led him to develop the first battery capable of a continuous electrical current, known as the Voltaic pile, in 1800. Composed of a stack of alternating discs of copper and zinc separated by cardboard soaked in brine, it was a game-changer in the study of electricity and its many applications. Despite their differences in opinion, Volta still coined the phenomenon of the chemical generation of electricity “Galvanism” after Galvani.

After Luigi Galvani’s death in 1798, his nephew Giovanni Aldini, continued his uncle's work becoming the primary defender of his uncle’s controversial theory of animal electricity. Aldini performed sensational electrical experiments on the bodies of sheep, dogs and oxen, in operating theaters across Europe. His most famous public demonstration of the electro-stimulation technique was on the corpse of George Foster.

Experiments on galvanism on a human cadaver, from Giovanni Aldini’s “Essai théorique et expérimental sur le galvanisme”

Experiments on galvanism on a human cadaver, from Giovanni Aldini’s “Essai théorique et expérimental sur le galvanisme”

Galvanism excited medical practitioners around the world, and many followed in the paths of Aldini conducting their own experiments on animal corpses. Carl August Weinhold, a German scientist, claimed to have brought kittens back from the dead by replacing the spinal cords of decapitated kittens with zinc and sliver pile batteries, which generated an electrical charge. Not only did their hearts start beating but, according to Weinhold, the kittens bounded around for several minutes. Paul Traugott Meissner, an Austrain chemist, believed that blood in the lungs becomes electrically charged through breathing. The charge is then transmitted up the nerves to the spinal cord and brain, and is used by the brain to electrically control the will, as well as the limbs of the individual.

Galvanism also gave birth to new form of treatment—electroconvulsive therapy, or the administration of electrical shocks to treat a vast array of medical conditions. Aldini himself claimed to have applied Galvanic principles to successfully alleviate symptoms of “several cases of insanity” and with complete success.

Galvani’s discoveries also inspired one of the most famous examples of science fiction: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. In the summer of 1816, Mary Shelley and her soon-to-be husband, the poet Percy Shelley, were visiting Lord Byron in Geneva, where she overheard many discussions about Galvanism between her husband and Lord Byron. Two years later, Shelley finished Frankenstein: or, the Modern Prometheus. In the preface to the 1831 edition, she wrote: “Perhaps a corpse would be reanimated; galvanism had given a token of such things; perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth.”

The term galvanism is used today only in historical contexts. The modern term for the study of galvanic effects upon the human body is electrophysiology, and it includes such diagnostic techniques such as electrocardiography (monitoring of the electric activity of the heart), electromyography (monitoring of the electric activity of muscles), and electrocorticography (monitoring of the electric activity of the brain).

# The Body Electric, Smithsonian Libraries and Archives
# Mary Shelley's Frankenstein
# Corrosion Doctors
# Newgate Calendar
# Sparks of life, The Guardian


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