Johann Conrad Dippel, the alchemist who inspired the story of Frankenstein

If there is a classic monster par excellence -with Dracula’s permission- it is the one devised by Mary Shelley in that legendary meeting with her friends in Villa Diodati, next to Lake Geneva, in 1816 and which she captured in her novel Frankensteinlater iconographically popularized by Boris Karloff in the film medium.

«One gloomy November night I saw my efforts crowned. With an anxiety bordering on agony, I gathered around myself the instruments capable of infusing the vital spark to the inert being that lay before me. It was already one in the morning; the rain beat sadly against the windows and the candle was about to burn out when, at the flicker of the half-extinguished flame, I saw the creature’s yellowish and dull eyes open; he breathed with difficulty and a convulsive movement shook his limbs».

But everything has its roots and the story of Frankenstein, in this case the doctor, not his creature, could be based on a real character who lived in those surroundings and could very well have inspired the writer when she was already despairing at the demands of her husband and Lord Byron to provide the horror story that everyone had promised to do to overcome the terrible weather that prevented them from leaving home. I mean Johann Conrad Dippel.

Dippel was not a contemporary of that group but lived more than a century before, although his birthplace was certainly the frankenstein castlea 13th century building located on top of a hill five kilometers south of Darmstadt, in the German state of Hesse, and which at the beginning of the 19th century was already in ruins -which was even more suggestive in that romantic era- .

He was born there in 1673 and for this reason he added the names Franckensteinensis and Franckensteina-Strataemontanus to his name when he began his student life, first at school and then at the university. University of Giessen.

In this he graduated in theology at the age of twenty, publishing several works whose heterodox tone caused him not a few problems (perhaps for this reason he signed with the pseudonym Christianus Democritus) when defending postulates pietists.

Pietism was a lutheran branch emerged in the 17th century, although it spread especially in the 18th century, which advocated moving away from the institutionalized cult in favor of personal religious experienceso that all the faithful are priests and, thus, a greater participation of the laity in the interpretation of the Bible is favored.

Times changed and pietism was attractive to the enlightened, scientists and thinkersThat is why many of them were influenced to a greater or lesser extent; the best known case was Kant.

But Dippel, who left carving a name because of those controversies, he also experienced more mundane difficulties. Despite the fact that his detractors accused him of profiting at the expense of faith, in the sense that his books sold quite well and he came to gather numerous defenders, his administrative capacity was not at the same level as the theological and was often seen mired in debt.

A seven-year sentence for heresy and wandering around Europe, together with a new degree in medicine from the University of Leiden, calmed things down and opened a new stage in his life, that of alchemist.

At that time alchemy was still considered a science part and was closely related to chemistry in the search for a greater understanding of the mysteries of Nature. So around 1700 we have Dippel engaged in such studies and experiments.

In his case, the interest was not to achieve that old dream of previous centuries, the transmutation of metals to obtain gold, but create life and for this he invented an elixir with which barter he tried to acquire the castle of Frankenstein, although his offer was rejected.

The product was named Dippel’s Oil and it was basically composed by the distillation of crushed and pulverized animal bones, mixed with potassium carbonate. Curiously, it would be used for a long time as an antiseptic, insecticide and was even applied to poison water wells in the Italian campaign in North Africa during World War II, since it was not lethal and did not contravene the Geneva Protocol on the prohibition of gases and poisons.

Over time he would perfect the substance and, in collaboration with the painter Johann Jacob Diesbach, he would apply it in 1731 to obtain a pigment called Prussian blue. Or so the legend says, since the use of this color in art seems to be a little earlier, from 1706.

In any case, both founded a dye factory in Paris. For legends that do not remain, as we will see, there is also the one that working with nitroglycerine he blew up one of the castle’s towers, although the truth is that this explosive was not yet known at that time and also no document related to his biography mentions such a chapter.

And, of course, the juiciest: a student of human anatomy, Dippel would get used to dig up corpses to analyze them and carry out with them another of those typical experiments of the alchemists of yesteryear and that today sound bizarre to us: transfer the soul from one body to another. «I collected bones from the ossuaries and disturbed with profaning fingers the tremendous secrets of the human body» told Victor Frankenstein, the protagonist of the famous novel.

Although Dippel dealt with the subject of soul transfer in writing in his work Diseases and remedies of the life of the flesh (he was proposing to use a funnel!), there is no evidence that he did so. But the rumor spread around and it was expelled from the place.

It was not the first proscription he had received, because due to his religious ideas he was banned from entering Sweden and Russia. However, it seems plausible that he did experiments on dead animals and it is known that he was fond of taxidermy.

Dippel was left with the stigma forever. When he settled in Wittgenstein, rumors continued that there had been sold his soul to the devil and that he stole corpses from burials for his macabre investigations. “Who can imagine the horrors of my secret labor as I walked through the unholy damps of tombs or tortured living animals in order to bring lifeless mud to life?” says Frankenstein again through the mouth of its creator.

It is likely that the writer heard these morbid stories when visited the castle many years later accompanied by her husband, the celebrated poet Percy Shelley, and her half-sister Claire Clairemont, on her way to Geneva to meet Lord Byron and his secretary, Dr. Polidori.

In addition, in the very ruins of the castle, the Kreis der Empfindsamena local literary circle that he gave public readings; The Shelley couple could very well have attended one, in which the subject would come up.

Or perhaps he heard it from the mouths of the students from the nearby University of Giessen, who would not forget their enigmatic predecessor. Another theory says that the legends came to Mary through the family: her stepmother, Mary Jane Clairemont, was the translator of the tales of one of the Grimm brothersJacob, and this would have been the original transmitter.

The fact is that there is an obvious resemblance between the activities of Johann Conrad Dippel and Victor Frankenstein: both developed an unorthodox scientific career, both practiced with corpses -whether human or animal- and were interested in the creation of life from inanimate matter.

It is true, yes, that it is difficult to determine exactly how much of one is in the other. Dippel may just have been a starting point, as was the case with Vlad Tepes regarding Count Dracula in Bram Stoker’s novel.

However, Mary Shelley wrote that it had all started with a disturbing sleep that he had (although we already know that dreams process the lived reality): «When I put my head on the pillow I did not fall asleep, although I cannot say what I was thinking either. My imagination spontaneously possessed me and guided me, endowing the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual limits of reverie. I saw – with eyes closed, but with sharp mental vision – I saw the pale student of unholy arts, kneeling beside the being he had assembled. I saw the hideous ghost of a man lying down; and then, by the work of some powerful device, manifest signs of life and shake with a clumsy and semi-vital movement.

Johann Conrad Dippel gradually moved away from religion to focus on science. As he said before, settled in Wittgensteinin North Rhine-Westphalia, where he set up a laboratory, now converted into the Dippelshof Hotel Restaurant, and continued his experiments.

Again the similarity with Frankenstein: «In a solitary chamber -a cell, rather- at the top of the house, separated from the others, and separated by a gallery and a staircase, I had my workshop of filthy creation: my eyes would bulge out of their sockets, attentive to the details of my work. The dissecting room and slaughterhouse provided me with many of my materials…”

That singular character died in Wittgenstein Castle on April 25, 1734ironically shortly after assuring that he had finally found an elixir capable of considerably prolonging life. «After days and nights of incredible work and fatigue, I managed to find out the cause of generation and life (…) Life and death seemed to me ideal barriers that I would be the first to break, shedding a torrent of light on our world in darkness”.

He was sixty-one years old and it seems that the cause of death was a ictus; but not even in that moment did he escape the legend: according to what was said, the attack was caused by a poisoning when he tried his concoctions on himself.


Frankenstein or the modern Prometheus (Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley)/The year of the summer that never came (William Ospina)/The World’s Most Mysterious Castles (Lionel and Patricia Fanthorpe)/Johann Konrad Dippel, 1673-1734 (EE Ainsley and WA Campbel in US National Library of Medicine)/Wikipedia