John William Polidori

John William Polidori (7 September 1795 – 24 August 1821) was an English writer and physician. He is known for his associations with the Romantic movement and credited by some as the creator of the vampire genre of fantasy fiction. His most successful work was the short story "The Vampyre" (1819), the first published modern vampire story. Although originally and erroneously accredited to Lord Byron, both Byron and Polidori affirmed that the story is Polidori's.[1]

John Polidori
Born(1795-09-07)7 September 1795
London, England
Died24 August 1821(1821-08-24) (aged 25)
London, England
  • Writer
  • Physician


John William Polidori was born on 7 September 1795 in London, the oldest son of Gaetano Polidori, an Italian political émigré scholar, and Anna Maria Pierce, an English governess. He had three brothers and four sisters.[2]

His sister, Frances Polidori, married exiled Italian scholar Gabriele Rossetti, and thus John, posthumously, became the uncle of Maria Francesca Rossetti, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Michael Rossetti, and Christina Georgina Rossetti. William Michael Rossetti published Polidori's journal in 1911.[2]


Polidori was one of the earliest pupils at the recently established Ampleforth College from 1804, and in 1810, went to the University of Edinburgh, where he wrote a thesis on sleepwalking and received his degree as a doctor of medicine on 1 August 1815, at age 19.[2]

In 1816, Dr. Polidori entered Lord Byron's service as his personal physician and accompanied him on a trip through Europe. Publisher John Murray offered Polidori 500 English pounds to keep a diary of their travels, which Polidori's nephew William Michael Rossetti later edited. At the Villa Diodati, a house Byron rented by Lake Geneva in Switzerland, the pair met with Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, her husband-to-be, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and their companion (Mary's stepsister) Claire Clairmont.

One night in June, after the company had read aloud from Fantasmagoriana, a French collection of German horror tales, Byron suggested they each write a ghost story. Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote "A Fragment of a Ghost Story" and wrote down five ghost stories recounted by Matthew Gregory "Monk" Lewis, published posthumously as the Journal at Geneva (including ghost stories) and on return to England, 1816, the journal entries beginning on 18 August 1816. Mary Shelley worked on a tale with her husband that would later evolve into Frankenstein.[3] Byron wrote (and quickly abandoned) a fragment of a story, "A Fragment", featuring the main character Augustus Darvell, which Polidori used later as the basis for his own tale, "The Vampyre", the first published modern vampire story in English.[4]

Polidori's conversation with Percy Bysshe Shelley on 15 June 1816, as recounted in The Diary, is regarded as the origin or genesis of Frankenstein. They discussed principles, "the nature of the principle of life": "June 15 - ... Shelley etc. came in the evening ... Afterwards, Shelley and I had a conversation about principles - whether man was to be thought merely an instrument."[5][6]

Dismissed by Byron, Polidori traveled in Italy and then returned to England. His story, "The Vampyre", which featured the main character Lord Ruthven, was published in the April 1819 issue of New Monthly Magazine without his permission. Whilst in London he lived on Great Pulteney Street (in Soho). Much to both his and Byron's chagrin, "The Vampyre" was released as a new work by Byron. Byron's own vampire story "Fragment of a Novel" or "A Fragment" was published in 1819 in an attempt to clear up the confusion, but, for better or worse, "The Vampyre" continued to be attributed to him.[2]

Polidori's long, Byron-influenced theological poem The Fall of the Angels was published anonymously in 1821.[2]


Polidori died in London on 24 August 1821, weighed down by depression and gambling debts. Despite strong evidence that he committed suicide by means of prussic acid (cyanide), the coroner gave a verdict of death by natural causes.[7]



  • Cajetan, a play (1816)
  • Boadicea, a play (1816)



  • The Vampyre: A Tale (1819) - a text that is "often even cited as almost folkloric sources on vampirism".[8]
  • Ernestus Berchtold; or, The Modern Oedipus: A Tale (1819)


  • A Medical Inaugural Dissertation which deals with the disease called Oneirodynia, for the degree of Medical Doctor, Edinburgh (1815)
  • The Diary of Dr. John William Polidori (1816, published posthumously in 1911)
  • On the Punishment of Death (1816)
  • An Essay Upon the Source of Positive Pleasure (1818)
  • Sketches Illustrative of the Manners and Costumes of France, Switzerland and Italy (1821)

Posthumous editions

His sister Charlotte transcribed Polidori's diaries, but censored "peccant passages" and destroyed the original. Based only on the transcription, The Diary of John Polidori was edited by William Michael Rossetti and first published in 1911 by Elkin Mathews (London). Reprints of this book, The Diary of Dr. John William Polidori, 1816, relating to Byron, Shelley, etc., was published by Folcroft Library Editions (Folcroft, PA) in 1975, and by Norwood Editions (Norwood, PA) in 1978. A new edition of The Diary of John William Polidori was reprinted by Cornell University in 2009.[9]



A memorial plaque on Polidori's home at 38 Great Pulteney Street was unveiled on 15 July 1998 by the Italian Ambassador, Paolo Galli.[10]

Appearances in other media


Multiple films have depicted John Polidori, and the genesis of the Frankenstein and "Vampyre" stories in 1816.

Additionally, Polidori's name was used for a character in a television movie adaptation of Mary Shelley's novel: Frankenstein: The True Story (1973), directed by Jack Smight.


  • Polidori appears as one of several minor characters killed off by Frankenstein's creature in Peter Ackroyd's novel The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein.[11]
  • Polidori is a central character in Federico Andahazi's novel The Merciful Women (Las Piadosas in the original Argentine edition). In it, he receives The Vampyre written by the fictional character of Annette Legrand, in exchange for some "favours".[12]
  • Polidori appears as a character in Howard Brenton's play Bloody Poetry (though for some reason Breton calls him William.)
  • Polidori is a prominent character and the catalyst in events in Brooklyn Ann's historical paranormal romance novel, Bite Me, Your Grace.
  • Polidori is a central character in Emmanuel Carrère's novel Gothic Romance (Bravoure in the original French edition), which, amongst other things, presents a fictionalised account of the events of 1816.
  • He appears as a character in Susanna Clarke's novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.
  • Polidori appears as an enemy of Lord Byron (who is a vampire) in Tom Holland's novel Lord of the Dead.
  • Polidori is also the 'hero' of the novel Imposture (2007) by Benjamin Markovits.
  • Polidori is also the central character in Derek Marlowe's novel A Single Summer With L B, which presents an account (fictionalised) of the summer of 1816.
  • Polidori appears as a minor and unsympathetic character in the Tim Powers' horror novel The Stress of Her Regard (1989), in which Polidori does not write about vampires but becomes directly involved with them. In Powers' sequel (of sorts), Hide Me Among the Graves (2012), Polidori is a vampire and a central villain menacing the novel's protagonists, his nieces and nephews in the Rossetti family.
  • Paul West's novel Lord Byron's Doctor (1989) is a recreation, and ribald fictionalization, of Polidori's diaries. West depicts him as a literary groupie whose attempts to emulate Byron eventually unhinge and destroy him.
  • (2013): Polidori is a prominent character in P.J. Parker's internationally-acclaimed historic fiction Fire on the Water: A Companion to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein
  • (2019): P.J. Parker's historic fiction Origin of the Vampyre pulls back the shroud of mystery surrounding the publication of Polidori's novel.


  • Polidori functions as narrator in John Mueter's one-act opera Everlasting Universe and has a speaking role in several scenes.



  • Polidori, John William (2009), Rossetti, William Michael (ed.), The Diary of Dr. John William Polidori, 1816, relating to Byron, Shelley, etc.:, Cornell, NY: Cornell University Library, ISBN 1-4297-9503-4.

See also


  1. Macdonald, DL (1991), Poor Polidori, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, ISBN 0-8020-2774-1
  2. Polidori, John William (2009), Rossetti, William Michael (ed.), The diary, Cornell, NY: Cornell University Library, ISBN 1-4297-9503-4
  3. Rieger, James. "Dr. Polidori and the Genesis of Frankenstein." Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, 3 (Winter 1963), 461-72.
  4. Praz, Mario, ed. (1968), Three Gothic Novels, Classics, New York: Penguin, p. xxxix, ISBN 0-14-043036-9
  5. Frayling, Christopher. Vampyres: Genesis and Resurrection: from Count Dracula to Vampirella. London: Thames and Hudson, 2016.
  6. Rieger 1963, pp. 461-72
  7. "John William Polidori (1795-1821) - Find A Grave..." Retrieved 26 December 2017.
  8. Jøn, A. Asbjørn (2003). "Vampire Evolution". mETAphor (3): 21. Retrieved 25 November 2015.
  9. The Vampire in Folklore, History, Literature, Film and Television: A Comprehensive Bibliography.
  10. Green plaques, UK: Westminster, archived from the original on 16 July 2012
  11. Ackroyd, Peter (2008), The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein, Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, ISBN 978-0-385-53084-2
  12. Andahazi, Federeico (1998), Las Piadosas, Editorial Sudamericana


Further reading

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