Mary Shelley as part of a writing contest with her brother Percy, Lord Byron, and John Poildori put pen to paper and crafted the first science fiction novel Frankenstein. In 1818 it was published and audiences have been terrified ever since. But Frankenstein was more than about a monster it was about the power of science both to create and to destroy. Below we will look at the real scientists for whom death was not a taboo but a muse.

In the 16th century to 18th century when the renaissance and later enlightenment took hold in Europe views on science and especially biology and anatomy changed. It was now legal to do autopsies for research. Colleges and scientists were in a rush to discover the next break thru into how the human body worked and functioned and that meant demand for cadavers was very high. Even though more people were starting to trust science they still weren’t ready to donate their bodies to science and that meant there wasn’t enough willing bodies to go around. At first the answer was to use the bodies of executed murders or nameless victims of suicide but even that couldn’t quell the demand. Things started to take a ghoulish turn and body stanching became way for less than moral people to make their money. They would stalk graveyards and when the family of the recently deceased had left the tomb would remove the body and quickly take it nearest medical school getting a steep price. Often the body would be replaced with weights and reburied leaving the family none the wiser.

This was of course very illegal and public outrage was immense but law enforcement was helpless to stop it. In New York alone as many as 450 bodies were robbed from area graveyards in a single year and it’s likely that officials in New York were not only aware of the problem but actually partly in on it. Even well respected schools like Harvard practically admitted to using dubiously acquired bodies in their research. John Collins jr son of Harvard’s professor of anatomy in 1782 admitted he had stolen a body from a graveyard for his father’s experiments and that his father was alarmed when had found out. In response to the outrage graveyards increased the amount of guards. More people also wanting to be a part of the amazing science of the day, began donating their bodies. Slowly the practice of body stanching dried up. But still today though instances of body stanching do occur semi frequently in places such as India and modern cases have even occurred in America. We will never be able to tell what discoveries actually were achieved by these not so ethical means and we do owe these often nameless people a huge debt even if they did give less then willingly.

We don’t know if Luigi Galvani used any of these corpses in his study of anatomy but his later experiments certainly inspired how Victor Frankenstein brought the monster to life in the movies. In 1776 he was working for Italy’s academy of science when he made a discovery that sent shockwaves through the scientific community. Galvani was interested in how nerves work prior to him many felt that nerves acted as a sort of hydraulic system to move the muscles. Legend says that a lab helper was working with Galvani dissecting frogs when he touched the charged blade of a scalpel to the frog’s sciatic nerve causing the legs of the frog to kick around like it was still alive.Galvani concluded that it was natural electricity passing through the nerves that caused muscles to move. Galvani’s work intrigued another scientist Alessandro Volta who was not sure Galvani was totally correct. He felt that it was static electricity not an electrical fluid that Galvani had witnessed, He even created the voltaic pile an early battery to disprove Galvani. When Volta discovered that certain chemicals could make an electrical charge he coined the word galvanism after Galvani.

When Mary Shelley wrote about how Victor sowed the monster together out of parts of various bodies she could not have known just how many lives would be saved by that very idea. Skin and bone donation has been attempted since the ancient Egyptians usually with negative results. In 1907 Simon Flexner wrote in a paper for Chicago University that it would someday be possible to transplant the sick organs of one person with the healthy ones of a donor. Several attempts were tired in the 30’s  and 40’s  but rejection resulted in none working for more than a few months. It was in 1954 that a transplant of a kidney was successful between two identical twins. This proved that Flexner’s idea was viable.In 1962 what was science fiction in 1818 became reality when the kidney, lung, and liver of a deceased person were successfully transplanted. Today over 28,000 transplants are preformed every year saving thousands of lives. Still the list of those in need of organs is over 120,000 so we implore you that if you’re not an already an organ donor that you sign up, you might save a life.

Mary Shelley may have been inspired by the Victorian grave robbers of her time or the experiments of Galvani but now her idea of life after death is in some part a reality. It’s not being used to make monsters or even to awaken the passed from their slumber but to keep the living alive. While Frankenstein warns us of hubris of science we should also be aware its immense value to us all.

“ So much has been done, exclaimed the soul of Frankenstein—more, far more, will I achieve; treading in the steps already marked, I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation” – Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Grave offense by Emily Blazelon