Little is known certainly of Dippel, whose life is shrouded in mystery and legend. His interest in alchemy led him to search for the elixir vitae and the philosopher's stone, and he is said to have been interested in creating artificial life. He was also alleged to practice grave-robbing. Dippel's Oil, a concoction of bones, blood, and other bodily fluids distilled in iron tubes and other alchemical equipment, was intended as the elixir vitae, but served only as a stimulant. Dippel offered his next formula, which he claimed was the true elixir of life, to the Landgrave of Hesse in exchange for Castle Frankenstein. It is said that Dippel signed his name "Frankenstein" after his place of residence.
The connection between Dippel and the Castle of Frankenstein on the Rhine near Darmstadt has led some critics to suggest Dippel as the original of Mary Shelley's Victor Frankenstein. But the paucity of material about his actual life leaves much room for doubt, and many of the traits attributed to him may postdate Mary Shelley's novel. There is also considerable doubt about whether Mary Shelley could have known about Dippel's life.