The Sunday Telegraph
Shelley ‘based Frankenstein on miner’s lamp inventor Davy’
VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN was not a medical doctor but a chemist, according to a Shelley expert who believes the character was based on a real scientist.
Professor Sharon Ruston, head of Lancaster University’s English literature and creative writing department, believes Mary Shelley crafted her protagonist in the image of Sir Humphry Davy, a chemist who became one of the era’s most famous scientists, best known for creating the miner’s safety lamp.
The 1818 novel contains no mention of Frankenstein as a medical doctor, said Prof Ruston, who has spent years scrutinising the work of Shelley and her poet spouse, Percy, and is releasing a book on Nov 12 titled The Science of Life and Death in Frankenstein.
“He’s not ‘Doctor’ Frankenstein,” she told The Sunday Telegraph. “It’s never mentioned [in the book]. “I traced [the first reference] to a play version in 1823 where he is mentioned as Dr Frankenstein and obviously people went with it.”
Davy was a giant of modern science at the turn of the 19th century, inventing an eponymous lamp that made coal mining safer. He also used electricity – at the time a scarcely understood phenomenon – to discover nine elements, including potassium, aluminium and chlorine, and was well known for giddy experiments with nitrous oxide, leading him to coin the term “laughing gas”.
“[Shelley] is reading Humphry Davy’s chemistry books when she’s writing Frankenstein and Davy is definitely the model for both Victor Frankenstein and his teacher at the university because there are almost word-for-word echoes of Davy’s lectures,” said Prof Ruston.
“At the Royal Institution, where Davy lectured, in their museum they have a copy of Frankenstein and a copy of Davy’s lectures with arrows showing you the bits that are copied. It really is like Davy speaking at certain points.”
Prof Ruston believes the “handsome” Davy may also have been picked as a model because of his celebrity status.
She said: “Loads of women came into his lectures, which was quite unusual, and he got fan letters.”