During the 1790s, Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), who showed an early interest in many facets of natural philosophy and natural history, delved into the controversial subject of galvanism and animal electricity, hoping to shed light on the basic nature of the nerve force. He was motivated by his broad worldview, the experiments of Luigi Galvani, who favored animal electricity in more than a few specialized fishes, and the thinking of Alessandro Volta, who accepted specialized fish electricity but was not willing to generalize to other animals, thinking Galvani’s frog experiments flawed by his use of metals. Differing from many German Naturphilosophen, who shunned “violent” experiments, the newest instruments, and detailed measurement, Humboldt conducted thousands of galvanic experiments on animals and animal parts, as well as many on his own body, some of which caused him great pain. He interpreted his results as supporting some but not all of the claims made by both Galvani and Volta. Notably, because of certain negative findings and phenomenological differences, he remained skeptical about the intrinsic animal force being qualitatively identical to true electricity. Hence, he referred to a “galvanic force,” not animal electricity, in his letters and publications, a theoretical position he would abandon with Volta’s help early in the new century.
To show how the case of Mary Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein brings light to the ethical and moral issues raised in Institutional Review Board (IRB) protocols, we nest an imaginary IRB proposal dated August 1790 by Victor Frankenstein within a discussion of the importance and function of the IRB. Considering the world of science as would have appeared in 1790 when Victor was a student at Ingolstadt, we offer a schematic overview of a fecund moment when advances in comparative anatomy, medical experimentation and theories of life involving animalcules and animal electricity sparked intensive debates about the basic principles of life and the relationship between body and soul. Constructing an IRB application based upon myriad speculations circulating up to 1790, we imagine how Victor would have drawn upon his contemporaries' scientific work to justify the feasibility of his project, as well as how he might have outlined the ethical implications of his plan to animate life from “dead” tissues. In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Victor failed to consider his creature’s autonomy, vulnerability, and welfare. In this IRB proposal, we show Victor facing those issues of justice and emphasize how the novel can be an important component in courses or workshops on research ethics. Had Victor Frankenstein had to submit an IRB proposal tragedy may have been averted, for he would have been compelled to consider the consequences of his experiment and acknowledge, if not fulfill, his concomitant responsibilities to the creature that he abandoned and left to fend for itself.