If Dr. Frankenstein Was Real: The Science Behind Creating a Real-Life Monster

By Dr. Kathryn Harkup on at

Two hundred years ago, Frankenstein was published. It is often credited as the first science fiction novel. Like many works of science fiction, the fiction often came unnervingly close to fact.

The teenage Mary Shelley wrote her debut novel at a time of incredible scientific advances and huge popular interest in the subject, particularly chemistry and electricity. Her novel fictionalises some of the real life experiments that were going on at the time. So, just how might a fictional Victor Frankenstein have gone about making his creature? This is how to build a monster, Enlightenment-style.

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For some reason, Victor Frankenstein was not able to reanimate a complete corpse, instead he had to construct one from scraps. So, the first thing he would need to do is collect the bits. This was surprisingly easy at the time.

The eighteenth century saw a huge rise in the number of anatomy schools in Britain and across Europe that taught their subject through dissection. In her novel Mary Shelley stated that this was one of the sources of Victor Frankenstein's raw materials. However, he probably wouldn't have found everything he needed after rummaging through the medical students' left-overs, which is why he also resorted to the graveyard. In Britain this is where most of the material for the dissecting room came from anyway.

In Britain only the bodies of hanged murderers were legally available for dissection and there simply weren't enough murderers to meet demand. The shortfall was made up by gangs of body snatchers who would raid graveyards in the dead of night and dig up the bodies of the recently interred. The corpse would be stripped naked (clothes and jewellery were property and therefore they would be guilty of theft) bundled up in sacks to be sold to anatomy schools.

Body parts could therefore be acquired by anyone with cash to spare or a shovel and a willingness to get their hands dirty. The legal status of a corpse, who owned it and what you could do with it, wasn't very clear at the time, unlike today*.

*The law is now very clear, this is illegal. Please do not do this.

Victor had decided to make his creature eight foot tall. It solved some problems, the minute structures of the body could be scaled up and would therefore be easier to work on, but created others. Humans don't often grow to eight feet so some of the larger structures of the creature, such as the long leg bones, would probably have come from animals.

From Andreae Vesalii Suorum de humani corporis fabrica librorum epitome. Woodcut by Jan Stephan van Calcar. Wellcome Library, London.

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Having acquired the necessary parts, storage is a key consideration. Building a creature is time consuming and bodies rot very quickly. Frankenstein would have had to preserve his specimens for several months. Anatomy schools had similar problems. They wanted to preserve interesting or unusual specimens as teaching aids for future students. The schools employed anatomical curators to preserve specimens. They became exceptionally skilled and many examples of their work survive even today. But, from Victor Frankenstein's point of view there were several drawbacks to their methods.

One considerable drawback was the process itself. Working conditions were cramped and unpleasant. For example, bones were stripped of their flesh by leaving them in tubs of water for weeks at a time. The lids of these "macerator" tubs had to be tightly sealed to keep the rats out and the worst of the smell in.

Preserving soft tissue involved working with toxic substances like mercury salts and turpentine. Prepared samples were displayed in jars and bottles filled with highly flammable alcohol, less than ideal when extra lighting was provided by candles.

After dealing with vermin, putrid smells and dangerous chemicals it's no wonder that some of the alcohol never made it into the specimen jars and several curators were dismissed for being drunk on the job. Those that stayed for any length of time were described as "prematurely aged, with a hacking cough".

Gaspare Tagliacozzi, De curtorum chirurgia per insitionem, libri duo. In quibus ea omnia, quae ad huius chirurgiae, narium scilicet, aurium, ac labiorum per insitionem restaurandorum cum theoricen, tum practicen pertinere videbantur, clarissima methodo cumulatissimè declarantur. Venetiis: apud Gasparem Bindonum juniorem, 1597. Icona octava: Plastic surgery of the nose. Wellcome Library, London.

The most hazardous materials of all were the anatomical specimens themselves. An open wound on the hand of the curator, or the slightest slip of the dissecting knife, ran the serious risk of infection. In an age before antibiotics this was often fatal.

These hazards were more inconveniences for Victor compared to the bigger problem of the preserved material itself. Anatomy schools were preserving specimens indefinitely and as teaching aids, there was no expectation that these bits of bodies would ever form part of a living creature sometime in the future. Almost by definition the samples were made useless for future reanimation as the  physiological functions of the specimens had to be stopped, otherwise the pieces would decay and disintegrate. Presumably Victor found a way to overcome these physiological obstacles.

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Having acquired all the bits Victor’s next task was to put them all together. This was no easy task. Surgical methods in the Enlightenment era were crude by today’s standards and mostly involved cutting things off rather than reattaching them. Virtually no surgeon was brave enough to delve inside the trunk of the body except in extreme circumstances (such as a caesarean section where the mother was likely to die anyway).

There were several problems with surgery; there were no anaesthetics (not that this would have bothered Victor); infection was rife, no one at the time appreciated the benefits of working in sterile conditions, and stitching techniques to hold structures together were basic. Many bled to death from cuts, stabbings and surgery because the blood vessels could not be closed effectively.

There would have been some inevitable leaks when blood started to flow through Frankenstein's creature’s reconnected veins and arteries.The heavy scaring we associate with the monster’s appearance may have been the result of this very simple way of holding all of the pieces together.

A galvanised corpse satirising Giovanni Aldini's experiments on George Forster's body. Library of Congress prints and photographs online catalogue.

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Mary Shelley gives few details about how Victor's assembled creature was brought to life. All she talks of is a “spark of life”, which could be almost anything. Given the obsession with electricity at the time it is fairly safe to assume she was referring to an electrical spark.

There is one particular real life electrical experiment that is so similar to our idea of reanimating Frankenstein's monster it is hard to believe that Mary Shelley did not take inspiration from it. In 1803 Giovanni Aldini attempted to restart the heart of a murderer, George Forster, after he had been hanged at Newgate.

Forster's body was taken from the gallows to the Royal College of Surgeons to be formally dissected (basically they opened up his chest to make sure he was dead). Then the body was handed over to Aldini who applied wires connected to a battery to various parts of the body to see what happened.

When he applied the wires to the head "the jaw began to quiver ... the left eye actually opened". Aldini cracked open Forster's chest and applied the wires directly to the heart in an attempt to restart it. He was unsuccessful.

Today we know that Aldini was never likely to succeed. Forster had been dead for too long to be revived. Yes, electric shocks to the heart are used in medicine today, but it is to restore a normal rhythm to a heart that is beating out of control. Victor Frankenstein's attempts at bringing a creature to life were even further from the realms of possibility but that doesn't stop the book from being a brilliant read.

If you want more details of how to build a creature, perhaps you have a home project in mind, you can find out more in Making the Monster: The Science of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, published 8th February.