14 March 2009

Book Review: Raising the Dead by Andy Dougan

Raising the Dead Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was published in 1818. The same year saw a real attempt to bring an inanimate body to life. The corpse was that of the murderer Matthew Clydesdale, fresh from the gallows, who was taken to the Glasgow University School of Anatomy to be dissected - and, first, experimentally zapped with electricity. The man with the galvanic battery, Dr Andrew Ure, thought that it you could only apply a sufficient shock to the right nerve, it would be possible to restart a stopped heart. His experiment on Clydesdale failed (and Ure seems not to have given much thought to the legal consequences of success); but was part of a long history of scientific tinkering with the applications of electricity to the human body. From the Greeks and Romans and their electric eels to the men who, like Victor Frankenstein, thought that electricity was the source of life, Raising the Dead provides an illuminating introduction to the history of galvanism.

The subtitle The men who created Frankenstein is not entirely accurate. The Clydesdale experiment, around which the book is centred, took place months after publication of the novel - which never specifically said that electricity was used to animate the monster (though it certainly was implied). It was another, German scientist, Karl August Weinhold, whose stomach-turning animal experiments convinced him that electricity created life, who most likely inspired Mary Shelley’s nightmare and gave rise to the famous horror story.

At just 201 pages of well-spaced type, this really is just the tip of the galvanic iceberg. It reminds me of one of those rivers that make great loops to either side before returning to the main course - while always coming back to that one day at Glasgow University, it takes detours through the topics of university politics, body-snatching, historical theories as to the source of life and prior studies of veins and nerves, the rivalry between Volta and Galvani, the writing of Frankenstein, and later scientific advances. As a brief overview it’s informative, entertaining, at at times amusing (though I really could have done without knowing what Weinhold’s experiments involved). The relation of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s youthful antics includes a memorable image of a tutor being blasted away from a doorknob by an electrical discharge; and more eccentric still is the twentieth-century mad scientist who “built his own heart-lung machine out of assorted components including a vacuum-cleaner motor, radiator tubing, an iron wheel and 60,000 shoelace eyes.” But I found the most interesting fact to be that Andrew Ure devised a plan for what would in effect have been an early defibrillator - and never got around to building it.

Rating: B

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Header image shows detail of A Young Girl Reading by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, c. 1776