Was “mad scientist” and alchemist Johann Konrad Dippel the inspiration and original model of Mary Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein? Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley never mentioned Dippel or a castle in Germany in any of her previously known writings, but the ties and contacts are rife with connections.
Johann Konrad Dippel was born in 1673 and died in 1734. He wrote over seventy works and treatises on mathematics, chemistry and philosophy, most written under the pseudonym of Christianus Democritus, with his texts now buried in various academic collections. He went to University in Giessen, Germany and lectured at a number of universities, ultimately at Strasbourg University in France, where Johann Goethe also studied in the city where Gutenberg first printed before establishing his press in Mainz, and just down the Rhine River from Darmstadt University in Germany, with many students travelling between them.
A contemporary professor who complained bitterly about Dippel’s ideas of theology also praised him with a bit of ironic shade, “Dippelius was an excellent chemist and a good physician; and this procured him many friends and admirers, as all men are fond of riches.”
This perhaps alludes to Dippel’s more commercial ventures and reputation as bit of the charlatan, though perhaps not intentially. He was an alchemist, trying to turn base metals to gold, and searching especially for the Philosopher’s Stone and the Elixer Vitae, the secret to extended, if not eternal life.
Dippel was an early chemical manufacturer. He created a concoction called “Dippel’s Oil” or “Dippel’s Animal Oil” used primarily as an agent in the tanning of animal hides, from where it most likely gets its name, and in cloth colouring. but also having some animal based in ingredients. It was also said locally around to be useful in calming the pangs and distempers of pregnancy. Whether it was to be used topically, digested, or as an aromatic, is unclear. Its chemical composition with ingredients like Butyronitrile Methylamine and Dimethylpyrrole Valeramide would suggest that ingesting any significant amount would not be very healthy. It was reputed to be a foul smelling business and this form of use may have also been a local joke around Darmstadt.
Dippel’s connection to Frankenstein comes from his days at the castle on the hilltop near Darmstadt above the Rhine River Valley below Mainz. Johann Dippel was resident there for a time when the castle had fallen vacant of its lordly Franckenstein family owners after the Reformation and the War of European Succession. Dippel tried unsuccessfully to induce the Landgrave of Hesse to deed him the castle in exchange for Dippel’s providing the duke with the secret of everlasting life, the infamous elixir.
He never did come up with a successful Elixir of Eternal Life while at Darmstadt and eventually moved on, with the locals rather chasing him away like those pitchfork wielding villagers in the Universal Frankenstein movies. His permanent acquisition of the castle was opposed and the legends of his making his oil and formulas from the body parts of human corpses was likely an early form of conspiracy theory, born from his boiling animal bones to get ingredients, mixed with the castle’s time as a prison where prisoners were buried in pauper’s graves, and it was hinted that he dug them up to make his concoction, and therefore an easy connection to digging up the dead to bring eternal life.
Curiously, there is another connection between Dipple and the world of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein story, though indirect. John Polidori, Lord Byron’s companion that summer of ghost stories on the shores of Lake Geneva, is reported to have committed suicide by drinking Prussic Acid, more commonly known as Hydrogen Cyanide, which Sherlock Holmes always managed to deduce from its smell of bitter almonds. Prussic Acid gets its name and is derived from the painting pigment called Prussian Blue, which is now sometimes used as an anti-radiation medicine.
Prussian Blue was created by a Berlin paint-maker named Johan Diesbach, who reportedly made it from potash, from which potassium chloride is derived, that he got from Johann Konrad Dippel, one of the chemical ingredients at the core of Dippel’s work and a common chemical manufacturing compound today.
Dippel moved on from the castle at Darmstadt, still ever seeking his life sustaining elixir, but in the end it may have had the opposite effect. He died of complications of chemical poisoning, either from his close work with some very toxic substances over time, or perhaps sampling his own elixir formula, which may have had the opposite effect than the one intended.
Mary Shelley encounters Dippel’s Oil and the story behind it on the Rhine Trip in 1814 as told in the “Secret Memoirs of Mary Shelley” when she was feeling the sensations of her first pregnancy.