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Dr. Frankenstein, I Presume?

by Jennifer Bryan on 2023-10-31T13:21:48-04:00 in History, Physics & Astronomy, Special Collections & Archives | 0 Comments

"To conduct an energetic fluid to the general seat of all impressions; to distribute its influence to the different parts of the nervous and muscular systems; to continue, revive, and, if I may be allowed the expression, to command the vital powers; such are the objects of my researches, and such the advantages which I purpose to derive from the action of Galvanism...." 


Detail from plate 4 in volume 1 of Giovanni Aldini's Essai théorique et expérimental sur le Galvanisme (Paris, 1804).


" might...conjecture what effect the action of Galvanism would produce on that noble being man, the sole object of my researches....Though accustomed to a more tranquil kind of operations in my closet, and little acquainted with anatomical dissections, the love of truth, and a desire to throw some light on the system of Galvanism, overcame all my repugnance, and I proceeded to the following experiments."


Plate 3 in volume 1 of Aldini's Essai théorique et expérimental sur le Galvanisme (Paris, 1804).


The words of Victor Frankenstein from Mary Shelley's 1818 novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus?  No, the above quotations are from Giovanni Aldini's An Account of the Late Improvements in Galvanism published in London in 1803.  Aldini (1762-1834), professor of experimental physics at the University of Bologna, was the nephew of physician and anatomist Luigi Galvani (1737-1798), whose experiments with electricity and frogs' legs had led him to the conclusion that there was a force inherent in the animal body that he termed "animal electricity."  Galvani's sharpest critic was Alessandro Volta (1745-1827), professor of experimental physics at the University of Pavia, who developed the principle of bimetallic electricity.  In a number of his experiments, Galvani had used a bimetallic arc to connect the frog's crural nerve with its leg, producing a muscular contraction.  Rather than "animal electricity" producing the contractions, Volta posited that the muscle was reacting to the electricity produced from the connection of two dissimilar metals.  From this insight, Volta developed the "voltaic" or "galvanic" pile, a stack of pairs of silver and zinc disks with a piece of moistened cardboard between each pair that produced an electric current. 


An experiment with frogs' legs from Plate 1 in Aldini's An Account of the Late Improvements in Galvanism (London, 1803).


To prove the existence of "animal electricity," or "galvanism," and defend his uncle from Volta's criticisms, Aldini performed experiments on dismembered warm-blooded animals including birds, oxen, sheep, and even human cadavers.  Ironically, he used Volta's bimetallic pile to generate electric currents for his experiments.  In one instance, "the head of an ox, recently killed, was subjected to the action of a pile....When this apparatus was applied, the eyes were seen to open, the ears to shake, the tongue to be agitated, and the nostrils to swell, in the same manner as those of the living animal, when irritated and desirous of combating another of the same species."  To Aldini, such an experiment revealed "the influence which Galvanism has on the vital powers." 


Experiments with ox heads from Plate 2 in Aldini's An Account of the Late Improvements in Galvanism (London, 1803).




Title page of Aldini's 1803 London publication.


Among Aldini's more macabre experiments were those he performed at the Royal College of Surgeons on January 17, 1803, on the body of George Foster, a 26-year-old convicted criminal who had been hanged for the murder of his wife and child.  In the third of 15 experiments on Foster, Aldini noted that the muscular action "was so much increased as almost to give an appearance of reanimation."  In the fourth experiment, "the effect in this case surpassed our most sanguine expectations, and vitality might, perhaps, have been restored, if many circumstances had not rendered it impossible."  Aldini noted that "our object in applying the treatment here described was not to produce re-animation, but merely to obtain a practical knowledge how far Galvanism might be employed as an auxiliary to other means in attempts to revive persons under similar circumstances [asphyxiation and suspended animation]."   


Introduction to the appendix describing Aldini's experiments on the body of George Foster (Forster in the text).



Plate 4 in volume 1 of Aldini's Essai théorique et expérimental sur le Galvanisme (Paris, 1804).


Aldini was no Dr. Frankenstein.  He was hopeful that galvanism could be used as a therapeutic tool in medicine.  He traveled throughout Europe, visiting both Paris and London, conducting experiments that were intended not only to prove the existence of galvanism but to demonstrate its usefulness in medicine.     


Detail from the title page of Aldini's 1803 London publication showing the gold medal he received from the faculty and students of Guy's and St. Thomas' hospitals. 


The works of Galvani, Volta, and Aldini are among the over 1,000 volumes related to electricity and magnetism to be found in the Park Benjamin Collection.  



All quotes are from Aldini, Giovanni.  An Account of the Late Improvements in Galvanism.  London: Cuthell and Martin and J. Murray, 1803.  QC517.A36 1803  

Aldini, Giovanni.  Essai théorique et expérimental sur le Galvanisme.  2 vols.  Paris: Fournier, 1804.  QC517.A361 1804

Bostock, John.  An Account of the History and Present State of Galvanism. Lonodn: Baldwin Cradock, and Joy, 1818.  QC507,B74 1818 

"Domestic Occurrences," Gentleman's Magazine, January 1803, 80.

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