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Frankenstein: Penetrating the Secrets of Nature

Higher Education

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Unit 2: Medicine, Science and Cinema in the 20th-century Frankenstein


More people know about the Frankenstein story from popular culture (especially Hollywood films) than they do from reading Mary Shelley's novel. In adapting the novel for film in the late 1920s, American film makers, like Mary Shelley, drew on contemporary developments in the natural sciences to inform their representation of the young scholar and his chilling creation. Unlike Mary Shelley whose creature succumbs to violence and anger only after he is rebuffed by his creator, Hollywood film-makers drew on contemporary ideas of biological determinism (the idea that biological factors such as anatomy and genetics determine how an organism behaves or changes over time). In the 1930s, the Frankenstein monster is evil because he has received the brain of a criminal instead of a respected scientist.

Key Concepts:

  1. Scientific interest in re-animating the body appeared in newspapers and magazines, which discussed organs maintained outside the body, the introduction of a mechanical pace-maker to restart and stabilize heart rhythms, and methods of artificial respiration.
  2. These developments offered the possibility of using "spare parts surgery" to renew diseased or injured body parts, to re-animate persons believed dead, and increasing power over disease and death.
  3. Many Americans accepted that biology, rather than social or environmental influences, determined an individual's behavior. This biological determinism also informed the eugenic movement, which sought to increase reproduction of those persons deemed "fit" and to limit the reproduction of those identified as "unfit."
  4. As in Mary Shelley's time, these scientific developments raised the potential for mistakes and misuse. Fears of creating "Frankenstein-like monsters" appeared in the popular press.


Bossard, James H.S. "What We Pay." People Magazine (April 1931). Available on line at (accessed on 10/29/2010)

Carrel, Alexis and Charles A. Lindbergh. "The Culture of Whole Organs." Science 81 (1935): 621-623.

Kirby, David A. "The Devil in Our DNA: A Brief History of Eugenics in Science Fiction Films." Literature and Medicine 26 (2007): 83-108.

Additional Readings:

Cunningham, Nance. "Eugenics Education in Oklahoma: Exploring the Context for the State's Program of Involuntary Sterilization." Journal of Philosophy and History of Education 58 (2008): 38-43.

Currell, Susan and Christina Cogdell, eds. Popular Eugenics: National Efficiency and American Mass Culture in the 1930s. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2006.

Rafter, Nicole Hahn. The Criminal Brain: Understanding Biological Theories of Crime. New York: New York University Press, 2008.

Visual Resources:

Title reads 'Massachusetts Department of Mental Disease Exhibits Pictures of 50 Criminal Brains' There are eight black and white photos of brains—two labeled 'NORMAL' and the rest 'CRIMINAL.' Each brain labeled 'CRIMINAL' has additional notes in several descriptive words such as 'Alcoholic Vagrant,' 'Brain Narrow,' ' Simple,' 'Parent Unknown,' 'Canadian,' 'American', etc.  Courtesy of Pennsylvania State University Libraries.

Brains of Criminals. (Courtesy of Pennsylvania State University Libraries) Available online at the Eugenics page of "The Celluloid Monster" section on the Frankenstein: Penetrating the Secretes of Nature online exhibition. (accessed on 10/29/2010)

An illustration of a successful ear transplant that took place in a hospital in Philadelphia in 1903. A wealthy man had lost his ear and offered a reward of 25,000 francs to anyone who who give up his ear. The surgeon, Andrew Leider, is shown hovering over the beds of the two patients. The two patients are seated next to each other in adjoining beds, their heads joined by and encased in an apparatus.

Crespin, A. "La greffe d'une oreille..." Front page illustration. Le Petit Parisien, 20 December, 1903 (Images from the History of Medicine Collection). (accessed on 10/29/2010).

Discussion Questions:

  1. Many people in the 1920s believed that criminality resulted from the physical nature and organization of the human brain. What solutions did people in the 1920s and 1930s suggest for reducing crime in American society?
  2. At the International Eugenics Conference in 1922, the Massachusetts Department of Mental Disease exhibited 50 "criminal" brains. Examine the brain photographs. Do these images demonstrate obvious differences or similarities? Do the brains of alcoholic vagrants and perverts differ significantly from each other? Why would this poster be convincing to people who believed that criminality resulted from criminal brains? In the 1931 Universal film Frankenstein, what are the physical characteristics of the creature? How do his features influence his destiny?
  3. What led experimenters to believe that transplanting body tissues and fluids would be possible? What organs and tissues did physicians believe could be transplanted? What kinds of technical advances were necessary? What kind of social and cultural changes would facilitate the adoption of these interventions?
  4. What role do popular films play in communicating scientific concepts and consequences? How has the Frankenstein motif in film influenced discussion and reception of scientific topics since the 1930s?