Wait, He’s Actually Alive?—The Science Behind Frankenstein

Though the novel Frankenstein (1816) by Mary Shelley may seem outlandish and fictional, its narrative is firmly inspired by 18th- and 19th-century scientific practices.

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By Zihe Huang

A monstrous creation born from the fusion of science and fiction lurks in the dimly lit corners of the English department’s halls. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley is a fictional novel that tells the story of a young scientist who uses electricity to create a sentient creature out of corpses. The book gained immense popularity immediately after its publication in 1816, shocking readers with its gruesome portrayal of the consequences of creating life. It drew inspiration from 18th-century electrophysiology, which led to discoveries that are still significant today.

Shelley wrote Frankenstein shortly after the Enlightenment swept across Europe, emphasizing rationalism and scientific investigation. This fueled the development of many new medical fields, including electrophysiology, the study of electrical patterns in the body. 

One particularly influential contributor to electrophysiology was 18th-century physician Luigi Galvani, who gained popularity through his experiments testing the effects of electricity on deceased animals. In his most popular experiment, he dissected frogs’ legs and attached brass hooks to their nerves. Galvani then charged an iron railing with electricity using a Leyden Jar, a device made with metal foil that accumulates and discharges energy. When the hooks touched the electrically charged railing, the frog legs twitched and convulsed as if the frog was still alive. Galvani’s observations suggested a direct relationship between electricity and muscle function; the study quickly became widely renowned. 

Galvani’s nephew, Giovanni Aldini, admired his uncle’s work and sought to build upon it several years later. Aldini used the novel technology of electric batteries to generate an electric current, which he brought into contact with body parts of deceased animals. Much to the audience’s surprise, the animals’ muscles contracted and shook. Eager to experiment further, Aldini decided to test the effects of electricity on the human body. In 1803, Aldini attempted to reanimate a corpse by charging it with a direct electrical current. As a result, the cadaver’s eyes opened, jaw clenched, and hand raised. Aldini’s demonstrations captivated audiences and sparked public curiosity about the possibilities and boundaries of electrophysiology. 

 To explain these results, Galvani first hypothesized about “animal energy,” a small amount of electrical fluid inside all organisms. He thought that the brain secreted this substance, and that the movement of the fluid through the nerves contracted muscles. This theory became known as Galvanism and has since been widely disproven. It is now known that muscles move because of electrical messages sent from the brain through nerve cells called motor neurons. An electrical impulse fires through the motor neurons, which are connected by thin fibers called axons. When the electrical impulse reaches its directed muscle, a chemical is released that causes the muscle fibers to contract or expand. When large amounts of energy were applied to the animals’ muscles in Galvani’s and Aldini’s experiments, they mimicked the impulses sent by the brain, causing the muscle fibers to tense.

These experiments, while groundbreaking for their time, also have important ethical implications. One concern surrounding Galvani’s and Aldini’s experiments is about their cruel treatment of animals. Galvani’s and Aldini’s experiments took place within a different societal and scientific framework from today’s, when ethical standards regarding animal experimentation were not as well defined as they are today. As a result, Galvani often subjected live animals to various forms of electrical stimulation. Critics argue that these scientists performed their experiments without sufficient regard for the well-being and ethical treatment of the animals involved. Science’s all-too-frequent disregard of ethical consequences is explored in Frankenstein; the creature Victor Frankenstein creates by infusing discarded body parts with energy later chastises Frankenstein for his reckless negligence toward life, arguing that the scientist inflicted immense pain on him. 

Though there are many connections between Frankenstein and reality, there is no concrete evidence that electrical currents can be used to completely revive a long-dead person. Nevertheless, Galvani’s ideas about electrophysiology are still utilized today in the form of automated external defibrillators, devices that send an electrical shock to a patient's heart to restore a normal heartbeat. Usually, the brain sends an electric signal through the heart, causing the muscles to expand and contract to force blood out of one atrium and into the next. However, cardiac arrest causes the brain to send irregular impulses to the heart, leading to erratic heartbeat patterns called arrhythmias. Defibrillators solve this by delivering a strong electric shock that stops abnormal electrical impulses, allowing the regular heart rhythm to resume. 

In Frankenstein, Shelley uses a fictional narrative about the creation of a life to explore the intricate relationship between scientific advancement, popular media, and morality. The concept of electrophysiology that inspired the creation of Frankenstein’s creature continue to inspire modern revival technologies, such as the defibrillator. As we navigate the ever-evolving landscape of scientific discovery, it's important to practice fostering a future where science and ethics walk hand-in-hand.