Jan 18, 1803, London
Giovanni Aldini galvanizes the corpse of an executed criminal.
“…the experiments I did on the hanged criminal did not aim at reanimating the cadaver, but only to acquire a practical knowledge as to whether galvanism can be used as an auxiliary, and up to which it can override other means of reanimating a man under such circumstances….”1 Giovanni Aldini, 1804
Bioelectricity is one of the most maligned branches of biomedical research, stigmatized in popular culture, misappropriated by quack healers, and misunderstood even among scientists.2,3 There is a solid scientific basis for bioelectric phenomena and it is essential for bodily functions from nerve and muscle activity to injury healing. However, it is devilishly complicated and it has a rather colorful history that is remembered more than the science itself. Twitching corpses tend to do that to a story.
To set the stage, our story begins in the the age of ‘Galvanism’, where the promises of bioelectricity were balanced only by how poorly we understood it. The Galvani-Volta debates were raging in the scientific community as researchers worked to understood bioelectricity phenomena that would take a least another century to unravel.4 Meanwhile the Vitalists and Mechanists duked it out philosophically, with the former claiming erroneously that special ‘vital laws’ applied to living organisms (e.g. Galvani’s ‘Animal Electricity’, while the latter maintained that both the animate and inanimate were subject to the same physical laws5,6. And the public? They loved it–sparks, disembodied limbs, and the promise of reanimation!3
On the day in question, one George Forster (26 years old), accused of the murder of his wife and daughter by drowning, was executed by hanging. Promptly upon being declared dead, his corpse was carted off to the Royal College of Surgeons to participate in what would become one of the most well known of the Galvanism experiments. In the operating theater, surrounded by an excited crowd, was Giovanni Aldini, Professor of Physics at the University of Bologna and nephew to Luigi Galvani. Aldini was a staunch defender of Galvani’s camp, and the experiment he was about to perform marked the apotheosis of his work with cadavers. Armed with a massive Voltaic pile battery, Aldini began to electrically induce convulsions in the cadaver by touching the electrode and counter-electrode of the battery to different parts of the cadaver to close the circuit. For instance, touching the mouth and the ear produced facial convulsions powerful enough to open the left eye. The grand finale? Moving one of these electrodes down to the rectum caused the corpse to appear to be sitting up.4,7 Suffice it to say, this experiment lingered in public memory for decades, and Frankenstein was only 15 years away.
While it makes for a great story, the scientific goal of Aldini’s experiment is often overlooked. Specifically, he tells us that: “…the experiments I did on the hanged criminal did not aim at reanimating the cadaver, but only to acquire a practical knowledge as to whether galvanism can be used as an auxiliary, and up to which it can override other means of reanimating a man under such circumstances….”1 Aldini’s primary focus was resuscitation after trauma, such as near-drowning, and he lamented that he was never able to restore cardiac function in a cadaver. Nonetheless, his ideas were forerunners to defibrillation and even deep brain stimulation.
We’ve come a long way from twitching corpses, but perhaps one of our greatest challenges now is demystifying the whole thing. The truth of bioelectricity is very much stranger than fiction.
Contributed by Odd Salon Speaker Daniel Cohen, who spoke about the corpse reanimation at Odd Salon UNDEAD
- Aldini, G. Essai théorique et expérimental sur le galvanisme, avec une série d’expériences faites devant des commissaires de l’Institut national de France, et en divers amphithéâtres anatomiques de Londres. Paris Fournier Fils (1804).–Parent’s translation (see Ref. 4)
- Martinsen, O. & Grimnes, S. Bioimpedance and Bioelectricity Basics. (Academic Press, 2011).
- McCaig, C. D., Song, B. & Rajnicek, A. M. Electrical dimensions in cell science. J. Cell Sci. 122, 4267–76 (2009).
- Parent, A. Giovanni Aldini : From Animal Electricity to Human Brain Stimulation. 576–584 (The Canadian Journal of Neurological Sciences 2004).
- Lightman, A. The Discoveries. (Random House LLC, 2010).
- Dierig, S. Apollo’s Laboratory. (Wallstein, 2006)
- Knapp, A. & Baldwin, W. The Newgate Calendar: The Malefactors’ Bloody Register. (J. Robins and Co., London, 1824).
An Account of the Late Improvements in Galvanism: With a Series of Curious and Interesting Experiments Performed Before the Commissioners of the French National Institute, and Repeated Lately in the Anatomical Theatres of London, by Giovanni Aldini – via Smithsonian Libraries
Bioimpedance and Bioelectricity Basics, by Sverre J. Grimnes, Orjan G. Martinsen – Goodreads.com
The Discoveries: Great Breakthroughs in 20th-Century Science, Including the Original Papers, by Alan Lightman – Goodreads.com