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The Spark of Frankenstein

By Josie GlausiuszAugust 1, 2002 5:00 AM


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Experiments on severed frogs' legs may have inspired Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Christopher Goulding, a graduate student at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne in England, chanced upon the connection while researching his Ph.D. on the poetry of Percy Shelley, Mary's husband. Goulding discovered that the poet had studied under James Lind, a doctor who had conducted early experiments demonstrating that an electric current can seemingly reanimate a dead frog's leg by stimulating the nerves.

Mary Shelley publicly maintained that the idea for Frankenstein arose out of a ghost-story-telling competition that took place at Lord Byron's villa near Geneva in the summer of 1816. But in her novel, she describes how Dr. Frankenstein searched for an implement with which to "infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet." She also wrote of conversations on "galvanism"—the stimulation of nerves by electricity—that she had heard her husband conduct with Byron. These discussions, which probably echo what Percy learned from Lind, may have sparked Mary's notion of artificial animation, says Goulding. He believes Lind's interests, which included astronomy, also influenced the poet himself: "Shelley's poetry is infused throughout with scientific imagery. He was one of the earliest poets to write poems that are set in outer space."

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