Halloween treat: A brief history of real-life Frankensteins

From CNET Magazine: Mary Shelley's 200-year-old horror story has real-world medical implications that still echo today.

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Silhouette of a body on a slab
Matt Murphy

When Mary Shelley sat down to pen her 1818 gothic novel, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, she wasn't writing a work of fiction.

At least, not entirely.

In an age alive with scientific activity, exploration and discovery, Shelley had plenty to inspire her. Like the fictional Dr. Victor Frankenstein, many in the scientific community of the day explored the reanimating power of electricity. More specifically, they investigated galvanism, when electrical currents cause muscles to contract.

Italian physician and scientist Luigi Galvani discovered the phenomenon in 1780, when an electrical spark caused a dead frog's legs to twitch as if it were alive. The finding galvanized (pun intended) the scientists of the day, kicking off decades of experiments into electricity's ability to revive.

Shelley took the notion to its logical conclusion.

Illustration from 'Frankenstein' by Mary Shelley (1797-1851) (engraving) (b/w photo)

Frontispiece of the 1831 edition of Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein."

Theodor von Holst

"Perhaps a corpse would be re-animated; galvanism had given token of such things: perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth," Shelley wrote in the introduction to the 1831 edition of her novel.

But while Shelley was influenced by the popular electrical theories of the day, her novel inspired others, too. Scientists have built their own versions of Dr. Frankenstein's creation over the years by cobbling heads and limbs onto living bodies. Some experiments were the stuff of horrors — better left in obscure scientific journals. Others were medical breakthroughs that made heart, lung and even face transplants possible. A surgeon from Italy even claims he will perform the first human head transplant early next year.

What follows is a history of a few real-life Dr. Frankensteins. You may find some of it disturbing. 

It's alive?

Galvani's nephew, Giovanni Aldini, was the first to apply galvanism to a human corpse. His subject: George Forster, hanged at London's Newgate Prison on Jan. 18, 1803, for murdering his wife and child.

Voltaic experiments of Dr Andrew Ure

Dr. Andrew Ure conducting voltaic experiments on the body of executed murderer, Matthew Clydesdale, in 1818. Illustration from "Sciences mises a la portee de tous -- physique et chimie populaires" by Alexis Clerc.

Stefano Bianchetti/Corbis via Getty Images

According to the Newgate Calendar, a record of the prison's executions, Forster's body began to "quiver" when hit with an electric current, its face contorted, its "right hand was raised and clenched, and the legs and thighs were set in motion."

Aldini later wrote the experiment "did not aim at reanimating the cadaver, but only to acquire a practical knowledge as to whether galvanism can be used as an auxiliary…" to resuscitate someone.

Shelley would have been just 5 years old when Aldini conducted the experiment, but people were still testing galvanism when she published her horror story in 1818. That's when Scottish doctor and chemist Andrew Ure — who believed stimulating the phrenic nerve could revive people who'd died of suffocation — conducted his galvanic experiment on hanged murderer Matthew Clydesdale.

His work was of keen interest to the Royal Humane Society in London, which was founded in 1774 as the Society for the Recovery of Persons Apparently Drowned. It regularly published information on resuscitation techniques, such as one that revived Shelley's mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, when she tried to drown herself in the Thames.

"Mary Shelley certainly knows about all of this stuff," says Iwan Morus, author of Frankenstein's Children: Electricity, Exhibition, and Experiment in Early-Nineteenth-Century London and professor of history at Wales' Aberystwyth University. "And she knows there are people who think it's perfectly plausible that we might be able to produce artificial life by means of electricity."

Two heads

Victor Frankenstein needed more than electricity to create his monster. The good doctor also needed parts "to make the being of a gigantic stature, that is to say, about eight feet in height, and proportionably large."

In a word: transplantation.

Vladimir Demikhov with one of his dogs.

Vladimir Demikhov with one of his dogs.


Transplantation is a relatively modern procedure, made possible by the discovery of blood types in the early 1900s and research on tissue compatibility that started in the 1930s.

Soviet scientist Vladimir Demikhov was a pioneer in organ transplantation. He performed the first heart-lung transplant in 1946, on a dog; the first lung transplant in 1947, on a dog; and the first successful heart bypass surgery in 1953, also on a dog. His work contributed to modern heart and lung transplantation and the surgical treatment of coronary artery disease. "His influence on the pioneers of transplantation is unquestionable," Dr. Robert M. Langer wrote in 2011 for "Transplantation Proceedings." 

But in 1954, Demikhov "gained worldwide infamy" by transplanting the upper body and front legs of a small dog onto the neck of a bigger one. The two heads, which could eat and drink separately, survived for four days.

Demikhov performed the experiment more than 24 times, "but he could not overcome the problems of rejection," according to Langer. The longest survived for 29 days.

Trading places

US neurosurgeon Dr. Robert White took Demikhov's idea and ran with it. In March 1970, White led a team of surgeons from Case Western Reserve University medical school that put the head of one monkey onto the body of another. (Be warned: Things get a little gruesome here.)

The surgeons decapitated both monkeys, put the head of monkey A onto the body of monkey B, and reconnected the carotid artery and jugular vein. When the 18-hour procedure was over, the team of 30 doctors, nurses and technicians reportedly cheered when the monkey woke up and tried to bite the nearest person. Because the surgery severed its spine, the monkey was paralyzed from the neck down. It died nine days after the operation.

Many scientists, professors and animal rights activists were appalled, calling White's work "cruel and unneeded" and a "grotesque breach of any ethical consideration."

In 2001, White replicated the experiment, and said the monkey could see, taste, hear, smell and move its face.

Research into head transplantation continues.

Yara Shahidi Fall 2018 cover

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Mark Mann

Italian surgeon Dr. Sergio Canavero said he will perform the world's first human head transplant in China by early 2018. That still hasn't happened. 

Many question his effort.

"If Canavero feels confident that he can do this, why on earth is he not running around saving people who have spinal cord injuries?" says Dominique Martin, a bioethicist who teaches at Australia's Deakin University School of Medicine.

Canavero didn't respond to several requests to be interviewed for this story. 

In her novel, Shelley explores the "real human moral implications of producing life," says Morus, of Aberystwyth University. 

Two hundred years later, the question is more pertinent than ever.

Originally published Oct. 26, 2017.
Update Oct. 31, 2018: Added that Dr. Canavero hasn't performed the expected head transplant — yet. 

This story originally appeared in the fall 2017 edition of CNET Magazine. Click here for more magazine stories.

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