Luigi Galvani and “Electric” Romanticism

Describing the genesis of her novel Frankenstein, Mary Shelley wrote: “perhaps a corpse would be re-animated; galvanism had given token of such things.” Luigi Galvani (1737-98) was a physician and anatomy professor at the University of Bologna. After noticing that dead frog legs began to twitch when stimulated by various metals and electrical charges, he engaged in a series of experiments, eventually discovering what he believed to be “animal electricity.” He published his findings in 1791 as De viribus electricitatis in motu musculari commentarius. The word “galvanized” and the galvanometer (which measures current in a conductor) derive from his work. Galvani and Alessandro Volta engaged in a heated controversy in the 1790s, in which Galvani claimed that this biological electricity was the vital “fluid” or perhaps life itself, and Volta claimed that external electrical charges merely triggered the “dead” muscles into motion. Volta’s continuing researches led to the development of the voltaic pile and eventually the battery. Of course, Benjamin Franklin (Franklinstein?) had published his experiments on the power and potential of lightning  as early as 1751, but it was galvanism and the galvanic controversy that occasioned widespread public discussion about the link between electricity and life throughout Europe in the early years of the nineteenth century.

Aldini electrifies the body of a "malefactor" (London, 1803)

Equally important to Mary Shelley’s “galvanism” reference, was the work of Giovanni Aldini, a nephew of Galvani’s who engaged in electrical research and “perfomances” in France and England. The full title of Aldini’s first work in English suggests his possible connection to the Frankenstein discussions of 1816: An account of the late improvements in galvanism, with a series of curious and interesting experiments performed before the commissioners of the French National Institute, and repeated lately in the anatomical theatres of London, by John Aldini. To which is added An appendix, containing the author’s experiments on the body of a malefactor executed at Newgate (London: Cuthell and Martin, and J. Murray, by Wilks and Taylor, 1803). Aldini was a showman, but also a serious scientist, who exhibited the results of his experiments to large audiences throughout Europe. He would place his battery-charged wires into the severed heads of oxen, causing their eyes and mouths to open and close, their tongues to stick out, and their muscles to quiver. He then repeated such experiments on human subjects, using the recently hanged bodies of criminals. The flavor of Aldini’s work is captured well in the following extract from his experiment #22 (performed on the severed head of a “malefactor”):

The first of these decapitated criminals being conveyed to the apartment provided for my experiments, in the neighbourhood of the place of execution, the head was first subjected to the Galvanic action. For this purpose I had constructed a pile consisting of a hundred pieces of silver and zinc. Having moistened the inside of the ears with salt water, I formed an arc with two metallic wires, which, proceeding from the two ears, were applied, one to the summit and the other to the bottom of the pile. When this communication was established, I observed strong contractions in the muscles of the face, which were contorted in so irregular a manner that they exhibited the appearance of the most horrid grimaces. The action of the eye-lids was exceedingly striking, though less sensible in the human head than in that of an ox.

An extensive extract from Aldini’s published work is available in Romantic Natural Histories (Houghton Mifflin, 2004, pp. 253-66). Aldini’s experiments, including attempts like this to revivify dead bodies, were often carried out before large public audiences in an almost theatrical atmosphere. Such spectacles performed on humans (and ox heads) produced consistently repeated, spasmodic movements of facial muscles, arms, and legs, leading some to claim that the scientist was revivifying the dead. Although a showman in many respects, Aldini was also among the first to treat mentally ill patients with voltage administered directly to the brain, reporting that this technique–the first recorded use of electro-convulsive shock therapy–produced complete electrical cures for a number of mental illnesses.  (A.N.)



Severed frog-legs twitch and a headless squid walks with only salt as the stimulant


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