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The Italian Frankenstein

Galvani's experiment

Did you know that the famous novel "Frankenstein" was based on a true story? Mary Shelley drew her inspiration from some of the experiments carried out by Giovanni Aldini, Bolognese Physics professor and researcher at the University of Bologna.

Born in Bologna in 1792, Giovanni was the nephew of the famous scientist, Luigi Galvani. Following in his uncle’s footsteps, he studied what effect electrical impulses had on cadavers, a phenomenon known as galvanism.

Aldini set up horrifying, macabre performances in which he would apply electric current to make the eyes and mouths of animal heads open and make the limbs of their decapitated corpses contract.

He was convinced that electricity could be used to resuscitate cadavers, but in order to test his theory, he needed an intact, unmutilated body. Normally scientists relied on the bodies of executed prisoners for their research, but since nearly all European countries preferred execution by beheading, Aldini headed to London in1803, where the condemned were hanged, guaranteeing him bodies that were still intact.

Once he found the specimen he wanted, he just had to wait for the execution to be carried out. George Forrest, probably innocent, had been accused of killing his wife and daughter and the story goes that Aldini paid the judges to find him guilty.

As soon as the sentence was carried out, Aldini took the body to perform his experiments in public. This performance was so spectacular that his own assistant died of a heart attack that very night.

By attaching electrodes to various parts of the body, he was able to make the cadaver lift its arms and legs, open its mouth and eyes, move its chest as if it were taking a deep breath. Most of the audience thought he has succeeded, albeit briefly and temporarily, in bringing the body back to life.