The Science of Life and Death in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein


Professor Sharon Ruston surveys the scientific background to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, considering contemporary investigations into resuscitation, galvanism, and the possibility of states between life and death.


Frankenstein observing the first stirrings of his creature. Engraving by W. Chevalier after Th. von Holst, 1831. Featured as frontispiece to the 1831 edition of Shelley’s novel // Source: Wellcome Library.

Far from the fantastic and improbable tale that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein now seems to us, the novel was declared by one reviewer upon publication to have “an air of reality attached to it, by being connected with the projects and passions of the times”. Among these were the scientific investigations into the states of life and death. Considerable uncertainty surrounded these categories. So much so that it was not far-fetched that Frankenstein should assert: “Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds” (ch. 4). He was not alone in considering that the boundary between life and death was imaginary and that it might be breached.

Worried by the potential inability to distinguish between the states of life and death, two doctors, William Hawes and Thomas Cogan, set up the Royal Humane Society in London in 1774. It was initially called the “Society for the Recovery of Persons Apparently Drowned”; its aims were to publish information to help people resuscitate others, and it paid for attempts to save lives (the Society paid more money if the attempt was successful). Many people could not swim at this time despite the fact that they worked and lived along London’s rivers and canals. There was an annual procession of those “raised from the dead” by the Society’s methods, which may well have included people who had intended suicide too. One such seems to have been Mary Shelley’s mother, the feminist, Mary Wollstonecraft, who after leaping from Putney Bridge into the Thames in the depth of depression complained “I have only to lament, that, when the bitterness of death was past, I was inhumanly brought back to life and misery”. The pun on her “inhumane” treatment may well refer to the efforts of the Humane Society in rescuing her. The spectacular tales of apparent resurrections from the dead by the Society fed the public’s concern that it was impossible to be sure whether a person was truly dead and, consequently, fears of being buried alive grew.


A watercolour by Robert Smirke depicting a man being brought in by boat apparently drowned, his wife and family grieving on the shore. Alater engraving of this scene by Robert Pollard was dedicated to the Royal Humane Society in 1787 — Source: Wellcome Library.


Design from 1843 for a “life-preserving coffin” — complete with breathing holes and easy to open lid — to be used in the case of the doubtful dead –Source.

There was a scientific basis for the public’s anxieties. The French Encyclopédie distinguished between two kinds of death, “incomplete” and “absolute”: “That there is no remedy for death is an axiom widely admitted; we, however, are willing to affirm that death can be cured”. In London, James Curry, a physician at Guy’s hospital and one of the Shelleys’ doctors in 1817, wrote a book that gave information on how to identify what he called “absolute” from “apparent” death. In the book he argued that the putrefaction of the body was the only way to be completely sure that a person was dead. There was interest in states of so-called “suspended animation”, such as fainting, coma, and sleeping. Mary Shelley followed contemporary scientific language when she described episodes of fainting within the novel. When Victor Frankenstein creates the creature, he collapses because of a nervous illness and describes himself in this state as “lifeless”. In this instance it is Clerval who “restored’ him to “life” (ch. 5). Elizabeth faints on seeing the corpse of William: “She fainted, and was restored with extreme difficulty. When she again lived, it was only to weep and sigh” (ch. 7). The language here is of a life lost and restored; while Elizabeth is unconscious, she is described as being dead.

There were serious attempts, too, to reanimate the truly dead. In the latter half of the eighteenth century, the Italian physician Luigi Galvani found that frog’s legs twitched as if alive when struck by a spark of electricity. In her 1831 Preface to Frankenstein, Mary Shelley mentions how discussions on this idea that one could electrically stimulate a dead muscle into apparent life — known as “galvanism” — came to influence her story.

Many and long were the conversations between Lord Byron and Shelley, to which I was a devout but nearly silent listener. During one of these, various philosophical doctrines were discussed, and among others the nature of the principle of life, and whether there was any probability of its ever being discovered and communicated. … Perhaps a corpse would be re-animated; galvanism had given token of such things: perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth. 

Night waned upon this talk, and even the witching hour had gone by, before we retired to rest. When I placed my head on my pillow, I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think. My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie. 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.

Galvani’s nephew, Giovanni Aldini, progressed from frogs legs to attempting the reanimation of hanged criminals, making use of the “Murder Act” of 1752, which added the punishment of dissection to hanging. In 1803, Aldini was able to experiment with some success upon George Forster, who had been found guilty of murdering his wife and child. Onlookers report that Forster’s eye opened, his right hand was raised and clenched, and his legs moved.

M. Aldini, who is the nephew of the discoverer of this most interesting science, showed the eminent and superior powers of galvanism to be far beyond any other stimulant in nature. On the first application of the process to the face, 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.


Plate 4 from Aldini’s Essai theorique et experimental sur le galvinisme, avec une serie d’experiences(1804) – Source: Wellcome Library.


Plate 5 from Aldini’sEssai theorique et experimental sur le galvinisme, avec une serie d’experiences(1804) – Source: Wellcome Library.

In Mary and Percy Shelleys’ tragic personal lives, there is much evidence that they believed the dead could be successfully reanimated. For example, Percy Shelley writes of their child, William Shelley’s last illness: “By the skill of the physician he was once reanimated after the process of death had actually commenced, and he lived four days after that time”.6 Death, it seems, could be reversed.

In the years leading up to Mary Shelley’s publication of Frankenstein there was a very public debate in the Royal College of Surgeons between two surgeons, John Abernethy and William Lawrence, on the nature of life itself. Both of these surgeons had links with the Shelleys: Percy had read one of Abernethy’s books and quoted it in his own work and Lawrence had been the Shelleys’ doctor. In this debate, questions were asked about how to define life , and how living bodies were different to dead or inorganic bodies. Abernethy argued that life did not depend upon the body’s structure, the way it was organised or arranged, but existed separately as a material substance, a kind of vital principle, “superadded” to the body. His opponent, Lawrence, thought this a ridiculous idea and instead understood life as simply the working operation of all the body’s functions, the sum of its parts. Lawrence’s ideas were seen as being too radical: they seemed to suggest that the soul, which was often seen as being akin to the vital principle, did not exist either. Lawrence was forced to withdraw the book in which he had published his lectures and resign the hospital post he held, though he was reinstated after publicly denouncing the views he had put forward. The episode showed just how controversial the categories of life and dead had become and provided further inspiration for Mary Shelley’s novel.

*An earlier version of this essay, from which this text has been adapted, appears on The British Library site, published under a CC BY 4.0 license.

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The Racist Origins of 7 Common Phrases

Rasmus Gundorff Sæderup, Unsplash
Rasmus Gundorff Sæderup, Unsplash

Even the most nonsensical idioms in the English language originated somewhere. Some terms, like silver lining and tomfoolery, have innocuous roots, while other sayings date back to the darkest chapters in U.S. history. While these common phrases are rarely used in their original contexts today, knowing their racist origins casts them in a different light.

1. Tipping Point

This common phrase describes the critical point when a change that had been a possibility becomes inevitable. When it was popularized, according to Merriam-Webster, it was applied to one phenomenon in particular: white flight. In the 1950s, as white people abandoned urban areas for the suburbs in huge numbers, journalists began using the phrase tipping point in relation to the percentage of minority neighbors it took to trigger this reaction in white city residents. Tipping point wasn’t coined in the 1950s (it first appeared in print in the 19th century), but it did enter everyday speech during the decade thanks to this topic.

2. Long Time, No See

The saying long time, no see can be traced back to the 19th century. In a Boston Sunday Globe article from 1894, the words are applied to a Native American speaker. The broken English phrase was also used to evoke white people's stereotypical ideas of Native American speech in William F. Drannan’s 1899 book Thirty-One Years on the Plains and in the Mountains, Or, the Last Voice from the Plains An Authentic Record of a Life Time of Hunting, Trapping, Scouting and Indian Fighting in the Far West.

It's unlikely actual Native Americans were saying long time, no see during this era. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this type of isolating construction would have been unusual for the indigenous languages of North America. Rather, it originated as a way for white writers to mock Native American speech, and that of non-native English speakers from other places like China. By the 1920s, it had become an ordinary part of the American vernacular.

3. Mumbo Jumbo

Before it was synonymous with jargon or other confusing language, the phrase mumbo jumbo originated with religious ceremonies in West Africa. In the Mandinka language, the word Maamajomboo described a masked dancer who participated in ceremonies. Former Royal African Company clerk Francis Moore transcribed the name as mumbo jumbo in his 1738 book Travels into the Inland Parts of Africa. In the early 1800s, English speakers started to divorce the phrase from its African origins and apply it to anything that confused them.

4. Sold Down the River

Before the phrase sold down the river meant betrayal, it originated as a literal slave-trading practice. Enslaved people from more northerly regions were sold to cotton plantations in the Deep South via the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. For enslaved people, the threat of being “sold down the river” implied separation from family and a life of hard labor. A journal entry from April 1835 mentions a person who, “having been sold to go down the river, attempted first to cut off both of his legs, failing to do that, cut his throat, did not entirely take his life, went a short distance and drowned himself.”

5. No Can Do

Similar to long time, no see, no can do originated as a jab at non-native English speakers. According to the OED, this example was likely directed at Chinese immigrants in the early 20th century. Today, many people who use the phrase as general slang for "I can’t do that" are unaware of its cruel origins.

6. Indian Giver

Merriam-Webster defines an Indian giver as “a person who gives something to another and then takes it back.” One of the first appearances was in Thomas Hutchinson’s History of the Colony of Massachuset’s Bay in the mid 18th century. In a note, it says “An Indian gift is a proverbial expression, signifying a present for which an equivalent return is expected.” In the 19th century, the stereotype was transferred from the gift to the giver, the idea of an “equivalent return” was abandoned, and it became used as an insult. An 1838 N.-Y. Mirror article mentions the “distinct species of crimes and virtues” of schoolchildren, elaborating, "I have seen the finger pointed at the Indian giver. (One who gives a present and demands it back again.)" Even as this stereotype about indigenous people faded, the phrase Indian giver has persisted into the 21st century. The word Indian in Indian giver also denotes something false, as it does in the antiquated phrase Indian summer.

7. Cakewalk

In the antebellum South, some enslaved African Americans spent Sundays dressing up and performing dances in the spirit of mocking the white upper classes. The enslavers didn’t know they were the butt of the joke, and even encouraged these performances and rewarded the best dancers with cake, hence the name. Possibly because this was viewed as a leisurely weekend activity, the phrase cakewalk became associated with easy tasks. Cakewalks didn’t end with slavery: For decades, they remained (with cake prizes) a part of African American life, but at the same time white actors in blackface incorporated the act into minstrel shows, turning what began as a satire of white elites into a racist caricature of Black people.