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A Monstrous Contribution?

Scottish doc may have set scientific spark for Frankenstein

WEDNESDAY, May 1, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- An obscure Scottish scientist who experimented with electrical currents on dead frogs may have set the scientific spark for Mary Shelley's classic novel Frankenstein.

Dr. James Lind was a doctor, astronomer, geologist and mentor of Mary's future husband, the renowned poet Percy Shelley, while he was at Eton College in 1809-10, says Christopher Goulding, a postgraduate research student at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, England.

The men became close friends and Lind instilled in Percy Shelley a lifelong passion for, and knowledge of, science. That's how Lind may have indirectly inspired the scientific content of Mary Shelley's literary masterpiece, published in 1818.

"In my research, I've noticed a lot of critics have made various suggestions as to possible contemporary sources that Mary Shelley might have read. I don't think she was particularly interested in science herself, and I think she is more likely to have got that small part of inspiration for her novel from her husband, and I believe he got it from James Lind," Goulding says.

He's doing his doctoral research on the influence of science and philosophy on the work of Percy Shelley. An article he wrote about Lind's possible influence on Frankenstein appears in today's issue of the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine.

"Lind is known to have been an important character in the formative years of (Percy) Shelley's life. Virtually all Shelley biographers do mention Lind," Goulding says. "What's different about what I've said, I'm drawing a much more precise link between the work of Percy and Mary Shelley and the influence of James Lind."

Goulding says he's not suggesting Lind was the actual role model for the book's title character, Dr. Victor Frankenstein. He's just trying to identify the source that gave life to the scientific and medical references in the novel.

Lind (1736-1812) was born and educated in Edinburgh. He traveled as a ship's surgeon to Africa, China and India. He was part of a Royal Society scientific expedition to Iceland in 1772. An avid scientist, he was in contact with some of the greatest names of 18th century science and thought, including Benjamin Franklin, Adam Smith and James Watt.

Lind's research included experiments with dead frogs in his attempts to unravel what he referred to as "animal electricity." He was also interested in the use of electrical shock to treat insanity.

"He was not what you would call a great scientist. He was part of what was a small circle of very knowledgeable people who were around in the late 18th and early 19th century. He knew a lot of famous people, but he wasn't famous himself," Goulding says.

So, does he expect a monstrous response to his theory?

"I'm hoping that it will stir up some debate. Obviously there are people who will think it's nonsense, but I'm hoping there will be some people who will say, 'Yes, that's a possibility,'" Goulding says.

What To Do: Here's a site that has information about 18th century research into animal electricity. And here's a National Library of Medicine site about a Frankenstein exhibit held at the library a few years ago.

SOURCES: Christopher Goulding, M.Litt; postgraduate research student, University of Newcastle upon Tyne, England; May 2002 Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine
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