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The real experiments that inspired Frankenstein

When Mary Shelley published her iconic novel in 1818, raising the dead seemed to be the near future.

Coleman Lowndes is a lead producer who has covered history, culture, and photography since joining the Vox video team in 2017.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has been reimagined onscreen hundreds of times and is a staple of pop culture. The prevailing takeaway is one of science gone wrong and the dangers of pursuing the unnatural. But contemporary readers were surrounded by Enlightenment-era scientific breakthroughs that were beginning to shift the definition of death. To them, Frankenstein would have read as frighteningly plausible.

Engraving depicting physicist Luigi Galvani demonstrating galvanism on severed frog legs in the 1780s.
Getty Images

Electricity was being used in a scientific practice called “galvanism,” which seemed to show some promise in reanimating body parts of recently dead animals and humans. Shelley even references galvanism in the 1831 edition of the book, citing it as an example of how the Frankenstein experiment could be possible.

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