Frankenstein isn’t actually a monster – it’s the last name of the doctor, Victor Frankenstein, who created this creature, but nowadays when someone says Frankenstein, it is usually “the monster”. Frankenstein, or the modern Prometheus, is a novel written by Mary Shelley, wife of the poet Percy Shelley. Mary was the daughter of the English philosopher William Godwin and the writer Mary Wollstonecraft.

Mary Shelley, source: Wikipedia


In 1816, the young Mary Goldwin, the future Mary Shelley, began writing what is now considered one of the first works of science fiction. The story of a doctor who creates a living being from an inanimate one, from the parts of a dead man, a being who has reason and above-average strength, but is a freak, a being who is revived by electricity and still tickles the human imagination and raises ethical questions. In fact, in a way, Frankenstein is the first version of artificial intelligence. So, young Mary spends that summer on Lake Geneva in 1816, also known in the annals as “The Year Without a Summer”, because the weather was extremely cold, and later it will be shown that the Indonesian volcano Tamboru, which erupted in 1815 and released large amounts of ash into the atmosphere, which caused transient climate changes and the Year without a Summer.

Well, in 1816 it was so cold that Mary, Percy and their friend Lord Byron didn’t know what to do because they were at Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva, and it was too cold to walk. Trapped in the villa, due to constant storms, they decided to write horror stories. In fact, they created their own horror-Decameron. From one of these stories, the novel Frankenstein or the modern Prometheus , published in 1818, was created. The name “Frankenstein” was probably taken by Mary from the name of a German village called Frankenstein, where she stayed in 1816 on her way to Geneva, which is now in Poland (and it is called Zabkowice Slaskie). The second part of the novel’s title is probably a tribute to Aeschylus and his Chained Prometheus.

Villa Diodati


Lord Byron took with him his personal physician, twenty-year-old John William Polidori, who we will remember as the author of The Vampire from 1819. Polidori’s The Vampire, you guessed it, was also created in 1816 on Lake Geneva, and is the first work in which the Gothic, i.e. folkloric elements of vampire stories. One of Byron’s fragments, A Fragment of a Novel (1816), was distributed to Polidori, with which Byron was not satisfied.

Let’s go back to Mary Shelley and the unfortunate Frankenstein. In the writing of this novel Polidori certainly played a big role, as well as a whole series of circumstances – the acquaintance of Percy and Byron, Byron’s need to have a personal doctor with him, the love between Mary and Percy, the cold summer and, most importantly – Mary’s education and talent. The myth of Victor Frankenstein and his monster is a strange mixture of Gothic melodrama and science fiction that leans somewhat on the Judaic myth of the Golem, a being that looks like humans, but, unlike humans (including Frankenstein himself), does not have reason, but can only to fulfill the orders that someone gave him written on a note and put them in his mouth.

The science fiction moment in Shelley’s novel was probably initiated by Polidori. Namely, Polidori must have known about the experiments carried out by the Italian doctor Giovanni Aldini a few years before the events on Lake Geneva. Maybe Mary herself heard from Aldini as a child, because her family’s household friends were many famous and educated people.

So, Giovanni Aldini was born in Bologna in 1762. He was the nephew of the famous Luigi Galvani, who conducted experiments with electricity and after whom the phenomenon of muscles contracting stimulated by electric current was named galvanism. Galvani put electrodes on frogs’ drumsticks (ah, you Italians!) and they would contract under the effect of electricity. Galvanism is studied today by a branch of physiology called electrophysiology. Aldini was the true successor of Luigi Galvani – he devoted himself to the research of galvanism.


Giovanni Aldini, source: Wikipedia

In January 1802, Aldini performed a gruesome experiment in London: he runs an electric current through the body of the executed criminal Georg Forster, who killed his wife and child by drowning them in Paddington Canal. Forster was executed by hanging, and Aldini had the opportunity to demonstrate the effect of galvanism on a human corpse in Newgate (one of the gates of London), which is much more attractive to the masses than galvanism on frog’s drumsticks. George Forster was surely dead at the time Aldini showed the experiment – his spinal cord was severed, and there was no blood left in his body. This is how the Newgate Calendar describes the experiment: ” the jaw of the executed criminal began to tremble, the muscles spasmed, and one eye was open. One man, Mr. Pass, was so horrified by the experiment that he died of shock soon after leaving Newgate.

Aldini experiment, source: NYPL, General Research Division

Illustration source: Wikipedia

Aldini’s experiment is gruesome, but what he did was actually the beginning of the resuscitation technique, more precisely, the third link of resuscitation – defibrillation. Mary Shelley was 5 years old when Aldini performed this experiment.

According to a BBC Knowledge documentary, Forster’s guilt was misjudged and in that documentary it was told how Forster’s wife was suicidal and often said she was going to kill herself and the child. At that time, people found guilty by the court would be executed, and their bodies would be dissected (or experimented on, as was the case here) and the bodies would be dismembered so that they could not be resurrected on Judgment Day.



Jelena Kalinić, MA in comparative literature and graduate biologist, science journalist and science communicator, has a WHO infodemic manager certificate and Health metrics Study design & Evidence based medicine training. Winner of the 2020 EurekaAlert (AAAS) Fellowship for Science Journalists. Short-runner, second place in the selection for European Science journalist of the year for 2022.