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Real-Life Scientists Who Meddled With Life and Death

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Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is a cautionary tale about the abuses of science — in particular, the potential pitfalls of screwing around with corpses and lightning. But people haven't always listened. Even before Shelley wrote her classic novel, scientists had meddled with the forces of life and death. And after Frankenstein came out, they kept on meddling.

Here are six tales of real-life scientists who tried to reanimate the dead, or create life using lightning.


Top image: Don Ivan Punchatz, via Frankensteinia.


Lazzaro Spallanzani

Spallanzani was a Catholic priest, and a professor of natural history at Pavia University in the late 1700s. He started small, adding water to microscopic animals and announcing that he had managed a resurrection when they came to life. But he wasn't really satisfied.

For some reason, Spallanzani turned for spiritual guidance to noted French cynic and atheist Voltaire. Spallanzani asked him what he thought happened to the souls of animals after death. Voltaire must have liked the guy, because he replied gently that he believed Spallanzani about the reanimation, and that the priest himself would be best qualified to answer the question. Although the priest's next trick was cutting the heads off snails to see if they'd grow back, he was definitely the least mad of the mad scientists. He was the first person to prove that chemicals inside the body helped with digestion, and was the first to spot white blood cells.

Andrew Crosse

Andrew Crosse was messing around with lightning in 1837. He strung about a third of a mile of copper wire around his estate, and concentrated all the electricity it picked up in his laboratory. Specifically, he focused on a sterile dish of a primordial soup, that he'd carefully prepared. After zapping the soup, he noticed that crystals were growing in it. Hoping he could graduate to something way cooler, he tried giving the soup long exposures to weak currents. To his amazement, he found that after long weeks, animals shaped like mites began to form, and then move around. He repeated the experiment again and again, and to modern readers it seems that he kept the environment pretty sterile if he followed all the procedures he described. Still, we have to assume it was contaminated. The Victorians assumed the same thing, but they also assumed that Crosse was a jerk. The scientists believed he was making a play for false glory. The theists assumed he was trying to play god. The neighbors just thought he was going to burn his, and subsequently their, house down. He was disliked by all and had to leave his estate, until the scandal cleared.


Johann Dippel

This was the actual guy who inspired the Frankenstein legend. He lived in the Frankenstein castle, and signed his name as Frankenstein. Surprisingly, he was less like the good doctor than most people think, since he was more interested in preserving life than reanimating it. He did rob graves in the area — or is said to have — but only because he wanted to mix up an elixir of immortality, and for some reason he thought buried corpse parts might do it for him.


The Doggie Scientists

In the first half of the 20th century, it was not a good time to be a dog. People were apt to, say, stick you in a tin can and send you into space. But at least, that way, you got to see something. You really didn't want to be in range of the doggie Frankensteins. Robert Cornish would suffocate dogs and attempt to bring them back to life via emergency medical measures. He actually managed to bring two back, although they sustained brain damage. Sergei Bryukhonenko attached his newly-invented heart and lung machine to a dog's head and kept it alive for quite some time, lying on a plate and eating and drinking.


Though these experiments were distasteful, at least they had a clear medical purpose and their results wound up saving many human lives. Vladimir Demikhov, meanwhile, just went nuts and decided to make two-headed dogs for a while. He managed to successfully put one dog's head on another dog's body twenty times over, but none of the two-headed dogs lived longer than a month.

Jābir ibn Hayyān

Not much is known about this ninth century man — to the point where some people think he was a myth. He certainly had a list of accomplishments that made him unbelievable. He was an astronomer, a geographer, a pharmacist, a chemist and a mathematician. But it was his work in chemistry that puts him on this list. He was famous for pursuing the idea of the takwin, a type of synthetic life made in a lab. It's not specified what kind of life Hayyān was pursuing. The takwin could be anything from tiny organisms all the way up to human life. Maybe he created copies of himself, in order to do all the stuff he was reputed to have accomplished.


Giovanni Aldini

Now this was a Frankenstein extraordinaire. Having learned about how to use electricity to make the muscles of a corpse jump, he took it to the extreme in public. He zapped the heads of slaughtered oxen, in order to get them to twitch in front of audiences. He moved on to the heads of executed prisoners, applying the electrodes to the ears. He cut open corpses so he could zap their spinal cords. He claimed he could zap the suffocated and the drowned, in order to revive them completely. And he bragged that he could "command the vital powers." He also took a sideline into researching whether or not there was a way to make objects and people fireproof. Not much is said about his experiments in the latter area — but perhaps that's for the best.


His tireless self-promotion never got him the chance to bring someone back to life, but it got him plenty of attention. He eventually traveled to Austria, where he was made a knight, and awarded a political position. Unlike many of the scientists on this list — and certainly unlike Frankenstein himself — Aldini died a rich and happy man.

Via The Guardian, The National Trust, Knarf, and Fantasy Magazine.