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Frankenstein: Penetrating the Secrets of Nature

Boundary Crossings in 1818

In her novel, Mary Shelley is silent on just how Victor Frankenstein breathes life into his creation, saying only that success crowned "days and nights of incredible labor and fatigue;" Frankenstein offers no monster-making recipes.

But Shelley's story did not arise from the void. Scientists and physicians of her time, tantalized by the elusive boundary between life and death, probed it through experiments with lower organisms, human anatomical studies, attempts to resuscitate drowning victims, and experiments using electricity to restore life to the recently dead.

Title page from 'A Physical Dissertation on Drowning' by Rowland Jackson, London, 1747. NLM Unique ID: 2691294R. Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine Collection.
A Physical Dissertation on Drowning
Rowland Jackson, London, 1747.
Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine Collection.

When Percy Shelley's first wife, Harriet, drowned in London in 1816, rescuers took her lifeless body to a receiving station of the London Society. There, smelling salts, vigorous shaking, electricity, and artificial respiration — as with the resuscitation bellows shown here — had been used since the 1760s to restore drowning victims to life. Harriet, however, did not survive.