Giovanni Aldini: Reanimator


Giovanni Aldini (1762 – 1834) was an Italian physicist born at Bologna, nephew of Luigi Galvani, and he became professor of physics at Bologna in 1798.  His scientific work was concerned with galvanism and its medical applications and with experiments for preserving human life from destruction by fire.

Eventually, for his contributions to science, the emperor of Austria made him a Knight of the Iron Crown.

Aldini traveled all over Europe publicly electrifying human and animal bodies, and his performances were extraordinary theatrical spectacles almost a sort of science circus. In 1802 Giovanni Aldini came to London with a spectacular demonstration. During one show in London in 1802, Aldini electrically stimulated the heads and trunks of horses, sheep, cow and dogs with high powered batteries. The people witnessing this reported that the animals’ jaws and eyes started moving almost as if they were alive. However his most famous public demonstrations of the electro-stimulation technique of deceased limbs was performed on the executed criminal George Forster at Newgate in London in 1803. Anatomical dissection had formed part of Forster’s death sentence.

Before a large medical and general audience, he took a pair of conducting rods linked to a powerful battery, and touched the rods to various parts of the body in turn. The results were dramatic. When the rods were applied to Forster’s mouth and ear, “the jaw began to quiver, the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and the left eye actually opened.” When one rod was moved to touch the rectum, the whole body convulsed: indeed, the movements were “so much increased as almost to give an appearance of re-animation”. And so it went on, with Aldini moving the two rods around the body in a different combinations like a switchboard operator. According to newspaper reports of the time, some of the spectators genuinely believed that the body was about to come to life, and were suitably awestruck even though it did not happen. But Aldini himself gave no indication that he expected any such thing – although he did describe his ultimate aim as learning how to “command the vital powers.” In practice, he confined himself to concluding that galvanism “exerted a considerable power over the nervous and muscular systems.” He also noted that nothing could be done with the heart.


Mr Pass, the beadle of the Surgeons’ Company, who was officially present during this experiment, was so alarmed that he died of fright soon after his return home.

“The jaw began to quiver, the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and the left eye actually opened … The action even of those muscles furthest distant from the points of contact with the arc was so much increased as almost to give an appearance of re-animation … vitality might, perhaps, have been restored, if many circumstances had not rendered it impossible.”

“Galvanism was communicated by means of three troughs combined together, each of which contained forty plates of zinc, and as many of copper. On the first application of the arcs the jaw began to quiver, the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and the left eye actually opened.”

“The first of these decapitated criminals being conveyed to the apartment provided for my experiments, in the neighbourhood of the place of execution, the head was first subjected to the Galvanic action. For this purpose I had constructed a pile consisting of a hundred pieces of silver and zinc. Having moistened the inside of the ears with salt water, I formed an arc with two metallic wires, which, proceeding from the two ears, were applied, one to the summit and the other to the bottom of the pile. When this communication was established, I observed strong contractions in the muscles of the face, which were contorted in so irregular a manner that they exhibited the appearance of the most horrid grimaces. The action of the eye-lids was exceedingly striking, though less sensible in the human head than in that of an ox.”


Aldini was among the first to treat mentally ill patients with shocks to the brain, reporting complete electrical cures for a number of mental illnesses.