Saturday, February 03, 2007

Galvanizing Aldini

Experiments with buckets and animal parts

Experiments with cow heads

Experiments with headless cadavers

Experiments with cadavers and severed heads

Experiment with various Leyden jars

Experiment with living persons, 2 bedridden

Experiment with frogs legs and other devices

Experiments with various devices

Among the inspirations for Mary Shelley's gothic classic 'Frankenstein' from 1818 were the (in)famous experiments carried out in public by the physicist Giovanni Aldini (1762-1834) at the Royal College of Surgeons in 1803.

Aldini was the nephew of the Italian physiologist Luigi Galvani who experimented with frog legs in the late 18th century and noted that the muscles contracted with the passage of an electrical current (he thought he had discovered a unique 'animal electricity'). Provoking muscle contraction by applying electricity came to be known as galvansim [and galvanize or galvanise came to have a wider meaning: stimulate into activity]. Aldini assisted with his uncle's work and later promoted the principle in his own experiments and publications.

"In January 1803, the body of the murderer George Forster was pulled from the gallows of Newgate Prison in London and taken to the Royal College of Surgeons. There, before an audience of doctors and curiosity-seekers, Giovanni Aldini, nephew of the late Luigi Galvani, prepared to return the corpse to life.

At least, that is what some of the spectators thought they were witnessing. When Aldini applied conducting rods, connected to a large battery, to Forster's face, "the jaw began to quiver, the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and the left eye actually opened". The climax of the performance came as Aldini probed Forster's rectum, causing his clenched fist to punch the air, as if in fury, his legs to kick and his back to arch violently." [continues at The Guardian]
These human and animal experiments with electricity came to be described by Aldini in his (now very rare) 1804 book 'Essai Théorique et Expérimental sur le Galvanisme' from which the above plates were taken. The work is also notable for first describing how steel needles could be magnetized with a current, as well as exploring the velocity of electricity through water, electrical fish and the conductivity of flames.

The electrical work of Aldini was not restricted to attempts at reanimating human and animal corpses. Prior to his famous London showmanship, Aldini had some success treating hospital patients suffering from 'melancholia' by giving them a strong electric shock -- this was the first recording of electroconvulsive therapy, which for the most part has been used (with arguable but apparent success) up to modern times in certain cases of depression.

A Galvanized Corpse
Published in Harpers Weekly in 1836
[source and explanation]


aeron said...

The floating hands operating devices connected to mutilated remains has a great combination of the surreal and horrific. It also reminds me of Jonathon Rosen's work. Great find!

hurón . said...

This blog is amanzing.
I can be hours seeing and reeding all these images.

Juke said...

Pioneering the past!
Great strides, good work, envy, cheers!

Jessica said...

Absolutely fabulous images, as usual, but this post is just amazing. I knew about Aldini but had never seen anything like these pictures!

Jessica (bioephemera)

ps. I'm having some trouble commenting - sorry if this shows up in duplicate!

pk said...

Thanks all.

Jessica (also my mother's name btw) from the wonderful Bioephemera, that annoying hurdle is meant to keep out the riff raff. It didn't work for me however.

If a 2nd comment mysteriously turns up I'll return it.

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