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Frankenstein: Penetrating the Secrets of Nature

The Price of Secrecy

In Mary Shelley's novel, Victor Frankenstein keeps silent about his grisly project. He says nothing of the creature's escape, nor of what he knows about his brother, William's murder — and so lets an innocent girl be hanged for the crime.

Today, biomedical knowledge withheld from the public similarly risks doing harm. Tobacco industry executives, for example, long ago learned of nicotine's addictiveness, but kept quiet about it. On the other hand, the Human Genome Project, rich with promise of medical breakthroughs, has laid open to public scrutiny issues raised by genetics research, and makes public the knowledge it gathers.

Ten tobacco company executives are standing with their right hands raised testifying before congress. Courtesy of Stephen Crowley/New York Times Permissions.
Tobacco company executives testifying before congress. Courtesy of Stephen Crowley/New York Times Permissions.

On April 14, 1994, chairmen of the leading tobacco companies testified before Congress that nicotine is not addictive. By 1963, however, tobacco industry scientists knew that the nicotine in cigarettes was addictive. But they never advised the office of the U.S. Surgeon General, which in 1964 issued its report linking smoking and lung cancer. "One can speculate only with enormous regret," observed former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, "how knowledge of the nicotine's addictiveness might have influenced the report, thus saving countless lives."

A scientist in lab is holding up a Petri dish examing bacteria. The scientist is surrounded by more Petri dishes. Courtesy of the National Cancer Institute.
Scientist in lab. Courtesy of the National Cancer Institute.

This scientist at the Laboratory of Cellular and Molecular Biology at the National Cancer Institute is examing bacteria from which DNA is extracted for further study. The Human Genome Project, the huge international effort to decode the genetic information embodied in human DNA, promises enormous benefit to biomedical research. But the realization that such potent knowledge could be abused if kept secret has, from the project's inception, encouraged an atmosphere of openness unknown to Victor Frankenstein in Mary Shelley's novel. Today, National Institutes of Health policy pledges access to the project's huge databases.