There are several parallels between Luigi Galvani’s experiments, which were actually conducted, and those that Mary Shelley has the fictional doctor Victor Frankenstein carry out. The main similarities are that both involved electrical stimulation to make dead body parts or entire bodies move. The parallels are also limited, however. Galvani utilized frog legs and did not claim to be bringing the amphibians back to life. Frankenstein assembled an entire body out of parts of human corpses and succeeded in re-animating him. The ethical implications in particular separate them, because Frankenstein was using human beings.
In the late eighteenth century, Galvani, an Italian doctor and professor of medicine, experimented with both electricity and dead animals. How to conduct and control electricity was not well understood in those days. He hoped to find out how it was related to the animating force within living creatures, which he named “animal electricity.” His experiments were actually conducted first with metal implements and later with electrical currents. When Galvani published his theories in 1791, they were widely challenged.
Galvani’s ideas were soon dubbed “galvanism” after his pioneering role. Shelley has Frankenstein speak of galvanism when he recounts how learning about electricity immediately and permanently transformed his approach to research. After he and several others saw lightning strike and burn up a tree,
a man of great research in natural philosophy … entered on the explanation of a theory which he had formed on the subject of electricity and galvanism, which was at once new and astonishing to me.
The limits of the parallels apply to Galvani’s subjects and conclusions and especially to the ethical dimension. Galvani’s nephew, Giovanni Aldini, did shock corpses to make them move. But Victor was apparently alone in trying to bring a dead body to life—and in tragically succeeding.