Weather can have profound effects upon history. In 1815, the largest volcanic eruption ever recorded occurred on the island of Sumbawa in Indonesia. It wiped away all life on the island and sent enormous plumes of sulfur into the atmosphere. The clouds spread to Europe over the next year, causing the snow to turn brown, along with heavy amounts of rainfall, lower temperatures, and poor harvests. The dreary weather would give the year 1816 the unflattering nickname of “The Year Without a Summer.”
It was during this cold and wet year that a small group of companions met at Lake Geneva in Switzerland for a summer vacation. Members of the party included the poet Lord Byron, his physician John Polidori, and Byron’s mistress Claire Claiborne, who was carrying Byron’s child. Also at the lake was the poet Percy Shelley, who had just abandoned his pregnant wife to elope with Claire’s stepsister, the 18-year-old Mary Godwin. Percy was a philanderer, but Mary had fallen deeply in love with him, and her liberal upbringing argued in favor of a less traditional relationship. She had already given birth to Percy’s daughter a year before, but the birth was premature, and the young child perished a week after she was born. Mary and Percy had been devastated, and Mary had been plagued by nightmares of the deceased child. But her spirits were high when she arrived at Lake Geneva because she had just given birth to their second child, William, and throughout the summer the unmarried Mary Godwin would brazenly call herself “Mary Shelley.”
The companions would go boating on the lake whenever they could, but for most of the time the weather was horrible. On one particularly stormy night, after reading a book of ghost stories, Lord Byron suggested that everyone create their own spooky tales and share them with the rest of the group. John Polidori wrote a short story called “The Vampyre,” which was the first incorporation of vampirism into a literary genre, and it set the stage for all future vampire stories such as Dracula and, yes, even the Twilight series. Mary, on the other hand, could not come up with a story as quickly as the others. She agonized for days, listening to everyone’s conversations during the day and to the rain pelting on the roof of the chalet at night, and eventually the amalgamation of these external stimuli awakened something in her mind. She sat down to begin writing her first novel, Frankenstein.
I first read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein when I was in high school, and I remember being surprised by the nature of the monster in the book, who was an intelligent, agile being tormented by loneliness – not the slow, clumsy, barely self-aware creature that we see in movies. A few years ago, I found a cheap paperback version of the novel with a preface that was written by Mary in 1831, thirteen years after the book was originally published. In the preface, she described how the group was stuck indoors during the bad weather, and she mentions the conversations that gave her the idea for her novel. There were
discussions about galvanism, which is the movement of muscle when electricity is applied to it, and the possibility of using it to reanimate dead tissue. But Mary went on to describe the conversation further, and she wrote one particular passage that fascinated me. It was the bit that first got her thinking about the idea of putting life into a completely lifeless material:
They talked of the experiments of Dr. Darwin… who preserved a piece of vermicelli in a glass case, till by some extraordinary means it began to move with voluntary motion.
It conjures a funny image: a piece of pasta (vermicelli) displayed in a glass case and brought to life by a scientist. But the understanding of life in 1816 was different than it is today; it was common at the time to believe that living animals can emerge spontaneously from nonliving material – an idea known as “spontaneous generation.” Crocodiles would come from rotting logs at the bottom of lakes, flies would bud from putrid material, and pieces of driftwood would give rise to geese. Scientists in the 17th and 18th century would perform experiments in attempts to test this idea. Many would prove it to be false, but some, like the Flemish physiologist Jan Baptist van Helmont, claimed that trees arose from water, mice from soiled cloth and wheat, and – my favorite – scorpions from a piece of basil placed between two bricks.
But Mary’s passage still puzzled me – a piece of pasta in a glass case under Darwin’s watchful eye. After doing some research, I found that the “Dr. Darwin” who Mary mentioned was Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles Darwin (who was only a child at the time). Erasmus was a physician, a naturalist, and a friend of Mary’s family. He was also a poet, and he had recently composed an epic called The Temple of Nature– a long poem that describes his view on the evolution of animals from microscopic creatures to human beings (his grandson would later famously propose the mechanism of how this occurs). Erasmus was part of a growing community that did not believe in the spontaneous generation of large animals, but he did believe that microscopic animals – the miniscule one-celled creatures you see in pond water – could undergo spontaneous generation and arise from inanimate substances like water and flour. Erasmus wrote about one of these creatures: the tiny vorticella, a tulip-shaped animal that seemed to appear – and move around with voluntary motion – wherever there is water. Desmond King-Hele, a biographer of Erasmus Darwin, believes that Mary Shelley – or someone else in the Lake Geneva gathering – confused vorticella with vermicelli, which would explain Mary’s strange passage about the moving pasta in the glass case.
Mistake or not, the reanimation of a piece of vermicelli was Mary’s “Eureka moment.” The night after she heard the conversation, she dreamt of a scientist kneeling next to his creation: a man he had assembled piece by piece, and who now was beginning to stir with life. Take days of steady rain and add a misunderstanding about a piece of pasta, and you get Frankenstein’s monster.
Although Frankenstein is an example of the false idea that life can arise from non-life, I find it interesting that Mary Shelley was actually writing the story near the beginning of a scientific revolution that would put this notion to rest. Within forty years following the novel’s publication, scientists developed “cell theory”: the idea that cells are the basic building blocks of all living things, and that every cell arises from the division of a preexisting cell. Unfortunately for Erasmus Darwin, this applies even to the humble single-celled vorticella. The vorticella will form a spore-like cyst when it becomes dry. Then, when water returns, it will sprout back into its active adult form, giving the illusion that it appeared out of nowhere. Just like all crocodiles come from other crocodiles, and all flies come from other flies, all vorticella come from other vorticella.
Cell theory had profound effects on our understanding of human development. It was beginning to be understood that there was no “spark” in nature that gives us life. We grow because our cells divide, and at one time in our lives, every one of us existed as a single cell. But even that first cell did not arise on its own: it was the result of the fusion of two other cells (the sperm and the egg), which in turn arose via division from other cells in our parents’ bodies. Before cell theory, Mary Shelley could imagine an origin for life. After cell
theory, it seemed as though life had no clear beginning: it always sprung from other living things.
It turned out to be a powerful theory, but it also set some limitations to biology. While biology can tell us in detail the steps of human development, it cannot tell us when human life begins. As far as biology is concerned, there is no one Eureka Moment. The generation of the sperm and the egg, conception, implantation, the first critical cell divisions (where 25% of pregnancies end in miscarriages), birth, and the transformation to adulthood… In the eyes of nature, all of these events are equally important links in the long chain of life.
Mary Shelley was no stranger to the trials and tribulations in the cycle of human life. She valued highly the relationships she had with Percy and their children, and, in spite of Percy’s aversion to a monogamous relationship, she and Percy eventually married. But she was an unlucky mother. A year after she wrote Frankenstein, she gave birth to a baby girl, Clara, who died the next year from dysentery. Then, William, the little boy who had accompanied her at rainy Lake Geneva, succumbed to malaria at the age of three. She would give birth to another boy, whom she named Percy after his father, and he would be her only surviving child.
Mary would try one more time to bring a child into the world, but she would suffer a miscarriage that would have taken her own life had it not been for the quick thinking of her husband, who plunged her into an ice bath to stop the bleeding. Two weeks after her miscarriage, Mary’s husband would drown in a boating accident. Mary was devastated, and she would never marry again.
Mary Shelley died as a result of an unfettered proliferation of cells – a brain tumor – when she was fifty-three. On the first anniversary of her death, her son opened a desk-box that she kept by her bed, the contents of which Mary had never revealed to anyone. Inside were the locks of hair from her deceased children, William and Clara, and the charred remains of her cremated husband’s heart along with a handful of his ashes wrapped in a piece of silk.
We cannot say that Mary Shelley had led a particularly blissful life, but what she and the weather gave us in 1816 – besides the immortal monster – was an important slice of scientific history. Presently, with our technology advancing faster and faster, we have to at least accept the possibility that we may be able to create some form of life from inanimate matter in the future. But for now, biology teaches us that life is continuous, and, unlike Frankenstein’s monster, it does not have a clear origin – at least, not a recent one. The
cycle of life-begets-life has been going on for a long, long time, ever since he first cell arose from the salty, brothy oceans of our young planet.
Some scientists believe the pieces of the first cell appeared after a sudden thunderous crash from a fertile meteorite, or from a bolt of lightning that brought the right combination of molecules together. Others believe it happened more slowly, as parts were assembled haphazardly piece-by-piece until the right combination for survival and replication was achieved. Regardless of how it happened, the earth had successfully given birth to the first cell, the cell that would eventually produce crocodiles and vorticellae and Mary Shelley and her cancer. It would be the earth’s own Eureka Moment, occurring some four billion years ago on a hitherto desolate planet, like a pivotal moment of inspiration on a dreary, rainy summer day.