Category Archives: galvanism


Further Reading

An Account of the Late Improvements in Galvanism (1803) by John Aldini

The above text is an outstanding primary source written by John Aldini. It outlines the general properties of Galvanism and how it has been applied to medicine. Although this resource is referenced in this webpage, there are many aspects of the journal that are worth exploring.

The Specter of Frankenstein Still Haunts Science 200 Years Later by Jon Cohen

This source explains the potential outcome of the monster in Frankenstein if Shelley had written her novel today. Within this source, the text hyperlinks further useful sources in exploring bioethics, electricity, and modern scientific endeavors that are comparable to the attempts of Victor Frankenstein. The most notable component of this source is the image of the modern day monster, illustrated by Adolfo Arranz, with explanations of how one might be created by David Schultz.

Animal Electricity by Marco Piccolino

This text deeply explores the history of Luigi Galvani and how he came to his theory of animal electricity. Although this website gives a brief history of Galvani, this paper by Piccolino describes in detail the long and complex path the Galvani went through before reaching his theory.

Volta s Battery Animal Electricity and Frankenstein by Richard Sha.

In this article, Sha highlights the importance of Volta’s work and how Shelley undercuts Volta’s significance in Frankenstein. She primarily focuses and draws from Galvani and Aldini. His argument provides and alternative perspective to how Shelley could have better and more accurately portrayed Volta’s accomplishments.

The Science Behind Fiction by Kathryn Harkup

Harkup explains the impact of science during the Enlightenment on Mary Shelley. She provides a quick look at some notable scientists during that time such as Humphrey Davy, Antoine Lavoisier, Benjamin Franklin, Erasmus Darwin and William Harvey. Although Harkup does not throughly explain the experiments of these scientists, her analysis provides an overview of growing interest in chemistry and medicine, which ultimately played a large role in literature.

Science Fiction Becomes Science Fact: Suspended Animation Trial to Take Place by Jolene Creighton

This article explains the beneficial uses of suspended animation, a procedure that was spearheaded by Samuel Tisherman. Essentially, this science allows for medical professionals to induce a clinical death so that patients can live through a taxing medical procedure. These patients will then be brought back to life. Even though this does not directly correlate to Frankenstein, themes of reanimation after death is now possible. Shelley was ahead of her time and much of the medical practices we use today stem off of discoveries made in the 1800s.

The Real Scientific Revolution Behind ‘Frankenstein by Lauren J. Young

This site is particularly intriguing for the images it carries. Young shares images from books written in the 1800s. The images show the tools used in medicine during the Enlightenment. Not many sources have images good as the ones found on this site.

Top Image: “A Galvanized Corpse” by Henry Robinson (Library of Congress) was printed and published by H.R. Robinson in 1836. The image, illustrated in the 1800s, depicts a corpse coming to life. 

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Works Cited

AAPTFILMS. “The Physics of the LEIDEN JAR – AAPT Films.” YouTube, YouTube, 27 June 2014,

“Giovanni Aldini (1762 – 1834).” Giovanni Aldini, Kingston Technical Software,
Pilkington, Mark. “Sparks of Life.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 6 Oct. 2004,



According to St. John’s Health System, an electrophysiology study is a diagnostic procedure that looks at the electrical functions of the heart and its rhythms. Electrophysiology is essentially galvanism in modern times. Since the evolution of science in the 1800s, we now know that it is not plausible to generate life from a dead corpse. However, some of the baselines that Galvani set have been useful in modern medicine. Today we use defibrillators to correct arrhythmias. At its core, every defibrillator’s function is to restore the heart to its normal function but there are many kinds of defibrillators. In an implanted defibrillator, a vein of the heart is connected to a lead wire that sits just under the collar bone. An internal defibrillator can send small painless electrical impulses to slow down a tachycardia rhythm. It can sense a necessarily lifesaving shock to restore the heart to a normal rate if the tachycardia persists. Another defibrillator is an AED or automatic external defibrillator, where it can detect if a heart has a shockable rhythm (Ventricular Tachycardia or Ventricular Fibrillation). There is a misconception that an asystoles (flatline) is shockable. This is simply not true. An asystole shows that the heart does not have any mechanical activity and no cardiac output. If this is the case, normal function cannot be restored.

Galvanism is used not only in the world of cardiology, but also in dermatology. According to the International Dermal Institute, galvanism is used to improve skin complexion though iontophoresis. Iontophoresis treatments are performed with a positively charged acidic serum which is applied to the skin. A negative electrode is introduced to the targeted area of skin. Active ingredients are delivered through the movement of the ions. This helps in treating hyperpigmentation as well as aging skin. It also has vasoconstrictive effects which help reduce sensitivity and redness (King). As you can see, the original galvanic experiment has caused huge ripples in the scientific and literary fields. Today we use galvanic practices in nearly every field of medicine.

Below is a video explaining how iontophoresis works. Only minutes 3:00 to 4:00 are crucial in this video.

Top image: “Electrophysiology of the Heart” (Heart Health Clinic) shows EP catheters in the heart, which help regulate the pacemaker. This is important for modern day galvanism, or electrophysiology.

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King, Annet. “The International Dermal Institute.” Articles, n_Your_Spa.html.

“NU GALVANIC SPA HOW IT WORK.” Youtube, YoungBeautyLife, 23 Aug. 2013,

St. John Health System.” What Is Electrophysiology? | Heart Institute | St. John Health System,


IT’S ALIVE!!!…Or is it?

At the time, scientists could not accurately explain why Forster was able to move after death in the presence of electric currents. Electricity cannot be conducted through air or liquid – only ions. What actually happens is that the nerve signal, or action potential, is a coordinated movement of sodium and potassium ions across the nerve cell membrane. The cell is inherently negative with a resting membrane potential at -70mV so the positively charged sodium and potassium ions undergo coupled transport with the concentration gradient. Electrical chemicals cause the sodium channels to open and depolarize the cell, thus creating an action potential. Essentially, the cells in Forster’s body acted as the electric field for the ions to pass through (“Membrane Transport Mechanisms”).

Below is a video explaining the action potential and how a neuron fires a signal to the muscle.

All the brain’s voluntary movement are controlled by a specific part of the brain called the motor cortex. The only way for a muscle to move is for the brain to send impulses through motor neurons. The muscles receive the “information” on a thin part of a nerve cell called an axon. Once the information reaches the end of the axon and to the muscle, chemicals are released, and the muscle is able to move. When the impulses from the nerves stop, the muscle fibers relax, and the neurons go back to their resting potentials (Sanmita Inc).

Galvani was not completely wrong when he proposed the animals were able to produce their own electricity. Instead of getting our “electricity” from an outside power source or a capacitor (like the Leyden jar), we generate the electrical impulses though the ions in our body. The ions allow for impulses, so the muscles can receive information from the brain to move. Because Forster was dead, the only way his muscles moved was because Aldini used a battery as an outside source and Forster’s corpse merely acted as the conduit for the current to go through. As Volta discovered, the metal currents are able to transfer electricity and power on their own without an animal, thus rendering the theory of animal electricity false.

Below is a video of twitching frog legs. This is able to occur because the salt increases the electrical conductivity and discharges electrical potential so the muscles twitch. The same muscle movement can be induced by attaching the legs to a battery.

Throughout the novel, Victor falls into many convulsive states. We can interpret these series of convulsions as epilepsy. According to the Epilepsy Society, seizures tend to be genetic or can arise from brain injury. When Victor falls into a convulsive state, the nerve cells in his brains (neurons) are not able to pass electrical signals effectively.

Top image: “Sciatic Nerve” from Memorie Sulla Elettricità Animale by Luigi Galvani (Wellcome) displays a set of frog legs, which represent Galvani’s experiments and theory of animal electricity.

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“Frog Legs Dancing with a Little Salt.” Youtube, Thearchipelagos, 2 June 2009,

“Membrane Transport Mechanisms.” Summary of Membrane Transport,

Sanmita Inc. “How Does Your Body Move? Does the Brain Send It Messages?” Cornell Center for Materials Research, 28 Nov. 2015,

Udacity. The Action Potential – Intro to Pyschology. Youtube, 23 Feb. 2015,

“Why Do Seizures Happen?” Epilepsy Society, 6 Feb. 2017,


Eye had a Dream

Aldini’s experiment became so widely feared yet intriguing that themes of reanimated life after death became centerpieces for novels like Polidori’s The Vampyre and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Shelley even admitted that Victor’s use of electricity was inspired by the practices of Galvanism (Mackowiak). In the preface to Frankenstein, Shelley explains that the character and actions of Victor came to her in a dream, inspired by galvanism. She writes, “I saw – with shut eyes, but acute mental vision, – I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion” (Shelley 1). This gives readers an insight to the level of thought Shelley gave to creating life from death. Aldini’s work obviously made enough of an impact to permeate into Shelley’s thoughts which she then formed into a classic and highly acclaimed novel. [1] The use of imagery shows the inherent fear Shelley had at the time. She used this fear to capture the attention of readers even today. [2] Furthermore, her portrayal of Victor as a scientist may give an idea of what her thoughts about scientific progress was at the time. She describes Victor as an egotistic science maniac, which is apparent in his quote “I succeeded in discovering the cause of generation and life; nay, more, I became myself capable of bestowing animation up on lifeless matter” (Shelley 76). Shelley’s view of science was most likely shaped by her fear of what science could do and thus manifested it in a form of a conceited mad scientist.

Note: There are other ties through Galvanism and Frankenstein that are mentioned in other tiles (Primary Sources, Electrophysiology, and It’s Alive!)

[1] Galvanism, though disproved, has changed much of our present education. We learn about galvanic currents in chemistry and capacitors in physics, but Galvani also affected the way we learn about Gothic literature.

[2] We fear the progression of AI within science. Essentially, fears have not changed at the root. It will be interesting to see how, as a class, we bridge all the important subtexts within the novel.

Top image: The eye image above, from the film Frankenstein Unbound, was chosen as the opening of the eye holds great importance to Shelley as it directly ties the Forster experiment to the awakening of the monster.

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Mackowiak, Philip A. “President’s Address: Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, and The Dark Side of Medical Science.” Transactions of the American Clinical and Climatological Association, American Clinical and Climatological Association, 2014,


Primary Sources from Witnesses of Galvanic Experiments

Despite Volta’s refutation, demonstrations of galvanism remained popular in the 19th century, especially among the elite. Elites would often hold parties and host experiments to entertain their guests (Lai). In her journal, English Baroness Elizabeth Lady Holland writes about a dinner party she attended in Turin in May of 1792. She notes, “Cte. Masin gave me a very fine dinner. Before dinner, he sent for one of the Professors, who exhibited the cruel experiment of a frog to prove animal electricity” (Holland 7). Galvanism was not only for the elite, however. Public demonstrations of galvanic experiments on mutilated dead animals were frequent during the 1700-1800s.

In 1803, John Aldini wrote about his own experimental procedures on galvanism. He compiled his thoughts into a journal called “An Account of the Late Improvements in Galvanism (1803).” In this journal, J. Aldini describes the effects of electricity introduced to a criminal’s head, arms, and legs. After charging the head, the mouth discharged saliva and appeared to be distorted. He then tried placing the charges directly on the brain, which excited the muscles of the face. As he kept going, the contractions of the muscles became weaker and weaker, especially in the extremities. J. Aldini found that the more energy he put into the electrodes, the stronger the contractions became. Aldini even attempted to push currents through the heart. However, by this time, the body was too far gone to show any signs of successful resuscitation. In total, J. Aldini conducted nearly one hundred experiments on animals and humans and documented each one.[1]

Luigi Galvani had a nephew by the name of Giovanni Aldini. Aldini, a strong supporter of galvanism, was determined to refute Volta on the theory of animal electricity. After many demonstrations of galvanism using dismembered animals, Aldini decided to electrify executed criminal, George Forster in a public setting. This experiment would go down as one of the most famous in medical history. When Forster’s face was attached to a large battery and conducting rods, “‘the jaw began to quiver, the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and the left eye actually opened’.  The climax of the performance came as Aldini probed Forster’s rectum, causing his clenched fist to punch the air, as if in fury, his legs to kick and his back to arch violently” (Pilkington). This experiment frightened many of those in the audience and everyone who heard about it, including Gothic novelist Mary Shelley. The opening of the eye, in particular, was an image so powerful that Shelley incorporated it into her narrative: “With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet…. I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs” (Shelley 35). There is a direct parallel between the real account of George Forster and the monster’s coming to life. Both Shelley and the account of George Forster focus on the opening of the eye with one hand stretched out: “…and his eyes, if they may be called, where fixated on me. His jaws opened, and he muttered some inarticulate sounds, while a grin wrinkled his cheeks… one hand was stretched out…” (Shelley 36). Given these descriptions, it is hard to refute that galvanism was indeed an inspiration for Frankenstein.

[1] The “Account on the Late Improvements in Galvanism (1803) was written by the name of John Aldini. This may have been Giovanni Aldini, Luigi Galvani’s nephew. Because of the uncertainty, this paper references Giovanni Aldini and John Aldini as separate scientists.

Top image: “Old Handwritten Journal” (Pixabay) was chosen because it mimics what Lady Holland’s firsthand account would look like. Note that it is not the actual journal of the Baroness.

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Aldini, John. “An Account of the Late Improvements in Galvanism (1803).” The Public Domain Review, galvanism-1803/.

Holland, Elizabeth. “The Journal of Elizabeth Lady Holland.” Google Books, 1908, 2Bexperiment%2Bupon%2Ba%2Bfrog%22&source=bl&ots=IbhpahS- dr&sig=x67Ee95EPiJHbb6VT3cgtUHlQmU&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjBoZr- v5rUAhUKyoMKHdSLC-QQ6AEIJTAB#v=onepage&q=%22cruel%20experiment&f=false.


History of Luigi Galvani and Alessandro Volta

Luigi Galvani was an Italian physician, physicist, and biologist who pioneered the field of bioelectrics and discovered what he called animal electricity. He followed in his father’s footsteps and obtained his medical education from the University of Bologna. In his early medical career, he primarily focused on the nasal mucosa and the middle ear but soon abandoned this work because a rival stole his work. This turn of events proved to be fortuitous as it forced him to turn to physics. His most famous work stems from an accidental experiment when he discovered dead frog legs could twitch when introduced to two pieces of metal to complete the circuit (Dibner). According to the Corrosion Doctors’ biography, Galvani wrote, “While one of those who were assisting me touched lightly, and by chance, the point of his scalpel to the internal nerves of the frog, suddenly all the muscles of its limbs were seen to be so contracted that they seemed to have fallen into tonic convulsions” (“Luigi Galvani (1737 – 1789″). At the time, Galvani believed that he had reanimated a dead body because the corpse conducted electricity; he coined this phenomenon animal electricity. He proposed that animals conducted electricity in order to generate muscle movements throughout their bodies—a theory that sent both the scientific and medical community into a frantic excitement (Lai). Galvani’s work became so widely popular in the scientific field that it incited jealousy in a physicist by the name of Alessandro Volta. Volta was convinced that Galvani was wrong and tested the theory without the presence of a dead body. Eventually, Volta found that metals were the sole parts responsible for the electric current and argued that a new invention could potentially allow for a steady source of electricity. This would be later known as the Voltaic pile or battery. Volta published his findings a decade after Galvani’s theory about animal electricity, disproving Galvani and his work.

Below are two videos explaining Luigi and Galvani’s work.

Top image: “Luigi Galvani” from 1892 Popular Science Monthly, volume 41 (Wikicommons), was a portrait of Luigi Galvani that has been modified from the original version in order to provide a greater contrast within the image.

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Balistreri, Kathy, director. How Luigi Galvani’s Frog Leg Experiment Made a Dead Frog Jump & Invented the Battery. Youtube, KathyLovesPhysics, 12 Oct. 2017,

Balistreri, Kathy, director. How Volta Invented the First Battery Because He Was Jealous of Galvani’s FrogYoutube, KathyLovesPhysics, 25 Oct. 2017,

Dibner, Bern. “Luigi Galvani.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 28 Mar. 2017,

Lai, Andrew. “Helix Magazine.” The Experiment That Shocked the World | Helix Magazine, 2 Aug. 2017,

“Luigi Galvani (1737-1798).” Luigi Galvani, Corrosion Doctors, www.corrosion-\