The Microscopes of Victor Frankenstein
I read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for the first time while attending graduate school part-time and beginning my career in microscopy. At this time of my life, I was becoming keenly aware of all references to the science and art of microscopy. As I read Shelley’s book, I was intrigued by a passage that mentions the microscope; it’s a quote from one of Victor Frankenstein’s professors, M. Waldman, who would teach Victor chemistry and natural history at the University of Ingolstadt:
“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 pore over the microscope and crucible, have indeed performed miracles.”
This passage, and other remarks made by Professor Waldman, had a great influence on the young Victor Frankenstein, providing him with the inspiration to eventually construct and ultimately reanimate his initial human creature. Waldman’s words have stuck with me over the years, and left me wondering why Shelley included a reference about the microscope in her story.
Scholars commonly point to Luigi Galvani’s famous experiments as Shelley’s inspiration for providing the mechanism of bringing Victor Frankenstein’s creation to life. In 1791, Galvani applied electric current to a pair of detached frog legs, resulting in movement of the severed limbs, furthering the field of what was referred to as “medical electricity.” In the revised, corrected, and illustrated version of Shelley’s 1831 reissue of Frankenstein, she, too, points to galvinisim as the means to reanimate a human corpse in the introduction to the text.
It is well documented that Galvani’s laboratory was equipped with a microscope, but it is unlikely that this was the source of Shelley’s inspiration for mentioning the microscope in Frankenstein. Shelley’s husband Percy Bysshe Shelley was known to own a solar microscope, which would have provided many hours of entertainment for Mary and their house guests, and perhaps provided a jumping-off point for her to reference the microscope.
I believe that Shelley’s familiarity with microscopy stems mostly from her knowledge of the works by George-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, a famous French naturalist. Buffon was known for his deep knowledge of natural science, along with his extensive studies of specimens using the microscope. Of course this isn’t a huge stretch, since Shelley mentions Buffon by name through a passing comment made by Victor:
“…I still read Pliny and Buffon with delight, authors, in my estimation, of nearly equal interest and utility.”
Buffon’s most famous work, Histoire naturelle, generale et particuliere is a thirty-six volume set of books published from 1748-1788. By mentioning Buffon early in the story, when Victor was fifteen years old, Shelley establishes the main character as a budding naturalist, who is becoming familiar with all things science, and as someone who appreciates the importance of the microscope.
In addition to the Buffon reference, it seems probable that Shelley was also familiar with the work of George Adams and his book Micrographia Illustrata. George Adams was an English instrument maker, and was appointed as mathematical instrument maker to the Prince of Wales; and he could be considered a well-known natural philosopher in his own right. I’m basing this assertion on Professor Waldman’s description of the study of blood to Victor. Compare Waldman’s description to the one which appears in Adams’ Micrographia Illustrata.
Waldman from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein:
“They [natural philosophers] penetrate into the recesses of nature, and shew how she works in their hiding places. They ascend into the heavens; they have discovered how blood circulates, and the nature of the air we breathe. They have acquired almost unlimited powers…even mock the invisible world with its own shadows.”
From George Adams’ Micrographia Illustrata:
“This noble fluid, the blood, yields the most sublime speculations imaginable, by the assistance of the microscope. For by the help of it, human blood, and that of land animals, is found to consist of round red globules, which float in a transparent fluid…The circulation of the blood affords an entertaining sight in the thin membrane between the toes of the hind foot of frogs…”
Both passages not only reference the circulation of blood, but also speak to the magic and entertaining nature provided by looking through the microscope.
With this newfound knowledge in hand, I thought it would be fun to create a fictional narrative in which Victor Frankenstein tells us how he started out using the microscope, its impact on his studies, and the role it played, if any, in the eventual creation of a reanimated human.
In the Imagined Words of Victor Frankenstein
“I remember my first introduction to the idea of reanimation. It was not acquired while attending school, or in the pages of a book, but as a child, while I examined a handful of fireflies I had collected the night before. You see, in my attempt to keep them alive overnight, I had placed the fireflies in a small jar with what I thought was a necessary quantity of water. The water was intended to keep them alive during the night, so that upon my return the next day, I could study them more closely in the daylight with my hand lens.
When I returned to their vessel in the morning, I noticed that the fireflies were floating on top of the water, not moving, and apparently lifeless. I carefully removed the creatures, and placed them on their backs on the floor of my father’s study. It seemed that all of the fireflies had indeed expired. It was then that I decided to move their limbs with a stem from a nearby leaf that I had collected from my mother’s garden. As I gazed through my hand lens, I watched for any signs of movement. I began compressing their legs many times, which eventually resulted in small movements of their antennae. I continued doing this, keeping a keen eye for any movement that was not caused by my own manipulations. After about twenty minutes, one of the fireflies began to move unassisted. After several more minutes of probing, the firefly eventually appeared to come back to life, and by the hour’s end, with similar probing, they were all again crawling around the vessel.
At the time, I did not realize what I was doing by moving the limbs of the firefly; I certainly was not expecting the lifeless creatures to come back to life. I kept these observations private. I thought that perhaps the idea of moving the fireflies’ limbs began the flow of the strange liquid contained within its body; the same light yellow substance I had once observed earlier that summer while examining a small spider through a microscope I had received for Christmas. My father had purchased the microscope from a toy-maker in Nuremberg, Germany while on holiday.
I was perhaps eight years of age, and my microscope skills were not yet refined. I carefully placed the spider between two sheets of mica for viewing, and upon my examination of the spider, I soon realized that I had inadvertently crushed the poor creature, made evident by the liquid contents of the spider slowly flowing out onto the lower mica sheet.
As I grew older, and my studies more serious, I started reading books that my father had acquired, in particular, works on natural philosophy. Even though my parents were not scientifical, their library contained an array of books on many subjects in that regard. I first read the whole works of Paracelsus, and Albertus Magnus, followed by Pliny the Elder, and Buffon. It was Buffon’s descriptions of infusoria that ignited my interest in the microscope and later its usefulness in the laboratory.
Let me read you one of my favorite passages from Buffon’s Natural History of Infusoria:
‘The history of the Infusories is entirely linked to the history of the microscope, for one could not, before the discovery of this instrument, suspect the existence of a crowd of animals inhabiting the new world that the microscope has made known; but also this history had to be mixed with that of all the living beings that their extreme smallness had until then, been hidden from the eyes of the observers.’
It was shortly after reading Buffon that I came into possession of a solar microscope, given to me as a present from Percy Shelley, a family friend. His generous and most thoughtful gift provided me with many hours of study and joy, often directed by my father. I would later take this same microscope with me to the University of Ingolstadt, where I would set out to complete my studies of natural history and chemistry. It was at the college where I met a most influential professor, M. Waldman.
Professor Waldman and I immediately hit it off, and during an initial visit to his laboratory I was introduced to his microscope, one that I would use in my studies at the college. The construction of the instrument was curious to me. The design was similar to Buffon’s microscope that I had seen from drawings in scientific instrument pamphlets published by Louis Chapotot’s shop in Paris. Waldman’s microscope was different, though; it stood atop a wooden box that housed a number of microscope slides and other useful accessories. He told me the microscope was designed by Georg Friedrich Brander, a German scientific instrument designer, who was the only maker of box microscopes to be known outside of Paris.
In my studies, I discovered the uses of the microscope to be almost infinite while under his tutelage. This was helped along a great deal by the reading of several books on the subject. Aside from Buffon, I read the works of George Adams, who was also a natural philosopher and the mathematical instrument maker to His Majesty. It was his book Micrographia Illustrata that I found myself going back to time and time again. I was completely taken by his words and detailed illustrations. Adams’ investigations with the microscope, specifically those describing the circulation of blood, the musculature and fleshy fibres of animals, and the scales of human skin, were particularly helpful in my work at the college, and for my studies on human reanimation. Let me read you a passage from the book regarding the circulation of blood:
’This noble fluid, the blood, yields us the most sublime speculations imaginable, by the assistance of the microscope…As the animal grows languid, and near expiring, the blood in the arteries will be seen to stop suddenly, and as it were, seem to coagulate, and then run backwards for some time; after which it will again recover its natural course, with a great deal of rapidity.’
The exquisite drawings in the book, especially those of the fish and frog dissection plates, inspired me to construct similar apparatus, but on a much larger scale to accommodate a human form.
It was from these diagrams and drawings where I first learned about the microscopes designed by Adams, and in some cases, how to properly employ such instruments, like my solar microscope. The detail of his work was such that I believed my own scientific work would suffer greatly, and never be up to this level of aplomb if I employed a lesser instrument, especially as I set out to create another human form…this time a female. In order to remedy this shortcoming, I decided to travel to the shop of George Adams at No. 60 Fleet Street in London, where I purchased his latest version of the variable microscope.
It is an exquisitely designed instrument. He and I, along with my travel companion Clerval, spent the afternoon together discussing some of his new endeavors, including future refinements to his variable microscope design.
I was quite pleased with my latest acquisition. I now possessed the ability to make some of the otherwise undetectable structures visible, this would be immensely important to my work, which was to take place in the Highlands of Scotland. With that, I will leave you with another passage from Buffon, who I think captures the importance of this indispensable scientific instrument:
’Although the microscope by the improvements it has received for fifteen years has become unknown to our predecessors, we are far from believing that it has reached the end of its possible improvements.’”
And there you have it, a fictional account of how Victor Frankenstein may have used the microscope for pleasure, and its influence on his most infamous work. I would like to give a special thanks to John Gustav Delly for his input and review of the text.