When Mary Shelley published her now-classic novel Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus in 1818, she did more than invent the modern science fiction genre. By creating the characters of Victor Frankenstein and his monster, she also established a new archetype: the arrogant scientist who dared to make life and tamper with God's plan for creation. The Frankenstein label has haunted scientists ever since.
In writing her novel, Mary Shelley drew from numerous sources (including her own husband Percy Bysshe Shelley and his friend Lord Byron who were both rabid science fans). The late 18th century and early 19th century was a turbulent era for scientists as new developments in electricity and the nature of life made even the most fantastic speculations seem possible. The idea that electricity might provide the "spark of life" was reinforced by the work of Luigi Galvani who described experiments using electric current to stimulate the legs of dead frogs. Rightly or wrongly, Galvani concluded in his 1792 work, In De Viribus Electricitatis in Motu Musculari ("On Electrical Powers in the Movement of Muscles") that electricity was the life force, or animating spirit. Suddenly the flood gates seemed open for scientists experimenting with life itself and England was at the forefront with the pioneering electricity experiments of Michael Faraday. Despite being largely self-educated (aside from his work as a bookbinder and an assistant to Humphrey Davy), Faraday's success inspired numerous fans to carry out their own experiments in private laboratories across the country.
The Squire of Fyne Court
One of Faraday's admirers, whose own experiments on the nature of life would make him the focus of one of the most bizarre episodes in the history of science, was Andrew Crosse, the squire of Fyne Court in Broomfield. Born in 1784, Crosse's life as the eldest son of a respectable family began to change when he developed a passionate interest in the natural sciences as an adolescent. After attending a series of lectures on electricity, he began his own experiments by constructing a Leyden jar and repeating many of the experiments discussed during the lectures. Despite his fascination with science, he followed the conventional path and became a law student at Brazen Nose College in Oxford. With the death of both of his parents by the time he was twenty-one however, Crosse returned home to take care of the family estates at Fyne Court. Along with continuing his friendships with some of the most prominent writers and scientists of his time, Crosse also set up his own laboratory where he could continue his life-long interest in electricity and mineralogy. Since his estate was not particularly prosperous, Crosse relied on hand-made apparatus that he used to electrocrystallize various minerals. Over the years, he carried out numerous experiments and made a series of original discoveries, some of which were published by his friend, George Singer, as part of his own work on electrochemistry.
"The Perfect Insect"
In 1836, Crosee carried out what would be his most controversial experiment. After soaking a porous stone in a mixture of potassium silicate and hydrochloric acid, Crosse ran an electrical current through the combined chemicals so that he could form silicate crystals. On the 26th day of the experiment, Crosse reported seeing what he described as "the perfect insect, standing erect on a few bristles which formed its tail". The insects then crawled away with hundreds more appearing in the following weeks. After identifying the insects as belonging to the Acaridae family, Crosse declared that the insects belonged to an entire new species of mites, acarus electricus (later changed to acarus crossii) although he carefully denied saying that he created them using electricity. As he would write afterward:
“In fact, I assure you most sacredly that I have never dreamed of any theory sufficient to account for their appearance. I confess that I was not a little surprised, and am so still, and quite as much as I was when the acari first made their appearance. Again, I have never claimed any merit as attaching to these experiments. It was a matter of chance. I was looking for silicious formations, and acari appeared instead…
Whatever the reason for the appearance of the mites, Crosse's proud discovery staggered his friends and family. He then sent his results to be published by the London Electrical Society and a local newspaper picked up on the story. While Francesco Redi's research had already disproven that spontaneous generation of life could actually happen, the belief was still common enough at the time. As well, electricity was new and mysterious enough for Crosse's claim to at least seem plausible. Still, the idea that a country squire could "create life" offended the religious sensibilities of just about everyone Crosse knew. His oldest friend, poet Robert Southey was shocked on hearing about what Crosse had been up to in his laboratory. He reportedly said, "It's the very Devil, Andrew". And that was relatively mild compared to what happened when his neighbours heard about it.
"Virulence and Abuse, Calumny and Misrepresentation"
Andrew Crosse already had a fairly sinister reputation in the area thanks to his public demonstrations of electricity on the grounds of Fyne Court using yards of iron wire strung together. Many of his peaceful neighbours called him the "thunder and lightning man" and declared him to be a "disturber of the peace of families" due to the noise of his scientific activities. Rumours that devils surrounded by lightning haunted Fyne Court and danced on the wires strung across the estate made them shun the area at night. That he was apparently playing God as well was too much for the local people to bear. Crosse found himself being denounced as an atheist and a blasphemer across all of England. According to Cornelia Crosse, in a biography of her husband that she wrote in later years, Andrew Crosse was deeply hurt over being targeted with "so much virulence and abuse, so much calumny and misrepresentation". Not only did he receive numerous angry letters denouncing him and his experiments but he was also the target of physical attacks. Local men, apparently drunk, attempted to smash down his fences, set fire to his crops, and kill his livestock. Others threw stones at Crosse as he went on his usual solitary walks. He was even accused of being responsible for a local potato blight (presumably caused by the insects he created).
If things weren't bad enough, a local clergyman carried out a public exorcism on the border of Crosse's estate. Holding up a bible, the clergyman shouted, "Reviler of our holy religion! Disturbance of our Christian peace! We came to ask Heaven's protection from you and your foulness!". No word on whether this ended the potato blight but Crosse was likely not amused. Upset over his treatment, Crosse became increasingly secluded with only his science and his young wife, Cornelia, for company. Although his extensive research continued, Andrew Crosse would write no more on the subject and most of the information about his original experiments have been lost. After his death in 1855, his wife wrote an extensive biography titled, "Memorials, scientific and literary of Andrew Crosse, electrician" which is the main source of available information on Crosse's acarus experiment and his later work.
So did Andrew Crosse create life?
Well, probably not. Still, the exact reason that the insects appeared during his experiments is an open question. While later scientists claimed to replicate his experiments (and even Faraday weighed in on the subject), Crosse's discovery eventually faded into obscurity. The most likely explanation for what he observed is that the insect eggs were already present in the porous stone that he used and that the electricity had somehow induced them to hatch. Given the later discovery of French biologist Stephane Leduc, that osmotic crystallization can produce crystalline structures that can mimic life in remarkable ways, it is also possible that Crosse and his imitators may have simply been mistaken about the "insects" that they were producing in their laboratories. Since Andrew Crosse was no biologist, he was unable to verify whether his apparatus had been contaminated in any way and the information contained in his wife's biography doesn't really shed any light on the controversy.
Whatever he really accomplished with his research, the very public condemnation that Andrew Crosse faced after announcing his discovery has a depressingly modern ring to it. Accusations of "playing God" and tampering with nature are still heard today and many researchers often face verbal abuse, death threats, and even violence by outraged opponents seeking to stop scientific progress. That Crosse could stoicly endure and carry on his research despite the various attacks on him and his family may well be a quiet inspiration for other researchers facing attack.