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.

This essay was published on the The Public Domain Review, home of weird and wonderful history. Sign up for their free email newsletter, and follow on Facebook and Twitter. Also be sure to check out their very special book of essays.

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10 Rad Gifts for Hikers

Greg Rosenke/Unsplash
Greg Rosenke/Unsplash

The popularity of bird-watching, camping, and hiking has skyrocketed this year. Whether your gift recipients are weekend warriors or seasoned dirtbags, they'll appreciate these tools and gear for getting most out of their hiking experience.

1. Stanley Nesting Two-Cup Cookset; $14

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Stanley’s compact and lightweight cookset includes a 20-ounce stainless steel pot with a locking handle, a vented lid, and two insulated 10-ounce tumblers. It’s the perfect size for brewing hot coffee, rehydrating soup, or boiling water while out on the trail with a buddy. And as some hardcore backpackers note in their Amazon reviews, your favorite hiker can take the tumblers out and stuff the pot with a camp stove, matches, and other necessities to make good use of space in their pack.

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2. Osprey Sirrus and Stratos 24-Liter Hiking Packs; $140

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Osprey’s packs are designed with trail-tested details to maximize comfort and ease of use. The Sirrus pack (pictured) is sized for women, while the Stratos fits men’s proportions. Both include an internal sleeve for a hydration reservoir, exterior mesh and hipbelt pockets, an attachment for carrying trekking poles, and a built-in rain cover.

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3. Yeti Rambler 18-Ounce Bottle; $48

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Nothing beats ice-cold water after a summer hike or a sip of hot tea during a winter walk. The Yeti Rambler can serve up both: Beverages can stay hot or cold for hours thanks to its insulated construction, and its steel body (in a variety of colors) is basically indestructible. It will add weight to your hiker's pack, though—for a lighter-weight, non-insulated option, the tried-and-true Camelbak Chute water bottle is incredibly sturdy and leakproof.

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4. Mappinners Greatest 100 Hikes of the National Parks Scratch-Off Poster; $30

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The perfect gift for park baggers in your life (or yourself), this 16-inch-by-20-inch poster features epic hikes like Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park and Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. Once the hike is complete, you can scratch off the gold foil to reveal an illustration of the park.

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5. National Geographic Adventure Edition Road Atlas; $19

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Hikers can use this brand-new, updated road atlas to plan their next adventure. In addition to comprehensive maps of all 50 states, Puerto Rico, Canada, and Mexico, they'll get National Geographic’s top 100 outdoor destinations, useful details about the most popular national parks, and points on the maps noting off-the-beaten-path places to explore.  

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6. Adventure Medical Kits Hiker First-Aid Kit; $25

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This handy 67-piece kit is stuffed with all the things you hope your hiker will never need in the wilderness. Not only does it contain supplies for pain, cuts and scrapes, burns, and blisters (every hiker’s nemesis!), the items are organized clearly in the bag to make it easy to find tweezers or an alcohol wipe in an emergency.

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7. Hiker Hunger Ultralight Trekking Poles; $70

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Trekking poles will help increase your hiker's balance and stability and reduce strain on their lower body by distributing it to their arms and shoulders. This pair is made of carbon fiber, a super-strong and lightweight material. From the sweat-absorbing cork handles to the selection of pole tips for different terrain, these poles answer every need on the trail. 

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8. Leatherman Signal Camping Multitool; $120

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What can’t this multitool do? This gadget contains 19 hiking-friendly tools in a 4.5-inch package, including pliers, screwdrivers, bottle opener, saw, knife, hammer, wire cutter, and even an emergency whistle.

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9. RAVPower Power Bank; $24

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Don’t let your hiker get caught off the grid with a dead phone. They can charge RAVPower’s compact power bank before they head out on the trail, and then use it to quickly juice up a phone or tablet when the batteries get low. Its 3-inch-by-5-inch profile won’t take up much room in a pack or purse.

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10. Pack of Four Indestructible Field Books; $14

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Neither rain, nor snow, nor hail will be a match for these waterproof, tearproof 3.5-inch-by-5.5-inch notebooks. Your hiker can stick one in their pocket along with a regular pen or pencil to record details of their hike or brainstorm their next viral Tweet.

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Alice Dunnigan, the First Black Woman Journalist to Get White House Press Credentials

Schlesinger Library, RIAS, Harvard University // No Known Copyright Restrictions
Schlesinger Library, RIAS, Harvard University // No Known Copyright Restrictions

Alice Dunnigan’s birthplace of Russellville, Kentucky, is more than 700 miles from Washington, D.C. And for Black women journalists in the early 20th century, the dream of heading to the Capitol and covering national politics at the highest level seemed even more distant. But Dunnigan overcame racism, sexism, and other obstacles to make history as the first Black woman credentialed to cover the White House. Dunnigan, whose grandparents were born into slavery, would combat discrimination and champion freedom of the press while covering three U.S. presidents.

A Long Road to Writing Success

Born on April 27, 1906, Alice Allison Dunnigan grew up in a cottage on a red clay hill outside Russellville, a former Confederate Civil War stronghold (population 5000). Dunnigan’s father was a tenant farmer, while her mother took in laundry. Their precocious daughter learned to read before entering the first grade, and she began writing for the Owensboro Enterprise when she was just 13. After graduating from the segregated Knob City High School in 1923, she completed a teaching course at Kentucky State University.

During Dunnigan’s 18-year career as a Todd County teacher, her annual salary never topped $800. Her aspirations went beyond teaching: She wrote “Kentucky Fact Sheets,” highlighting Black contributions to state history that the official curriculum omitted, and took journalism classes at Tennessee A&I College (now Tennessee State University). Her two marriages to tobacco farmer Walter Dickenson in 1925 and childhood pal Charles Dunnigan in 1932 did not pan out. To pursue her career, she made the tough decision to have her parents raise Robert, her son from her second marriage, for 17 years. In 1935, she moved to Louisville, Kentucky, where she worked for Black-owned newspapers like the Louisville Defender.

With the Jim Crow era still in force and World War II raging, Dunnigan made her next big move to Washington, D.C., in 1942. Vying to escape poverty, she joined the federal civil service and earned $1440 a year as a War Labor Board clerk. Yet even four years later, when she was working as an economist after studying at Howard University and commanding a $2600 salary—double that of the average Black woman in the nation's capital—journalism kept calling her name.

Dunnigan became a Washington, D.C., correspondent in 1946 for the Associated Negro Press (ANP), the first Black-owned wire service, supplying more than 100 newspapers nationwide. It was her ticket to covering national politics.

Fearlessly Covering the White House

Dunnigan’s passion for journalism didn’t boost her bank account. Claude A. Barnett, her ANP publisher, gave her a starting monthly salary of $100—half of what his male writers earned. “Race and sex were twin strikes against me,” Dunnigan said later. “I’m not sure which was the hardest to break down.” To stay afloat financially, she often pawned her watch and shoveled coal, subsisting on basic food like hog ears and greens. To relax, she drank Bloody Marys and smoked her pipe.

Named ANP’s bureau chief in 1947, Dunnigan forged ahead as a political reporter despite Barnett’s skepticism. “For years we have tried to get a man accredited to the Capitol Galleries and have not succeeded,” Barnett told her. “What makes you think that you—a woman—can accomplish this feat?” Though the ANP had never endorsed her application for a Capitol press pass, Dunnigan's repeated efforts finally paid off. She was approved for a Capitol press pass in July 1947, and swiftly followed up with a successful request for White House media credentials.

In 1948, Dunnigan became a full-fledged White House correspondent. When she was invited to join the press corps accompanying President Harry S. Truman’s re-election campaign, Barnett declined to pay her way—so Dunnigan took out a loan and went anyway. As one of just three Black reporters and the only Black woman covering Truman’s whistle-stop tour out West, she experienced highs and lows.

In Cheyenne, Wyoming, when Dunnigan tried to walk with other journalists behind Truman’s motorcade, a military officer, assuming she was an interloper, pushed her back toward the spectators. Another journalist had to intervene on her behalf. Afterward, Truman found her typing in her compartment on the presidential Ferdinand Magellan train and said, “I heard you had a little trouble. Well, if anything else happens, please let me know.”

Dunnigan later landed a scoop in Missoula, Montana, when Truman got off the train at night in his dressing gown to address a crowd of students. Her headline read: “Pajama Clad President Defends Civil Rights at Midnight.”

Her relationship with President Dwight D. Eisenhower in the 1950s was more contentious. The two-term Republican president disliked her persistent questions about hiring practices that discriminated against Black Americans, segregation at military base schools, and other civil rights issues. Max Rabb, an Eisenhower advisor, told her she should clear her questions with him in advance to get better answers. She agreed once, but never again. Subsequently, “Honest Ike” ignored Dunnigan at press conferences for years, despite her status as the first Black member of the Women’s National Press Club (1955).

When President John F. Kennedy took office in 1961, he called on Dunnigan eight minutes into his first press conference. She asked about protection for Black tenant farmers who had been evicted from their Tennessee homes simply for voting in the previous election. JFK replied, “I can state that this administration will pursue the problem of providing that protection, with all vigor.” Jet magazine then published this headline: “Kennedy In, Negro Reporter Gets First Answer in Two Years.”

New Career, New Achievements

Later in 1961, Dunnigan found a new calling. President Kennedy appointed her to his Committee on Equal Opportunity, designed to level the playing field for Americans seeking federal government jobs. As an educational consultant, Dunnigan toured the U.S. and gave speeches. In 1967, she switched over to the Council on Youth Opportunity, where she spent four years as an editor, writing articles in support of young Black people.

After retiring, she self-published her 1974 autobiography, A Black Woman’s Experience: From Schoolhouse to White House. Dunnigan died at age 77 in 1983, but her legacy lives on. In 2013, she was posthumously inducted into the National Association of Black Journalists Hall of Fame. CNN’s April Ryan, Lauretta Charlton of the New York Times, and others have hailed her as an inspiration.

In 2018, a 500-pound bronze statue of Dunnigan was unveiled at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. Today, it stands outside the Struggles for Equality and Emancipation in Kentucky (SEEK) Museum in her native Russellville—a silent but powerful tribute to a woman who was never short on words.