Frankenstein: A monster who saved lives

Editions of Frankenstien books on shelf

Andy Mabbett, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

By Mridul Shrestha

Year 12, Lancing College

Mridul Shrestha is the overall winner of the Michaelmas Term 2022 Schools Science Writing Competition, writing under the theme of ‘To what extent are the Humanities important to scientists?’ You can read more about our category winners and runners-up here.

In her seminal novel, ‘Frankenstein’, Mary Shelley alludes to Doctor Victor Frankenstein harvesting body parts to assemble his monster and harnessing the power of electricity to reanimate dead tissue. Shelley, despite being a Romantic, drew heavy inspiration from scientific developments of the era.

Italian Physicist Luigi Galvani conducted experiments with frog legs in 1790, predating the novel by 26 years. Galvani, by complete accident, touched one of the legs with his scalpel, causing current to flow through the leg, producing a sudden jerk, almost like the frog were alive.

Galvani concluded that all animals must carry electricity within, instead of believing the electricity came from the metal, dubbing this phenomenon ‘animal electricity’.

Later referred to as galvanism (the practice of manipulating muscles with electrical current), Galvani’s nephew was inspired, taking this practice to its only logical conclusion: re-animating corpses. Using a voltaic pile, an early form of battery, Galvani’s nephew succeeded in making executed criminals bolt upright.

The scientific community fixated upon these experiments, as did a member from the literary community. Shelley’s novel was published in 1817, and twenty years later, Carlo Matteucci demonstrated that every heartbeat produces some electrical activity.

Several developments were made in understanding how electricity affects the heart, most notably the ECG (electrocardiogram), but it was not until 1931 that the first external pacemaker, though big and awkward, was used to prolong life, by keeping the heart beating regularly.

Another sixteen years later, Charles Beck saved a teenage patient who had suffered cardiac arrest by administering a 60 Hz jolt to the heart, from a homemade defibrillator: two silver paddles wired to an outlet. Beck had long been experimenting on animals, placing them into cardiac arrest and shocking them out, but this was the first instance in which he had done so on a person.

In the mid-1950s, Eskin and Klimov, living in Kyrgyzstan (formerly under the USSR), pioneered the first closed-chest defibrillator, a more powerful device which applied an alternating voltage of over 1000 volts, conducted by externally applied electrodes, through the chest cage to the heart. This allowed it to work without having to open up someone’s chest. These shocks were brief, ranging from 100-150 milliseconds. The Soviet Union had invented the first portable defibrillator in 1959.

Meanwhile, outside the USSR, Irish cardiologist Frank Pantridge created the first western portable defibrillator. It was placed in ambulances, where the technology spread like wildfire. The device famously saved President Lyndon Johnson in 1972, after he suffered a heart attack in Virginia, leading to the mass-adoption of the device in the US.

Although we had the ability to shock patients out of lethal cardiac arrests, we still lacked a solution for a more common issue: a heart that beat too slow.

The aforementioned external pacemaker was a short-term fix but failed to address those whose hearts required lifelong pacing. Since patients could not remain attached to a clunky, immovable box their entire life, a new device was needed.

Walt Lillehei, after losing a patient connected to a pacemaker during a blackout, approached electrical engineer Earl Bakken to help solve this problem. Bakken decided to test a new component known as a transistor, used to amplify or switch electric signals, enabling the creation of the first wearable pacemaker.

Electricity went from a mysterious force, fascinating Galvani, to an everyday part of our lives, used in pacemakers, ECGs, and more. In a couple of centuries, humans have harnessed the power of electricity to save millions of lives across the world.

Decades following his invention, Bakken wrote in his memoir about the origin of his fascination with electricity and its role in creating life. He pinpointed the exact moment that his interest was sparked; when he was 8 years old, he watched a film in the cinema, the 1931 classic horror movie ‘Frankenstein’, an adaptation of the novel by the same name.

Science fiction and science-fact share a symbiotic relationship: innovations and discoveries in scientific research inspire waves of creative stories, exploring and expanding upon these ideas.

Likewise, imaginative concepts in science fiction prompts researchers to experiment and theorise about their plausibility. Frankenstein is the first of many examples. A story about a misunderstood monster. A monster that saved lives.