Today is the birthday of Giovanni Aldini, who was born in 1762 in Bologna. In 1798, he became professor of physics at the University of Bologna. Aldini helped to design the first lighthouse to be lit by coal gas, near Trieste in 1818. He also designed fire-proof clothing using woven asbestos and metal gauze. But he is best remembered for his electrical experiments. His uncle was Luigi Galvani, who did some experiments that involved frogs legs and electricity that I mentioned back in September. Giovanni assisted his uncle in his experiments and they were sure that it was electricity that flowed through the body from the brain, giving life to a body. Galvaini’s work was discredited by another Italian physicist, Alessandro Volta. But Aldini defended his uncle’s work and, using Volta’s batteries and a flair for performance, really took that show on the road. He travelled across Europe performing his experiments in front of large audiences. He would re-animate the bodies of dogs, cattle and even humans by applying an electrical current to the muscles. This drew the interest of the medical profession and the morbid curiosity of the general public. As the corpses twisted and grimaced, it seemed to his audience as though his subjects had really come back to life.
In Paris, in 1802, he performed his experiments on guillotined criminals and in 1803, at the Royal College of Surgeons in London, he applied his technique to the body of an executed criminal named George Forster. Here is an eyewitness account of what happened…
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.
This kind of experimentation was known as Galvanism, named for Aldini’s uncle and it is from this that we have the word ‘galvanise’. So if something shocking or exciting makes us want to do something, we are galvanised into action.
The fascination with Galvanism must have got deep into the public consciousness because in 1816 we know that it came up in a conversation that Mary Shelley had with her friends. She was visiting the Villa Diodati at Lake Geneva and it was, believe it or not, a dark and stormy night. They were all trying to scare each other with tales about ghosts and afterwards decided they would each write a story. Mary’s story grew into a novel about a doctor called Frankenstein.
So perhaps Giovani Aldini, with his ghoulish public spectacles, was the real Frankenstein. Ultimately though, he knew that he couldn’t use electricity to bring a body back to life. He admitted that he could ‘do nothing with the heart’. but he didn’t just perform his electrical experiments on the dead. At Santo Orsola Hospital in Bologna, he seems to have been given a remarkably free rein to perform his experiments on the living. His attempts to use galvanism to restore sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf met with little success. But, after first experimenting on himself, which he found ‘painful and disagreeable’, he was able to help two patients suffering from what he called ‘melancholy madness’ to return to their previous lives.