The story went that Ure and his assistant had revived the corpse which immediately sat up and began to move towards the audience before Ure’s assistant grabbed a scalpel and plunged it into Clydesdale’s neck; the dead man fell “like a slaughtered ox on the blow of a butcher”. Thus the folk legend of The Glasgow Frankenstein was born.
This is the tabloid version but the truth of the situation is equally astounding. Ure did indeed experiment on Clydesdale using electricity. He made the dead man’s face contort, his legs twitch, and even caused his cold dead finger to straighten and point accusingly at the audience. The response from the crowd was one of mild panic believing that Clydesdale was about to imitate Lazarus.
Ure was not a charlatan. A respected researcher, he was one of many who were applying the newly found force of electricity to the human body. These scientists believed that ‘animal electricity’ was the unifying vital spirit that animates us all; they believed that they stood on the brink of challenging the Almighty by bringing life back to the dead. The new science of galvanism – named after the Italian scientist Luigi Galvani who had conducted the initial experiments – was all the rage in the early 19th century. Galvani’s nephew Giovanni Aldini toured Europe with his development of his uncle’s work.
The belief in what became known as ‘galvanic reanimation’ was so popular even the poet Shelley took a keen interest – he accidentally electrocuted the family cat in one amateur electrotherapy experiment. His wife Mary, who published her masterwork Frankenstein in the same year that Ure conducted his research, was inspired by the work of what she described as ‘German scientists’ as well as a late night discussion with her husband and some house guests that led directly to her writing her novel.
These pioneering researchers did not succeed and eventually they realised that electricity was not the answer. In the process of their studies however they mapped out the nervous system and made valuable and enduring contributions to our knowledge and understanding. When Ure gave up his experiments he had just theorised the concept of the defibrillator. One more experiment could have changed the face of medicine as we know it. A process called ‘deep brain stimulus’, not so very different from the methods used by Aldini, is used to treat a number of conditions. The late Christopher Reeve was taking part in a series of experimental procedures which involved the use of microchip-controlled devices to bridge the damaged spinal nerves and enable him to walk again.
These 19th century researchers created a huge amount of 21st century scientific momentum that continues to turn science fiction into science fact.