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Frankenstein: Penetrating the Secrets of Nature

The Search for Balance

What is "acceptable" science and medicine? Who decides?

How can society balance the benefits of new medical discoveries against ethical or spiritual questions they may pose? Or the human urge to know and understand against problems arising from that knowledge?

In a crowded room a physician (Jenner) prepares to vaccinate a young woman sitting in a chair; the scene about them is mayhem as several former patients demonstrate the effects of the vaccine with cows sprouting from various parts of their bodies. The Cow Pock-or-the-Wonderful Effects of the New Inoculation! James Gillray (1757-1815) Photographic reproduction of an etching appearing in Vide--The Publications of ye Anti-Vaccine Society, June 12, 1802.
The Cow Pock-or-the-Wonderful Effects of the New Inoculation! James Gillray (1757-1815) Photographic reproduction of an etching appearing in Vide--The Publications of ye Anti-Vaccine Society, June 12, 1802. Courtesy of National Library of Medicine Collection.

Researchers have made such seemingly philosophical questions as timely as tomorrow's headlines. The transplantation of tissue from one species to another raises them. So does the use of dissected human corpses in medical research. But the process of resolving both issues has profited from an openness of public debate that Victor Frankenstein, alone in his laboratory, could scarcely have imagined.

The smallpox vaccine, originally prepared from the lesions of people infected with cowpox (a much milder disease contracted from cows), made many people fearful — of cow-borne disease, of usurping God's will, of the unknown. This 1802 cartoon shows Edward Jenner, the vaccine's discoverer, administering it, as previous vaccine recipients erupt with cow-like features.