Contents Index

Davy's A Discourse, Introductory to A Course of Lectures on Chemistry: A Possible Scientific Source of Frankenstein

Laura E. Crouch

Keats-Shelley Journal, 27 (1978), 35-44

{35} In October 1816, while she was working on Frankenstein almost every day, Mary Shelley recorded in her Journal that she was reading Sir Humphry Davy's "Chemistry," a work she listed in the "Books read in 1816" as the "Introduction to Davy's Chemistry."1 Since this is the only strictly scientific work Mary Shelley mentioned reading during this time, it seems likely that she might have drawn from this source both scientific ideas and, more important, a concept of the nature of science and the scientist which, as she shows in Frankenstein, might lead men to disaster. Unfortunately, she did not give the full title of the volume she was reading, so the exact work of Davy's that Mary Shelley used cannot be firmly established. Frederick L. Jones, the modern editor of the Journal, suggested that she read the "Introduction" to Davy's Elements of Chemical Philosophy (1812) or his Elements of Agricultural Philosophy (1813).2 Another possibility, I think, is {36} that she read an earlier work of Davy's, A Discourse, Introductory to A Course of Lectures on Chemistry, 3 the publication of a lecture presented by Davy at the Royal Institution in January 1802. Though there are a number of similarities between the Discourse and the later Elements of Chemical Philosophy, the Discourse seems to reflect more fully than the Elements both the scientific ideas presented in the novel and the scientific optimism that shaped the character of the young Frankenstein and thus led him to undertake his "monstrous" project.

The Gothic tone which surrounds Frankenstein's discovery of the "cause of generation and life"4 often obscures the fact that he was working within an established scientific field, chemical physiology. Davy's works illustrate that Frankenstein's ideas were only slightly more scientifically presumptuous than those of other chemists of his day. Davy believed that the study of chemistry could provide explanations for many mysterious natural phenomena, including the organic conversion of dead matter into living matter. In the Discourse he says,

The phenomena of combustion, of the solution of different substances in water, of the agencies of fire; the production of rain, hail, and snow, and the conversion of dead matter into living matter by vegetable organs, all belong to chemistry: and . . . can be accurately explained only by an acquaintance with the fundamental and general chemical principles. (Discourse, pp. 5-6)
Davy admits that much study of chemistry has been more visionary than productive; nevertheless, he feels men can progress toward an understanding of the "powers of life" (Discourse, p. 9). Already, he points out, scientists have "derived some useful information from researches concerning the nature of res- {37} piration; and the composition and properties of animal organs even in their dead state" (Discourse, p. 9). Furthermore, among man's greatest achievements has been the discovery of "a new influence . . . which has enabled man to produce from combinations of dead matter effects which were formerly occasioned only by animal organs" (Discourse, p. 19).

The "new influence" Davy mentions is almost certainly galvanic electricity. In the 1780's Luigi Galvani noticed that dead muscle tissue would contract when exposed to an electrical force. He theorized from his experiments that animals possess the equivalent to an electric current in their nerves and muscles.5 Davy did much of his early experimentation in the area of galvanic chemistry, and he seems to have believed, at least in the early part of his career, that such experimentation might lead to the discovery of the life force, which he felt was a chemical force similar to but more powerful than heat and electricity.6

Though Mary Shelley's description of the life-giving process is vague, Frankenstein's experiments do seem closely related to the work in galvanic chemistry that Davy mentions in the Discourse. Frankenstein's belief that men could come to understand the powers of life is reflected in his willingness to ask the "bold question" -- "Whence . . . did the principle of life proceed?" (Frankenstein, p. 46) -- that directed his inquiries. Davy indicated in the Discourse that the "powers of life" could be discovered only after one had studied the "simple and unvarying agencies of dead matter" (Discourse, p. 9). Frankenstein also finds that he must study death in his search for life. As he says,

To examine the causes of life, we must first have recourse to death. I became acquainted with the science of anatomy: but this was not sufficient; I must also observe the natural decay and corruption of the human body. . . . I paused, examining and analysing all the minutiae of causation, as exemplified in the change from life to death, and death to life. . . . (Frankenstein, pp. 46-47)
There are suggestions in Frankenstein that a galvanic process brought the monster to life. Describing the night of the monster's birth, Frankenstein recalls, "I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet" (Frankenstein, p. 52). Surely this "spark" refers to a life force closely related to electrical power. Though there is no direct mention of galvanism in the 1818 edition of Frankenstein, in the Intro- {38} duction to the 1831 edition Mary Shelley says that galvanic experiments had caused her to consider the possible creation of life. "Perhaps a corpse would be re-animated," she says; "galvanism had given token of such things: perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth" (Frankenstein, p. 227).

The actual scientific possibilities suggested in Frankenstein, however, are important only as they relate to the scientific spirit that inspired them. Davy's Discourse is clearly distinguished from the Elements by its rhapsodical account of the power of chemistry to change the world. Davy realized that the Discourse, which was first presented as the introductory lecture to a course in chemistry Davy offered at the Royal Institution of Great Britain, was unusually unscientific in tone, and he explained this in an advertisement preceding the work by saying, "the views I have taken were designed rather to excite feelings of interest concerning [chemistry] than to give minute information" (Discourse, p. [3]) -- The spirit of enthusiasm that Davy conveyed to his fashionable London audience7 was the same spirit that led Frankenstein to begin his scientific experiments. The feeling of awe concerning the potential for scientific discovery was excited in Frankenstein during the introductory lecture to M. Waldman's course in chemistry at the university at Ingolstadt.

The portion of M. Waldman's lecture that Frankenstein recalls -- the "panegyric upon modern chemistry, the terms of which I shall never forget" (Frankenstein, p. 42) -- is remarkably similar to a passage in the Discourse.

"The ancient teachers of this science," said [Waldman], "promised impossibilities, and performed nothing. The modern masters promise very little; they know that metals cannot be transmuted, and that the elixir of life is a chimera. But these philosophers, whose hands seem only made to dabble in dirt, and their eyes to pour over the microscope or crucible, have indeed performed miracles. They penetrate into the recesses of nature, and shew how she works in her hiding places. They ascend into the heavens; they have discovered how the blood circulates, and the nature of the air we breathe. They have acquired new and almost unlimited powers; they can command the thunders of heaven, mimic the earthquake, and even mock the invisible world with its own shadows." (Frankenstein, p. 42)
{30} This speech echoes one of the more moving passages in the Discourse:
[The alchemists'] views of things have passed away, and a new science has gradually arisen. The dim and uncertain twilight of discovery, which gave to objects false or indefinite appearances, has been succeeded by the steady light of truth, which has shown the external world in its distinct forms, and in its true relations to human powers. The composition of the atmosphere, and the properties of the gases, have been ascertained; the phenomena of electricity have been developed; the lightnings have been taken from the clouds; and, lastly, a new influence has been discovered, which has enabled man to produce from combinations of dead matter effects which were formerly occasioned only by animal organs. (Discourse, p. 19)
Davy's reference to galvanism takes on a deeper meaning in this context, for it partially clarifies the relationship between Frankenstein's work and the science of his day. The power M. Waldman does not mention (because Frankenstein has yet to discover it) -- the power to produce in dead matter the semblance of life -- was, for the young Davy, among the most exciting research being done by contemporary chemists, equal in importance to the discoveries of oxygen and the properties of electricity made in the eighteenth century.

There are other interesting similarities between Davy's and Frankenstein's attitudes toward science. For both, scientific truth was a "light" that penetrated the darkness of ignorance. Davy said that science provided a "steady light of truth"; Frankenstein said that his discovery was like a "sudden light" which came "from the midst of this darkness" of ignorance and death (Frankenstein, p. 47). Frankenstein found his light because he united his knowledge of chemistry, natural history, anatomy, and physiology in his search for the true nature of life and death. He was encouraged to engage in this broad range of studies by M. Waldman, who told him,

A man would make but a very sorry chemist, if he attended to that department of human knowledge alone. If your wish is to become really a man of science, and not merely a petty experimentalist, I should advise you to apply to every branch of natural philosophy, including mathematics. (Frankenstein, p. 43)
This speech also echoes similar advice given by Davy, who felt that chemistry could unite all the sciences by demonstrating the important connections between them. Davy says in the Discourse,
{40} The man of true genius, who studies science in consequence of its applications, pointing out to himself a definite end, will make use of all the instruments of investigation which are necessary for his purposes. . . . Following extensive views, he will combine together mechanical, chemical, and physiological knowledge, whenever this combination may be essential: in consequence, his facts will be connected together by simple and obvious analogies; and, in studying one class of phenomena more particularly, he will not neglect its relations to other classes. (Discourse, pp. 10-11)
The numerous similarities between Frankenstein's and Davy's attitudes toward science and the scientific method make the differences in the two works more significant. In his effort to "excite feelings of interest" in chemistry, Davy exults in the wonderful improvements science can bring to both society and the individual. When man has fully developed the powers of the sciences, he says, great social changes will occur that will erase class distinctions, leading to near-perfect society.
The unequal division of property and of labour, the difference of rank and condition amongst mankind, are the sources of power in civilized life, its moving causes, and even its very soul: and, in considering and hoping that the human species is capable of becoming more enlightened and more happy, we can only expect that the different parts of the great whole of society should be intimately united together by means of knowledge and the useful arts; that they should act as the children of one great parent, with one determinate end, so that no power may be rendered useless, no exertions thrown away. In this view we do not look to distant ages, or amuse ourselves with brilliant, though delusive dreams, concerning the infinite improveability of man. . . . We consider only a state of human progression arising out of its present condition. We look for a time that we may reasonably expect, for a bright day of which we already behold the dawn. (Discourse, pp. 21-22)
But this is not all Davy claims science can do. It will also benefit the individual, he says. The pursuit of scientific knowledge can bring man continual pleasure, first, because there is no limit to what he can learn. Davy writes,
we cannot but perceive, that the contemplation of the various phenomena in the external world is eminently fitted for giving a permanent and placid enjoyment to the mind. For the relations of these phenomena are perpetually {41} changing; and, consequently, they are uniformly obliging us to alter our habits of thinking. (Discourse, p. 23)
Also, the study of science, he says, will satisfy man's desire for beauty, which is closely related to his need for hope:
it is eminently calculated to gratify and to keep alive the more powerful passions and ambitions of the soul; which, delighting in the anticipation of enjoyment is never satisfied with knowledge; and which is, as it were, nourished by futurity, and rendered strong by hope. (Discourse, pp. 24-25)
For Davy, then, science was a "great parent" able to unite society by means of "knowledge and the useful arts," and able to give to each of her children the gifts of "dignity," "power," "consolation," "happiness," "tranquility," and "order" (Discourse, pp. 22-26).

When Frankenstein began his study, inspired by M. Waldman, he too felt science would both benefit society and provide him personal happiness. He expected to give the world the power to "renew life where death had apparently devoted the body to corruption" and to create for the world a new, happy, beautiful species (Frankenstein, p. 49). He proceeded in his research with great dedication and with an admirable sense of responsibility. Davy said that scientists often failed because their "visionary impulses" caused them to try to uncover truth too quickly. "Instead of slowly endeavouring to lift up the veil concealing the wonderful phenomena of living nature," he said; "full of ardent imaginations, they have vainly and presumptuously attempted to tear it asunder" (Discourse, p. 9). Frankenstein's work, however, was neither magical nor visionary. He proceeded to his discovery slowly, through "distinct" and "probable" stages (Frankenstein, p. 47). Once he had discovered the life force, he continued to advance cautiously. "When I found so astonishing a power placed within my hands," he said, "I hesitated a long time concerning the manner in which I should employ it" (Frankenstein, p. 48). He finally decided to proceed, trusting that if his first attempts were not perfect, they eventually could be improved either by himself or by others. "I prepared myself for a multitude of reverses," he said; "my operations might be incessantly baffled, and at last my work be imperfect: yet, when I considered the improvement which every day takes place in science and mechanics, I was encouraged to hope my present attempts would at least lay the foundations of future success" (Frankenstein, pp. 48-49). To a man committed to a doctrine of progress, such a decision is completely rational. Both {42} Davy and Frankenstein believed that progress occurs because work one generation dares to begin, the next perfects. As Davy says:

Science has done much for man, but it is capable of doing still more; its sources of improvement are not yet exhausted; the benefits that it has conferred ought to excite our hopes of its capability of conferring new benefits; and, in considering the progressiveness of our nature, we may reasonably look forwards to a state of greater cultivation and happiness than that which we at present enjoy. (Discourse, p. 17)
In a passage Mary Shelley added to the 1831 edition, Frankenstein echoes these sentiments. "So much has been done, exclaimed the soul of Frankenstein, -- more, far more, will I achieve: treading in the steps already marked, I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation" (Frankenstein, p. 241).

Frankenstein expected to improve life for all men with his studies, but he also expected to increase his personal happiness -- and for a while he did. He enjoyed the seemingly unending potential for scientific inquiry, just as Davy had said one would. "In other studies," Frankenstein said, "you go as far as others have gone before you, and there is nothing more to know; but in a scientific pursuit there is continual food for discovery and wonder" (Frankenstein, p. 46). As Davy predicted, Frankenstein felt a joyful hope when he considered the future.

Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through, and pour a torrent of light into our dark world. A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me. . . . Pursuing these reflections, I thought, that if I could bestow animation upon lifeless matter, I might in process of time . . . renew life where death had apparently devoted the body to corruption. (Frankenstein, p. 49)
But Frankenstein found that, though his science was all too real compared to that of the alchemists who came before him, the benefits of his science were chimerical. His achievement did not benefit society. His creature became a social menace, dedicated to the destruction of human beings. A new force had been introduced into society, and its members, even the best of them, did not use it correctly. The new creature began as a force more inclined toward good than evil. But, after he was rejected first by his creator and then by the people he tried to help, he turned against society and became as destructive as he was potentially good. Mary Shelley seems to indicate, then, that a scientific discovery {43} will not necessarily improve society; rather, society will determine whether amoral discoveries will bring good or evil to the world.

Mary Shelley replaced Davy's dream of the great parent, Science, providing community among her children, which would lead to great social change, with a vision of the isolated scientist. While working on his project, Frankenstein found he could not write to his family, even though he knew they would be worried by his silence. As the story continued, his isolation became more and more complete. His despair isolated him emotionally, as he found, "solitude was my only consolation -- deep, dark, death-like solitude" (Frankenstein, p. 86). At the same time, his creation was isolating him literally by annihilating his family and friends.

The pleasure Frankenstein received from science was also ephemeral. After creating the monster, he could no longer tolerate seeing his scientific instruments or discussing science. When the monster forced him to return to his studies, they were a torment to him and he could not finish the work he began. Scientific study had not made Frankenstein a happy man, full of an insatiable curiosity and hopeful of improving the world. Rather, he soon became surfeited with his knowledge and lost his hope. His study led to his destruction.

The contrast between the results of scientific study that Davy predicted and those Frankenstein experienced demonstrates one important theme of Mary Shelley's novel. It is as though she treated Davy's enthusiastic account of the potential of science as a scientific hypothesis which she tested in her imagination. Given a scientist dedicated to his studies and to the improvement of mankind, can he create something that will indeed make the world a better place, and can he, in the process, live a happy and successful life himself? The answer for Mary Shelley seems to be that science alone cannot create this change in man and society. Science creates power, not beauty, and power is beautiful only when it is used by humane men who are willing to be responsible for their creations. The imaginative power to envision the possible outcome of change, which is needed if men are to create good and not evil in a continually progressing society, is not inherent in the scientific process. Frankenstein's life seems to suggest that if science is really going to improve the world, the scientist must have a bit of the poet in him.8

Mary Shelley was, of course, responding not simply to Davy but to the general promise of scientific and social progress that was prevalent in the early nineteenth century. I believe that she went to Davy, most likely to Davy's Discourse, {44} Introductory to A Course of Lectures on Chemistry, as a representative scientific voice, and that she borrowed from him not only scientific suggestions but also a philosophy of science that she used to lead Victor Frankenstein to his destruction and thus show the limits of the scientific enthusiasm that introduced the age of progress.


1. Frederick L. Jones, ed., Mary Shelley Journal (Norman, Ok.: University of Oklahoma Press, 1947), pp. 67-68, 73.

2. The Elements Of Agricultural Philosophy is addressed to an audience of landowners interested in increasing the yield of their crops and thus concerns only the chemistry of plant life. Its Introduction is simply a summary of the topics that will be discussed in the chapters that follow. Some argument can be made, however, to support Jones's opinion that Mary Shelley's source was the Introduction to the Elements of Chemical Philosophy. (1) We know that this work was available to Mary Shelley because Percy Bysshe Shelley had ordered it from the publisher in July 1812 (Percy Bysshe Shelley, Letters, ed. Frederick L. Jones [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964], L, 319). (2) Frankenstein's description of M. Waldman's introductory chemistry lecture seems to outline the Introduction to the Elements. Each begins with a short history of chemistry followed by an introduction to the present nature of the science and an explanation of chemical nomenclature. (3) Mention is made in the Introduction to the Elements of two of the alchemists who fascinated Frankenstein as a boy -- Cornelius Agrippa and Paracelsus.

However, I do not feel this evidence provides conclusive proof that the Elements of Chemical Philosophy was the work Mary Shelley read. (1) Davy and William Godwin, Mary's father, were close friends during Davy's early years in London -- during the period when the Discourse was published. See Anne Treneer, The Mercurial Chemist: A Life of Sir Humphry Davy (London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1963), pp. 57-59. Mary had every reason, then, to be familiar with and interested in Davy's early work. Percy Shelley was also very interested in Davy's work, as is evidenced by the fact that he ordered the Elements of Chemical Philosophy from the publisher before it was actually published. It is not unlikely that he had others of Davy's works. Mary Shelley could have acquired the Discourse either from her father or from her husband. (1) Though the structure of M. Waldman's speech is quite similar to that of the Introduction to the Elements, its tone is much closer to that of the Discourse than to the tone of any of Davy's later works. (3) In the Elements, Davy includes information concerning Agrippa and Paracelsus amidst statements about dozens of other historical figures. He does not distinguish them from any of the other early chemists and alchemists he mentions. Davy says nothing concerning Albertus Magnus, a third philosopher who was supposed to have influenced Frankenstein. It seems likely, then, that James Rieger's suggestion that Mary Shelley selected these particular philosophers because of their influence on Percy Shelley adequately explains their presence in the novel. See Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Frankenstein: or The Modern Prometheus (The 1818 Text), ed. James Rieger (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1974), p. 33n. (4) Finally, if Mary Shelley had read the Elements of Chemical Philosophy, she surely would have looked at the section concerning the relationship between galvanic electricity and animal electricity and would have found that Davy denied that there was any validity to the sort of experimentation Frankenstein was doing when he discovered the life force. See Humphry Davy, Elements of Chemical Philosophy, Vol. IV of The Collected Works of Sir Humphry Davy, ed. John Davy (London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1840), 127.

3. Sir Humphry Davy, A Discourse, Introductory to A Course of. Lectures on Chemistry, Delivered in the Theatre of the Royal Institution on the 21st of January, 1802 (London: Sold at the House of the Royal Institution, 1802).

4. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Frankenstein: or The Modern Prometheus (The 1818 Text), ed. James Rieger (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1974), p. 47.

5. Theodore M. Brown, "Luigi Galvani," Dictionary of Scientific Biography (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1972).

6. See Sir Humphry Davy, "A Syllabus of a Course of Lectures on Chemistry," p. 409 and "Outlines of a Course of Lectures on Chemical Philosophy," p. 448, in Early Miscellaneous Papers, Vol. II of The Collected Works of sir Humphry Davy.

7. The following account of these lectures is given in the Dictionary of Scientific Biography: "The Royal Institution had been founded . . . largely to provide technical training; but Davy's predecessor, Thomas Garnett, had begun to attract large and fashionable audiences to lectures on science. Under Davy this trend grew stronger, until the Royal Institution became a center for advanced research and for polished demonstration lectures."

8. It should be noted that in the character of Robert Walton, the Arctic adventurer, Mary Shelley combines the traits of the scientist and the poet. Mary Shelley is not saying that there should be no science. Rather, she is saying that science alone cannot improve mankind.