Humphry Davy and Victor Frankenstein

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Please join us on Friday 6th May 5:00pm to 7:00pm in Arts 103 for an in person event with Prof. Sharon Ruston.

Prof. Sharon Ruston

In this talk I will introduce the nineteenth-century chemist Humphry Davy, his notebooks, and our project to crowdsource transcriptions of them using Zooniverse: I will focus on one notebook in particular, kept in Bristol in 1800 in the company of S. T. Coleridge, Robert Southey and others, which is mainly occupied with an attempt at a philosophical poem but also used to write up his nitrous oxide experiments and first efforts in electrochemistry. Science and poetry exist in the same notebook and Davy’s commitment to both can clearly be seen.

The notebook moves from poetry to science, taking in philosophy, a fictional prose text, autobiographical notes, and ideas for future texts along the way. I will argue that, in other respects too, ideas expressed in poetry and philosophy here in his notebook find their way into Davy’s scientific work. In particular, the poetic and philosophical worldview demonstrated here, a belief that everything is made up of small particles, called ‘atoms’ which are continually circulating, moving and transforming into new beings, can also be witnessed in Davy’s science at this time. I will explore the ways in which Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was inspired by ‘Davy Chemistry’ as she put it, as I have recently demonstrated in The Science of Life and Death in Frankenstein.

My main research interests are in the relations between the literature, science and medicine of the Romantic period, 1780-1820. My first book, Shelley and Vitality (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), explored the medical and scientific contexts which inform Shelley’s concept of vitality in his major poetry. In 2010 I published Romanticism: An Introduction (Continuum). in 2013 I published Creating Romanticism: Case Studies in the Literature, Science, and Medicine of the 1790s (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). With Tim Fulford, I co-edited the Collected Letters of Sir Humphry Davy, published in four volumes by OUP in 2019. The Science of Life and Death in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein will be published in the spring of 2021 by the Bodleian Library Press.

Please register your interest for this event here!