Writer and scholar Gaetano Polidori was the son of a physician who lived and practised in Bientina, near Pisa. Having finished his studies at the University of Pisa, he served as secretary to the tragedian Vittorio Alfieri from 1785 to 1789, before settling in England in 1790. In London he worked as a teacher, translated Milton into Italian, wrote poetry, fiction, and drama, and set up a private press on which he published some of his own works.
In 1793 he married Anna Maria Pierce. Their daughter Frances married exiled scholar Gabriele Rossetti. Early in 1816 his oldest son John William Polidori was made physician to Lord Byron, then departing on a tour of the Continent following the breakdown of his marriage. On arrival in Ostend on 26 April 1816, Byron’s entourage proceeded through Flanders to the Rhine, taking in the battlefield of Waterloo memorialised in the third canto of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.
Byron’s dislike of the young physician led to a souring of their relationship and eventually to his dismissal. In April 1819 Polidori published a story in Henry Colburn’s New Monthly Magazine that would make him famous. It was entitled ‘The Vampyre’. Although Byron produced a fragment of a tale on this subject, it was in fact entirely Polidori’s work. Polidori sought an injunction against Colburn for attributing the tale to Byron.
The latter disowned the work, publishing his fragment with Mazeppa by way of a disclaimer. Despite its troubled genesis, The Vampyre went through five editions in 1819 alone and achieved spectacular success in Europe. Polidori’s tale established the prototype later developed in Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula. In spite of this literary acclaim, Polidori found himself in a dire financial situation. In August 1821 John William plunged into a three-week gambling spree in Brighton, losing heavily. He committed suicide in his father’s town house at no. 38 Great Pulteney Street, Soho, in August 1821, although the coroner ruled death by natural causes.