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ExhibitionBoundary Crossing / 1818

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein reflected the interest of early 19th-century physicians and natural philosophers in human dissection and experiments on animals, as they explored the possibilities for generating life, resuscitating the drowned and the newly dead, and reanimating dead tissue using electricity. These researchers sought to benefit humankind and to end death and disease through their investigations into “the secrets of nature.”

  • A scientist studies a sheep cadaver. A series of insets shows electrical experiments on frog legs.

    Illustration from De viribus Electricitatis in Motu Musculari Commentaries (Commentary on the Effect of Electricity on Muscular Motion), 1792

    Author: Luigi Galvani (1737—1798)

    Courtesy National Library of Medicine

    In a quest for the principle of life, Luigi Galvani (1737–1798), a professor of anatomy at the University of Bologna, performed an extensive series of experiments in “animal electricity” or “galvanism” in the 1780s and 1790s.

  • Three scientists experimenting on headless human cadavers with electrical equipment.

    Illustration from Essai Théorique et Expérimentale sur le Galvanisme, tome premier (Theoretical and Practical Essay on Galvanism, first volume), 1804

    Author: Giovanni Aldini (1762—1834)

    Courtesy National Library of Medicine

    Italian physician Giovanni Aldini administered electricity to the bodies of newly executed criminals.

  • Book open to a face with a hose attached to its mouth and chapter page with graphic elements.

    A Physical Dissertation on Drowning, 1747

    Author: Rowland Jackson (1720—1784)

    Courtesy National Library of Medicine

    Resuscitation of those who appeared to be dead was of interest to many people. In the second half of the 18th century, humane societies operated receiving stations where members attempted to revive drowned persons using such devices as resuscitation bellows (pictured on the left page). When Percy Bysshe Shelley’s first wife, Harriet Shelley, was found drowned in London in December 1816, she was taken to one of the receiving stations, but efforts to revive her were unsuccessful.

  • Funnel-like instrument connects left arm of woman lying in bed to right arm of man standing nearby.

    Blundell’s Gravitator from The Lancet, June 13, 1829

    Courtesy National Library of Medicine

    In the early 19th century, English physician James Blundell introduced human-to-human blood transfusion in a desperate effort to save the lives of dying patients.