Yesterday I went along with Laura D. to a talk at the Barts Pathology Museum on the topic of ‘Making the Monster- The Science of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein’. The talk was presented by Dr. Kathryn Harkup and was around an hour long with a Q&A at the end. Laura asked me if I would like to go a few weeks back and I jumped at the chance to not only see her (we stopped working together when I got the mortuary job and I miss seeing her face each day), but also to explore this fascinating subject. I read Frankenstein a long time ago, probably when I was a moody teenager who was in love with Byron and discovered gothic literature. It’s a brilliant book if you haven’t read it, but I’ve never really thought about the context of when it was written and what was happening in science at the time.
The talk explored the different examples of scientists and experiments which took place before and around the time when Mary Shelley thought of the idea for the story. I didn’t know that it came off the back of trying to think of ghost stories while on a very rainy trip to Italy with her husband, Byron & Polidori!
Dr. Harkup brilliantly linked the Resurrection men with the anatomy schools and experiments that were taking place with the events of the time. It really highlighted the way a fear of ending up with your corpse being examined in this way could create a real sense of horror around the novel. She also showed that by creating a Monster in this way, Frankenstein had actually completed something that many had sought to at least replicate in part in real life. I also enjoyed the link to the fact a defibrillator is a similar concept to the experiments carried out by Luigi Galvani’s nephew Giovanni Aldini where electrodes were placed on the nerves of the deceased to make certain parts move again. When we have post-mortems I quite often see the defibrillator pads stuck to the patients.
All in all, a very strange part stuck with me from this talk- there was a question right at the end regarding how long the life expectancy of the Monster would be considering it was made of parts of other people of presumably different ages. This led to a discussion of how pig heart valves are used to replace or support the heart valves of living people with disease. These replacements are shed of any pig cells and accepted by the body, however they only last approximately 15 years. A pig lives for around 15 years. Interesting stuff! It stuck with me because only earlier yesterday I had been doing the notes for the Pathologist during post-mortem and we had a patient with a synthetic heart valve which fascinated me. I might have a further look into this for a future blog article, definitely food for thought!
I’m loving my job so much in this sense because I feel like I learn new things like this each week. I’ve also been inspired by this talk to get a new copy of Frankenstein and remind myself of how great it is. Thanks to Carla Valentine for hosting such a great night at the museum, and apologies to you for freaking you out with my Snapchat ghost pictures! Massive thanks to Laura for finding out about this evening and booking it up. We’re back there in a couple of weeks for another talk so I’ll update you about that too after going.
I will be posting an update of my week at some point this weekend, keep an eye out for it and thank you for reading as always.
Links to mentions above-
Dr. Kathryn Harkup can be found on Twitter @RotwangsRobot (huge kudos if you get the Metropolis reference there!!) and her new book on this topic is available for pre-order on Amazon here
Carla Valentine can be found on Twitter @ChickAndTheDead
Information about Byron, Polidori, Galvani, Aldini & all the other cool little facts can be found via google and Wikipedia if you just search!