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Frankenstein: Penetrating the Secrets of Nature

Higher Education

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Unit 3: The Franken-Factor in Contemporary Biomedicine


In the last forty years advances in genetics and biotechnology have fostered intense discussions about the safety and wisdom of tampering with nature and the natural. Critics of genetically-modified foods and organisms have employed metaphors to encapsulate their opposition, invoking Mary Shelley in "Frankenfoods," the end of the world in "Pharmageddon," and the specter from the Greek myth of a woman who loosed ills on humankind in Pandora's picnic basket. In this unit, students can identify the differences between the original creation of Mary Shelley and the ways in which it is popularly deployed in discussions about biomedical innovations.

Key Concepts:

  1. Contemporary discussions of biomedical advances often draw on the Frankenstein story as it is popularly understood.
  2. There are significant differences between the original story of Frankenstein and the popular understanding of the Frankenstein story.
  3. The resonance of the Frankenstein myth is powerful because it draws on nearly two centuries of accumulated belief about the misuse of knowledge, the implications of transgressing the boundary between the divine and the natural world, and the fear of science out of control.
  4. How risks/benefits of new biomedical technologies can be best addressed in a democratic, pluralistic society remains a challenge.


Davies, H. "Can Mary Shelley's Frankenstein be read as an early research ethics text?" Medical Humanities 30 (2004): 32-35.

Hellsten, Iina. "Dolly: Scientific Breakthrough or Frankenstein's Monster? Journalistic and Scientific Metaphors of Cloning." Metaphor and Symbol 15 (2000): 213-221.

Additional Readings:

Cartwright, Lisa. "A Cultural Anatomy of the Visible Human Project." In The Visible Woman: Imaging Technologies, Gender and Science. Edited by Paula A. Treichler, Lisa Cartwright, and Constance Penley. New York: NYU Press, 1998.

Stern, Megan. "Dystopian Anxieties versus Utopian Ideals: Medicine from Frankenstein to The Visible Human Project and Body Worlds." Science as Culture 15 (2006): 61-84.

Turney, Jon. Frankenstein's Footsteps: Science, Genetics and Popular Culture. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.

Visual Resources:

This is altered image of the Kellogg's Tony the Tiger on the Frosted Flakes  cereal box. The header text reads 'Kellogg's Genetically Modified FROSTED FAKES of 'CORN.'' The facial features of the Tony the Tiger are similar to how Dr. Frankenstein's monster is often depicted in cartoons and movies. Here, Tony the Tiger has a rectangular and furrowed forehead, metal bolts coming out of both of his temples, and jagged teeth, while holding up a test tube with green liquid and a corn. Lower part has text reading: 'Untested! Unlabeled!', and 'Hey Kids! Get Gene Splicer!' next to couple chromosomes.

"Frankentony," used with permission of Greenpeace (1999).

Discussion Questions:

  1. How do we assess the risks and benefits of creating new organisms, cloning animals, and other innovative technologies? Who should decide when and how to take risks in the biomedical realm? Is this a matter to be delegated to those with expert knowledge?
  2. Who should read Mary Shelley's novel today? Why?
  3. What is the research ethic in Shelley's Frankenstein and how does it differ from our ideas about scientific responsibility?
  4. The image of "Frosted Flakes" was part of a campaign against genetically modified organisms by the Greenpeace Organization. What elements of this image communicate the Frankenstein story or myth?
  5. Search for other examples in which the Frankenstein monster is incorporated into an argument about scientific innovation. What elements of the Frankenstein are visible? How is the meaning expressed?
  6. What role do metaphors play in popular and professional understanding of science?