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Frankenstein: Penetrating the Secrets of Nature

Dolly and the Frankenstein Syndrome

In early 1997 word reached America that Scottish researchers had cloned a sheep — "Dolly." There was widespread excitement and amazement at what these scientists had achieved. But there was also troubled speculation.

The cover of Newsweek featuring three babies in diapers standing glass beakers with the words Can We Clone Humans? Newsweek, March 10, 1997. A ©1997 Newsweek, Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission and protected by the copyright laws of the United States. The laws prohibit any copying, redistribution or retransmission of this material without express written permission from Newsweek.
Newsweek, March 10, 1997. A ©1997 Newsweek, Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission and protected by the copyright laws of the United States. The laws prohibit any copying, redistribution or retransmission of this material without express written permission from Newsweek

Can we let scientists who hold the kind of power cloning represents proceed without constraint? Dare we embrace such a breakthrough's benefits heedless of its risks? This time, society answered "no" to both questions. Newspapers, magazines, and broadcast media seized on the cloning issue. People wrote letters to the editor, called talk shows, took to the Internet. President Clinton asked the National Bioethics Advisory Commission to investigate; in the meantime, he issued a moratorium on human cloning.

Mary Shelley's scientist, Victor Frankenstein, had done just as he pleased, in secret, with disastrous consequences to himself and others. Scientists involved in cloning in the United States, on the other hand, are able to pursue their research only with the oversight of an alert and knowledgeable citizenry and its social and governmental institutions.

For those few months in early 1997, cloning epitomized society's struggle to navigate the shoals of unsettling scientific change. But as science more deeply penetrates the secrets of nature, issues like cloning will arise again and again. Each time they do, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein will sound its note of warning.

In the weeks after the announcement from Scotland that a sheep had been successfully cloned, magazines heralded the breakthrough.

President Clinton standing to the right of a podium receiving the Report Cloning Human Beings at the White House, June 8, 1997. Courtesy of Reuters/Mike Theiler/Archive Photos.
President Clinton Receiving the Report Cloning Human Beings at the White House, June 8, 1997. Courtesy of Reuters/Mike Theiler/Archive Photos.

At a June 1997 White House ceremony, President Clinton endorsed a National Bioethics Advisory Committee recommendation on cloning. The committee urged Congressional legislation to permit the cloning of human embyros for research —but not their implantation into a woman's uterus to develop into cloned human beings. In testimony before Congress, National Institutes of Health director Harold E. Varmus took a similar stance.

Black and white, head and shoulders, full face photograph of Harold E. Varmus, M.D., Director, National Institutes of Health November 1993 - December 1999.
Harold E. Varmus, M.D.,
Director, National Institutes of Health
November 1993 - December 1999




Our sense of ourselves as human beings is very closely linked to our diversity. And the notion of carrying out cloning of the human population, to my mind, is not consistent with the traditional ideas of human individuality and diversity.

Harold E. Varmus, M.D., Congressional testimony, February 26, 1997.