Spectacular Pseudoscience: The Fall and Rise of Bioelectricity
Sally Adee on the Origins of Frankenstein and the Dark Ethics of Electroshock Technology
Giovanni Aldini was looking for the perfect body. Not something that had been dragged out of a grave—it should be as fresh as possible to minimize the dissipation of its vital powers. It shouldn’t be someone who had died slowly, from one of the “putrefying diseases” that might contaminate their humors. Not too dismembered, either. The ideal body would be one whose previous owner had been healthy and intact until the moment of death.
Aldini’s star had been rising in Europe as he demonstrated his uncle Luigi Galvani’s famous experiments on much larger animals than frogs, to often gruesome effect. In an echo of some of the early electricity spectacles—but with a darker twist—he had recently electriﬁed a decapitated dog to entertain a crowd that included royalty. He was desperate to prove that the animal electricity Galvani had discovered was present in the same way in all animals—that what was true for frogs was true for humans. He was willing to use Volta’s battery and any amount of theatrics to prove it.
Aldini was in the right place at the right time: it was 1803 in the UK, where the Murder Act had for well over half a century included a provision that would serve up exactly the corpse he was after. After a convicted murderer’s public hanging, their naked body would be ﬂayed in a public dissection. If that seems over the top, it was absolutely intended to be—this “further terror and peculiar mark of infamy” had been added to give would-be murderers just that extra bit of pause, all the better to prevent “the horrid crime of murder.”
It was unclear whether, as Aldini would later write, it also better helped them atone for their sins, or whether there was a more convenient secondary beneﬁt; as there were laws against digging up corpses, this law provided a steady stream of cadavers to upskill medical students and lecturers at the Royal College of Surgeons.
The fellows there had invited Aldini from Italy to demonstrate the experiments that had recently made him famous around Europe. They were happy to supply the necessary materials. And so, after the convicted murderer George Forster was hanged on the gallows at Newgate prison, his body was carried across town to the Royal College of Surgeons, where Aldini nervously waited.
The room was crowded with luminaries, scientists, and gentlemen standing elbow to elbow. Assisting Aldini in his efforts would be the rising star Joseph Carpue, a surgeon and anatomist at the Duke of York’s Hospital who had extended the invitation, and Mr. Pass, the beadle of the Surgeons’ Company, who was tasked with making sure all proper protocols were followed during a dissection. But the crowds weren’t what had Aldini sweating; he was used to performing in front of high society.
What was worrying him today was the cold: it was January, and the body had been left hanging for an hour in temperatures two degrees below freezing. The chill might stunt the ﬂow of animal electricity through the body, rendering his experiment a humiliating, public ﬂop. He was putting his faith in the enormous piles of alternating zinc and copper discs sitting on the slab where Forster’s corpse was now laid out, ready to dispense their “galvanic juices” into the dead man’s nervous system.
Aldini moistened the tips of two metal wires attached to either end of the pile by dipping them into saltwater. When he threaded them gingerly into Forster’s ears, the results did not disappoint. The dead man’s jaw, according to a report in The Times, began to quiver: “The adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and the left eye actually opened,” giving the impression of a ghastly, lewd wink. Over the next several hours, Aldini’s team exposed every nerve and muscle on the man’s body, from the thorax to the gluteus, for electrical experimentation.Mr. Pass was so shaken by what he saw on the table that he went home that night and died.
Forster wasn’t Aldini’s ﬁrst criminal corpse. He had spent the previous year in Bologna and Paris perfecting his galvanic technique on the heads and bodies of other hanged and beheaded convicts, not to mention the scores of lambs, dogs, oxen, and horses, living and dead, that joined Italy’s population of frogs on his table. These animal experiments had given him the idea for an especially dramatic demonstration.
When Aldini plugged one of the wires into the dead man’s rectum, the convulsions that wracked the corpse were “much stronger than in the preceding experiments,” Aldini wrote. So strong, in fact, “as almost to give an appearance of reanimation.” At this point, according to The Times, “some of the uninformed bystanders actually thought the wretched man was on the eve of being restored to life.” Some in the audience clapped; others were deeply disturbed. Mr. Pass was so shaken by what he saw on the table that he went home that night and died. As far as Aldini was concerned, the experiment had been a success.
This spectacular public demonstration begat many copycats, and prominent historians like Iwan Rhys Morus trace a line from the Forster galvanization to Mary Shelley’s idea for Frankenstein. So it may come as a surprise that Aldini didn’t start out with the goal of titillating vapid royalty by raising the dead. He was pushed down his path by an altogether more noble impulse: to restore the reputation of his beloved uncle.
But not unlike Dr. Frankenstein, his obsession caused him to reach beyond what science could provide, and eventually turned him into a mockery. He would become a scientiﬁc pariah. Instead of reviving his family’s legacy as well as decapitated bodies, his experiments would play a major role in banishing the serious study of animal electricity into a desert of quacks and mountebanks for the next four decades.
Aldini’s loyalty to Galvani wasn’t just a matter of family honor. He had also been his uncle’s closest and most important scientiﬁc collaborator. He had written some of the anatomist’s famous communications himself—some of the liveliest ripostes between ‘Galvani’ and Volta had actually involved just Volta and Aldini. But after Galvani’s death, few champions remained to take forward the serious scientiﬁc inquiry into animal electricity.
In 1801, Napoleon’s French Académie launched a commission (the ﬁfth in as many years), offering a prize of 60,000 francs for anyone who could do for animal electricity what Volta had done for the metallic or artiﬁcial variety. (In today’s money, this would have been worth around £860,000.) Generous as it was, however, the prize went unclaimed.
No one was in the position to make something as consequential as a battery for animal electricity. In addition, the false perception that acceptance of metallic contact theory and animal electricity had to be mutually exclusive meant, for many, that because Volta (so heavily favored by Napoleon) had been demonstrably right, Galvani must by deﬁnition have been wrong.
Aldini was desperate to stop this becoming the official received wisdom. He had understood the scientiﬁc foundation his uncle was trying to build, and he had noted the sleight of hand that undermined it. In particular, Aldini was still pained that their most triumphant paper—the one Lazzaro Spallanzani had hailed as “one of the most beautiful and valuable of the eighteenth-century Physics,” in which Galvani had showed up Volta once and for all by successfully proving that nerve electricity could excite nerve tissue—was already being forgotten.
This was the paper that should have put the lie to Volta’s insistence that the only reason contractions could be evoked in a dead frog was that some version of metallic electricity was generated by the meeting of two dissimilar kinds of meat. Instead, the paper had been buried under the fanfare around the voltaic pile.In one characteristic experiment, he placed several calves’ heads in an electrically conducting line called a “series,” and used the resulting animal current to violently electrify a dead frog.
And so, Aldini’s initial investigations after his uncle’s death focused on buttressing the basic science underlying this experiment, and how it could advance a deeper understanding of animal electricity. He had assumed the chair of physics at Bologna in 1798, just before Galvani passed away. This was a prestigious post from which to carry on his uncle’s work, and Aldini used it to launch the Galvanic Society of Bologna.
Galvani had experimented almost exclusively on frogs. Aldini’s ﬁrst experiments therefore extended his uncle’s investigations into warm-blooded mammals. His 1804 publication Essai théorique et expérimental sur le galvanisme is ﬁlled with long, repetitive accounts of experiments in which he and his Galvanic Society collaborators sought to understand “intra-animal” electriﬁcation.
In one characteristic experiment, he placed several calves’ heads in an electrically conducting line called a “series,” and used the resulting animal current to violently electrify a dead frog. But when he tried to reverse the experiment, applying the animal electricity of frog nerves to the decapitated heads of oxen, he found the results less dramatic and even disappointing. All these experiments successfully replicated Galvani’s original idea that the same electrical substance coursed through all animals, but none yielded grand dramatic outcomes or novel insights.
At some point, it seems to have become clear to Aldini that to maintain excitement about scientiﬁc galvanism, he would need to do what the ﬁve commissions hadn’t been able to: ﬁnd a way to make his uncle’s discoveries medically relevant for humans.
It was around then that his focus rather quickly shifted, revealing a sudden new appreciation of the ‘galvanic juices’ dispensed by Volta’s pile. “The battery imagined by Professor Volta, gave me the idea of a cleaner means than any of the ones we have used so far to estimate the action of the vital forces,” he recalled in the 1804 Essai.
It must have been hard for Aldini to hold his nose and use the instrument of his uncle’s doom, but once he got the hang of it, he was proliﬁc. He used the pile’s ability to dispense a steady ﬂow of electricity to stage big, dramatic experiments on dead animals. He inserted wires into their rectal cavities, often detailing the inevitable violent expulsion of feces that followed. He also began to experiment with touching different areas of the animals’ brains, as well as his own; when he administered a jolt from the pile to his own cranium, it led to a few days of insomnia but also a strange feeling of elation.
Such experiments fascinated the other members of the Galvanic Society: if a jolt to the head could make Aldini feel euphoric, what else could it do? They analyzed and repeated these kinds of experiments until they eventually accreted into new theories about how electrical ministrations could improve ailments.
Most promising were epilepsy, a type of paralysis called chorea, and what was then called “melancholy madness,” which we understand today as treatment-resistant depression. Now they just needed test subjects.M. La Grave of the Parisian Galvanic Society had made a voltaic pile out of 60 layers each of human brain, muscle, and hat material (you read that right) moistened with salt water. Its effect was allegedly “decisive.”
In 1801, at Sant’Orsola Hospital in Bologna, Aldini found a 27-year-old farmer called Luigi Lanzarini who had become catatonic with melancholy madness and had been declared a lost cause. He shaved Lanzarini’s head and stimulated the man’s scalp with a weak battery. Over the next month he slowly increased the current, and Lanzarini’s symptoms seemed to lessen, eventually enough for him to be released into Aldini’s custody. After about a month, Aldini deemed him well enough to send back home to his family.
Word of this achievement spread quickly enough that, by 1802, French scientists founded their own Parisian branch of the Galvanic Society. They devoted themselves to Aldini’s goal of elevating the reputation of galvanism as a legitimate pursuit, by any means necessary. Joseph Carpue—the rising-star surgeon who had assisted in the Forster experiment—reported that a M. La Grave of the Parisian Galvanic Society had made a voltaic pile out of 60 layers each of human brain, muscle, and hat material (you read that right) moistened with salt water. Its effect was allegedly “decisive”—generating a current that provided yet another piece of evidence that animal electricity was just as relevant and present in human tissues as it was in animal tissues.
It was never entirely possible to extricate galvanism from its associations with woo and quackery—”a couple of [the Galvanic Society’s] members drifted into “galvanic magic,” notes the historian Christine Blondel—but most of the group’s research was greeted with interest by French and foreign scientiﬁc journals and even encouraged. The attention-seeking experiments were doing their job. Famous French psychiatrists began to consult Aldini about use of the pile to restore their patients to health.
But by then, Aldini already had his eye on an entirely new patient population: he started investigating electriﬁcation as a way to revive the dead. To be clear, his goal was never to stitch together some kind of undead golem—Aldini was referring to the evidently reversible state of “suspended animation” that followed accidental drowning, apoplexy or asphyxia.
Aldini was campaigning to get galvanism—speciﬁcally a jolt of electricity to the head—included in the go-to methods for emergency resuscitation, which included ammonia and a kind of proto-CPR that involved exhaling into the lungs of the temporarily deceased. Adding an electric shock to either of these remedies, Aldini insisted, “will produce much greater effect than either of them separately.”
He also began to lobby to have electriﬁcation adopted as a research tool to determine whether someone was truly, irreversibly dead. “It would be desirable to establish by public authority, in all nations, by people enlightened and able to make the necessary tests to determine whether death is real or not.”
From We Are Electric. Reprinted by arrangement with Hachette. Copyright © 2023 by Sally Adee.