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.