Was Frankenstein a Scotsman?

An article in the May issue of Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine suggests that much of the medical inspiration for Mary Shelley’s legendary novel Frankenstein came not from central Europe, but from a retired Scots physician living in Windsor. Christopher Goulding, a postgraduate student at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, bases his claims on his PhD research into the scientific interests of the novelist’s husband, the poet Percy Shelley.

Most criticism of Mary Shelley’s much-interpreted novel has focused around the moral and social issues it raises, with little attention having been paid to the underlying medical science from which the story arises. As Goulding points out, Mary Shelley owed much of her knowledge of science to her husband, whose interest in medicine and chemistry had been awakened by a mysterious figure he met whilst a schoolboy at Eton.

James Lind MD (1736-1812) lived in nearby Windsor whilst Percy Shelley was at Eton, and was approved by the school as a suitable mentor for boys interested in science. Lind was probably one of the first people in Britain to conduct electro-medical experiments to “make dead frogs jump like living ones”, and in the 1790s had privately suggested the use of electric shocks to cure King George III’s apparent insanity. Lind’s study was described as having “telescopes, Galvanic batteries, daggers, electrical machines, and all the divers apparatus which a philosopher is supposed to possess”. Shelley was later to say of his mentor “I owe that man far – oh! Far more than I owe my father”.

Chris Goulding says of his article “Mary Shelley’s creation of Frankenstein was a work of genius, but the novel’s science comes, via her husband, from the Scottish Enlightenment”.

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