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It's alive! The real science that inspired Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

Boris Karloff in Frankenstein (1931)
Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein celebrates its 200th anniversary this year

Today, Frankenstein is celebrated as a classic of Gothic horror. But when Mary Shelley’s novel was first published in 1818 it would have seemed eerily close to cutting-edge science. The novel is full of references to discoveries that were both exhilarating and frightening to contemporary readers.

In June of 1816, “the year without a summer”, Mary and her husband Percy Shelley were staying by Lake Geneva, close to their friend Lord Byron. They soon found themselves cooped up at Byron’s villa, sheltering from incessant rain. As thunderstorms crashed over the mountain peaks, the English travellers talked long into the night and read out loud from a book of ghost stories, as well as Coleridge's sinister poem Christabel.

One evening, Byron challenged each of his guests to write a ghost story of their own – and the result, we are usually told, was Frankenstein. But the novel contains no supernatural elements; Mary Shelley’s creature, made of scraps from dissecting rooms and graveyards, is brought to life using scientific knowledge, not magical incantations. I would suggest that late-night scientific discussions at Lake Geneva had more of an influence on the final novel than Byron’s famous challenge.

Shelley was born in a century that had seen an enormous leap in scientific understanding. New discoveries were being made at an astonishing rate. Experiments and competing theories were discussed and argued over, not just in academic journals, but in public lectures, coffee houses and well-to-do drawing rooms across Europe and America. It was no surprise that conversations at Lake Geneva turned to scientific matters. Mary Shelley wrote that the group discussed the principle of life and “whether there was any probability if its ever being discovered and communicated”. At the time, it seemed like the secret of life itself might be within reach.

Still a teenager in 1816, Mary Shelley had already attended scientific lectures, and her family home was regularly visited by eminent scientists. Though she claimed to be a “near silent listener” to their discussions, she was well versed in science and she would have been perfectly capable of contributing if she had wanted.

An 1831 portrait of Mary Shelley Credit: Getty

Nor was she the only guest at Lake Geneva with a particular interest in the field. Percy Shelley had been fascinated by electricity, since his childhood, while John Polidori – Byron’s doctor and travelling companion – was a recent graduate of Edinburgh University and would have had plenty of medical tales he could use to impress the famous company he found himself in.

Anatomy schools accepted payment in corpses from students who didn’t have the cash

Medicine, and anatomy in particular, had seen a surge in popularity over the previous century. Anatomy schools had opened all over London and other major cities in Britain. Medical students dissected cadavers to learn about the inner workings of the human body. And, because of a shortage of legally available bodies, much of their material came from graveyards. John Polidori would have had first-hand experience of dissection, and maybe even grave-robbing as some anatomy schools accepted payment in corpses from students who didn’t have the cash. Mary Shelley may well have seen some of the anatomical specimens that were collected by famous professors of her day, but any gaps in her knowledge could have been filled by Polidori.

Anatomy wasn’t the only fashionable subject for study. Experimenters in the eighteenth century were interested in everything and anything from the trivial to the profound. There was a special fascination with all things electrical.

Serious men of science tested everything and anything for the presence of the mysterious “electric fluid”. To conduct their research they built powerful electrical machines that produced spectacular, and dangerous, sparks. Audiences were enchanted by public demonstrations of electrical phenomena. Beautiful women wearing glass slippers were charged up with static electricity and members of the audience who dared to approach the “electrified Venus” were rewarded with stinging kisses. In an experiment that became known as “the flying boy”, a child was hoisted towards the ceiling on a platform and charged with static electricity so sparks could be drawn from his nose. Images of a boy suspended on a platform dangling from the ceiling, with sparks flying and an enthusiastic experimenter waving his arms in the foreground, are not so far from the famous scenes of reanimation in Frankenstein films.

The painful shocks that could be felt from electrical sparks showed a clear effect on the body. It inspired some to use electrical methods in medicine, while evidence that sparks and shocks could make muscles contract led doctors to attempt to shock paralysed limbs back into action.

The effects of electricity on muscles made some natural philosophers wonder if electricity was in fact the stuff of life itself. As Mary Shelley put it, “Perhaps a corpse could be reanimated; galvanism had given token of such things”. This wasn’t just the stuff of science fiction; people really were trying to reanimate the dead using electricity.

The jaws of the deceased criminal began to quiver, and the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted

Galvanism was the term given to the effects of electricity on muscles. The name came from Luigi Galvani (1737-1798), an Italian physician who claimed to have discovered an “animal electricity” after years of experimenting with dead frogs. Galvani’s nephew, Giovanni Aldini went to great lengths to promote his uncle’s ideas and explore the possibilities of his great discovery.

Aldini wasn’t just interested in making muscles twitch; he thought electricity could be used to save lives. He proposed that shocks could revive people who had suffocated or drowned. But, to prove his theories, he needed a recently suffocated body to experiment on. One became available in London in 1803.

On a cold January morning near Newgate, Aldini used electricity in an attempt to resuscitate the body of George Forster, who had been hanged for murder. Forster’s dead body was cut down from the scaffold and delivered to Aldini who was waiting with all the instruments needed for dissection and, most importantly, a powerful battery. Wires from the battery were connected to Forster’s muscles.

The experiments, though unsuccessful in bringing Forster back to life, were widely reported in the press. In many respects the reports have an uncanny resemblance to scenes in Frankenstein where the creature is brought to life.

The Newgate Calendar or Malefactors' Bloody Register – a contemporary biography of famous felons – described what happened to Forster's body in detail: "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. Mr Pass, the beadle of the Surgeons' Company, who was officially present during this experiment, was so alarmed that he died of fright soon after his return home." 

In Frankenstein, Mary Shelley is vague about the scientific details and practicalities of building a creature and bringing it to life. Anyone hoping to use the novel as a DIY manual for building their own monster is going to be disappointed. But Shelley’s understanding of scientific concepts and the possibilities promised by experimenters of her time is brilliant. Not only is Frankenstein a great work of science fiction, it owes an awful lot to science fact.

Making the Monster: The Science Behind Mary Shelley's Frankenstein by Kathryn Harkup is published by Bloomsbury. To order your copy from The Telegraph, call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk