Who Was Dr. Frankenstein?
Was there a real Dr. Frankenstein? Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus is considered by many to be the first science fiction novel. It was written in 1816-1817, during a time when bringing the dead back to life was a serious endeavor in scientific circles. Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (later Shelley) wrote the book as an exploration of the ethics of such experimentation and brought the question to a wider audience. The model for the character of Dr. Frankenstein could have been any, or several, of a number of actual people.
Mary Shelley was a highly yet unconventionally educated teenager in the summer of 1816. She and her future husband Percy Shelley were staying with Lord Byron at his home on Lake Geneva when the idea of the novel came to her. She was undoubtedly influenced by intellectual discussions with Shelley, Byron, and a host of their friends. A look back at the time reveals how the novel reflected real events Mary Shelley knew about and incorporated into the story.
Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles Darwin) was a friend of Mary Shelley's father, William Godwin. Shelley mentioned Dr. Darwin in the preface to her novel. Darwin studied galvanism, the contraction of muscles when stimulated with electricity. Shelley refers to Darwin ". . . who preserved a piece of vermicelli in a glass case, till by some extraordinary means, it began to move with voluntary motion." It really wasn't the pasta, it was vorticelli, a tiny animal.
Giovanni Aldini was a nephew of Luigi Galvani. In 1803, he staged a public demonstration of galvanism at the Royal College of Surgeons in London using the body of murderer George Forster shortly after he was executed. He was able to make the corpse's face grimace and the arms and legs to flex violently by applying electrodes connected to a battery.
Also cited is an entry in Mary's journal for 19 March 1815, shortly after the death of her first baby: "˜Dream that my little baby came to life again—that it had only been cold & that we rubbed it by the fire & it lived'.
Dr. James Lind was a friend to and influence on Percy Shelley. Although Lind is best known for discovering the cure for scurvy, he also experimented with animal electricity, in which he animated dead frogs by applying electrical currents to the muscles. He also kept a laboratory full of "mad scientist" equipment. Percy Shelley also collected such equipment.
Christian Gottlieb Kratzenstein
Christian Gottlieb Kratzenstein could have possibly been the inspiration for the name of Dr. Frankenstein. Kratzenstein began experimenting on the effects of electricity on the human body in 1744, too early to have had any contact with Mary Shelley, but she may have been familiar with his work through the other doctors listed here.
Johann Conrad Dippel
Another possible influence on Shelley may have been Johann Conrad Dippel. Dippel was born at Castle Frankenstein in Germany in 1673, and made an effort to buy the castle later in life. Dippel was a theologian who became an alchemist and then a medical doctor. He produced a cure-all called Dippel's Animal Oil. There was talk that he robbed graves for experiments in creating artificial life, but there is no concrete evidence of this.
The character Victor Frankenstein in the novel mentions that he studied the works of Paracelsus. Paracelsus was born Phillip von Hohenheim in 1493. He was a prodigy, entering college at age 16 already equipped with knowledge of alchemy. He claimed to have developed a homunculus, or little man, from semen alone.
"Let the semen of a man putrefy by itself in a sealed cucurbite with the highest putrefaction of venter equinus for forty days, or until it begins at last to live, move, and be agitated, which can easily be seen. At this time it will be in some degree like a human being, but, nevertheless, transparent and without a body. If now, after this, it be every day nourished and fed cautiously with the arcanum of human blood, and kept for forty weeks in the perpetual and equal heat of venter equinus, it becomes thencefold a true living infant, having all the members of a child that is born from a woman, but much smaller. This we call a homunculus; and it should be afterwards educated with the greatest care and zeal, until it grows up and starts to display intelligence".
Mary Shelley probably drew on her knowledge of all of these doctors to create the character of Victor Frankenstein. While they explored the question of how to create artificial life, she asked whether we should.