Saturday, July 7, 2007

Victorian Medicine: Elan Vital



The laboratory of Dr. Frankenstein
(an innovative colleague...lol)!

What makes things live? The dominant view in the 20th century in mechanism; life is a complex organization of matter and energy that acts according to the ordinary laws of physics. In the 19th century, mechanists were less common; many biologists were vitalists, believing that living matter was animated by a special force, the elan vital.

Before 1828, it was thought that certain compounds could only be formed by unique forces within living tissues; these compounds were called "organic". Inorganic compounds, such as minerals changed form when cooled; organic compounds did not change back, seeming to show that it took more than physical forces to create them. This was disproved when Friedrich Wohler synthesized urea, and organic chemistry was redefined as the chemistry of carbon compounds. This success inspired some chemists to dream of synthesizing life. Perhaps one special molecule could animate dead matter. As a variant, after he discovered that certain organic molecules occurred in left-handed and right-handed forms and that life only used one form of each molecule, Pasteur speculated that asymmetry might be the secret of life and spend considerable time exposing carbon compounds to magnetic fields; the lack of results convinced him that life could not originate spontaneously from unliving matter.

Getting the generators ready for a bit of midnight work...

Other speculations emphasized electricity, by Luigi Galvani’s discovery that electric current made dead muscle tissue twitch. Nearly every film version of Frankenstein had shared this assumption – though obviously simple electricity can’t be the secret of animation; some special way of applying it would be necessary.

A few sparks - back to the drawingboard!

A different ling of thought derived from Anton Mesmer’s discovery of hypnosis in the 18th century. The hypnotist’s influence over the subject was often thought as a physical force, an "animal magnetism", that could override the normal mental and even physiological functions of the subject. Experimenters hypnotized subjects at a distance or through an opaque screen to show that animal magnetism’s properties paralleled those of ordinary magnetism. Charismatic people were often described as "magnetic". Maxwell’s concept of the ether and Hertz’s demonstrations of radio waves suggested further ideas along these lines.

1 comment:

Esmeralda said...

Wow, interesting post! :-) I just love the old Frankenstein and Draclua movies...