flamma vitalis


“I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. … By the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.”1 Thus the magic moment in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) when the creature is brought to life by what is usually considered (though Shelley does not say so outright) the infusion of an electric “spark of being” into a constructed body. Shelley’s story emerged amid heated disputes among London physicians over the nature of life itself. Against the view of mechanists and materialists, who argued life could be reduced to the complex organization of physiology, vitalists asserted that some other force or spirit must be superadded to bodies to achieve living animation. Vitalist John Abernethy thus declared, “The phaenomena of electricity and of life correspond.”2 To support their case, vitalists often pointed to the “animal electricity” described by Bolognese physician Luigi Galvani, who had seen the legs of a dissected frog twitch when touched with a metal scalpel in the presence of electricity. Another Italian, Alessandro Volta, rejected Galvani’s claim that such animal electricity was a distinctive form of electricity, and simulated it by bringing different metals into contact in moisture, thus contributing to his invention of the “voltaic pile” or battery. Volta’s experiments troubled vitalist accounts, but dramatic experiments supported them.

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