Science is something that people take for granted in the age of ubiquitous technology. It is good to remember that the technological and scientific prowess we enjoy today is built on a foundation of trial and error spanning thousands of years. Working from scratch, our ancestors often got it wrong, sometimes hilariously so, but their efforts paved the way for today’s advances.
Now and then during that long march of progress, science has taken macabre turns. One of the stranger walks down dark paths occurred during the lives of Luigi and Giovanni Galvani, whose odd experiments inspired the works of a horror icon.
Macabre but popular experiments
Luigi Galvani lived from September 9, 1737 to December 4, 1798 in Bologna, Italy. Initially, Galvani wanted to join the clergy, but his parents steered him toward the medical field. An anatomist, surgeon, physicist, and philosopher, Luigi Galvani was a gentleman of his times. And the thing that captivated the gentlemen of the 18th century was the new and mysterious power of electricity. Luigi was no exception; he discovered that applying an electrical current to dissected frogs made their legs twitch and move. From this he formulated his theory of bioelectricity, which today is known as galvanism. It is the idea that the electrical impulses that move muscles are carried by fluid in the nerves. He also formulated an idea called animal electricity, which is basically the idea that the electrical impulses that produced the movements he observed were caused by electricity sources inside the animals body, rather than the application of the outside electrical source.
This conclusion led to a conflict with an associate by the name of Volta, who believed that the so-called animal electricity was simply the result of chemical reactions that could occur outside of the body. He designed a battery called a voltaic pile that essentially demonstrated this fact. Luigi, in failing health, did not actively defend his animal electricity theory. He left that to his nephew, Giovanni, who wowed the public with a series of macabre demonstrations.
Giovanni went bigger in his demonstrations than mere frogs. One notable experiment occurred in the early 1800s where Aldini applied a strong charge from a Leyden jar to a decapitated ox head. The dead animal’s ear’s twitched, the lips moved, and the eyes opened and shut. One experiment was performed on the corpse of a recently executed 30 year old man. Electrical current applied to nerves in the base of the neck produced grotesque facial expressions. Applying current to the sciatic nerve produced violent kicking that assistants present couldn’t stop by holding down. An electrode to the rectum reportedly made the corpse bolt upright. Finally, Aldini applied current to decapitated human heads using electrodes that looked a bit like modern headphones. The heads grimaced and twitched and opened their eyes wide, much to the horror of onlookers.
Inspiration for a literary icon
These gruesome experiments were the talk of the learned circles of Europe. One particular group on Lake Geneva in Switzerland spoke about the experiments with great enthusiasm. Mary Shelley, her future husband Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and John Polidori decided to have a competition as to who could write the best horror story. Inspired by the competition, the morbid talk, and reading about the works of Aldini and Galvani, Mary Shelley put pen to paper and wrote one of the most iconic horror novels in history: Frankenstein, the Modern Prometheus.
Rothman, Wilson. “How a Real-Life Dr. Frankenstein Reanimated the Dead With Electricity.” Gizmodo.com. March 10, 2010. Gizmodo. May 5, 2014. <http://gizmodo.com/5504746/how-a-real-life-dr-frankenstein-reanimated-the-dead-with-electricity>
“Luigi Galvani.” Wikipedia.org. April 20. 2014. Wikipedia. May 5, 2014 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luigi_Galvani>