A Real Dr Frankenstein - the Italian physicist and would-be re-animator Giovanni Aldini

10 April 1762, the Italian physicist and would-be re-animator Giovanni Aldini was born in Bologna

“Perhaps a corpse would be reanimated; galvanism had given token of such things: perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth" (Mary Shelley)

A contemporary print showing a scientist, probably Aldini, conducting experiments on heads and a headless corpse plugged on to a Leyden Jar capacitor – Bologna, 1802.

When the 18th century drew to an end, a lot of natural philosophers and scientists alike sang the body electric, based on the assumption of the Italian physician and physicist Luigi Galvani, that all living bodies where charged full with a distinct form of electricity, animal electricity, as he chose to call it. Brought in contact with the metal of his scalpel while experimenting with static electricity and dead amphibians, Galvani touched the the sciatic nerve of the frog he was skinning, a spark erupted and the dead animal’s twitching leg kicked off a scientific debate about what exactly had caused the effect. An inherent form of electricity, as Galvani claimed or that the animation was caused by the transferred juice of the capacitor the leg was hooked up to, as his scientific competitor Alessandro Volta suggested, and that there was only one form of energy. However, electricity had made the leg of a dead frog move and the following deductions and experiments soon took on rather ghoulish forms.

Galvani's apparatus in 1791

Joseph-Ignace Guillotin’s infamous invention for cutting off other people’s heads painlessly soon came into the focus of the natural philosophers and around 1800, the first experiments with energising guillotined heads were conducted and the spectators watched the movement of the dead mens’ features with awe and horror. But Galvani’s nephew Giovanni Aldini crowned the whole morbid affair with a complete absence of scientific tact. Assuming that the highest form of animal electricity was stored in a human being, Aldini darted for London where people could be sentenced to death as well as to a subsequent dissection of their remains and swooped down on the body of one George Forster. Sentenced for allegedly having murdered his wife and child, Forster was condemned in such a way in 1803. The Newgate Calendar noted about Aldini’s galvanic experiment conducted on January 18th of the same year: “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.“

"A Galvanised Corpse" - Satire from 1836

Mary Shelley was five years old when Forster was galvanised, but she obviously had read the note of the Newgate Calendar, since Frankenstein’s creature initially suffered pretty much the same fate: “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.“, sans the breathing, of course. And while Aldini continued his work until his death in 1834 in Milan, the debate of making convicts obviously suffer after their death soon led to a ban on similar experiments almost everywhere in Europe and as well to an ongoing debate about  Madame La Guillotine's mercies, leading to an abolishment of the device in a lot of countries. Natural philosophers in the meanwhile discussed the rather fundamental question if a human life was a sum greater than its parts full of a divinely inspired life force or a machine, powered by electricity. Galvanic effects though continued to be debated, usually, but not always, accompanied with less ghastly experiments to this day in biology as electrophysiology.

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