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Following Frankenstein: Mary Shelley, The Monster, and Medical Science

About the Module


Susan E. Lederer, Ph.D. is the Robert Turell Professor of the History of Medicine and Bioethics at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. A historian of medicine and biomedical ethics, she has published on the history of both human and animal experimentation. Her books include Subjected to Science: Human Experimentation in America Before the Second World War (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995); Frankenstein: Penetrating the Secrets of Nature (Rutgers University Press, 2002), and Flesh and Blood: A Cultural History of Transplantation and Transfusion in Twentieth-Century America (Oxford University Press, 2008).

In addition, Professor Lederer has published on the representations of medicine and medical science in popular film, and how popular audiences learn about biomedical innovations. These include “Dark Victory: Cancer and Popular Hollywood Film,” in Bulletin of the History of Medicine (Spring 2007); “Hollywood and Human Experimentation: Representing Medical Research in Popular Film,” in Medicine’s Moving Pictures: Medicine, Health, and Bodies in American Film and Television (University of Rochester Press, 2007); and “Repellent Subjects: Hollywood Censorship and Surgical Images in the 1930s,” in Literature and Medicine (Spring 1998).

Suggested Use

Following Frankenstein: Mary Shelley, The Monster, and Medical Science examines the scientific and medical milieu which informed Mary Shelley’s creation of a young student of nature and his monster, and the ways in which this creation continues to speak to contemporary responses to biomedical innovations. The readings have been chosen with the primary goal of helping students gain a sense of how developments in medicine raised questions about the nature of life and death, resuscitation, and renewal of the body. This engagement with the past is intended to provide background to students and give them a basis for thinking about the ways in which contemporary Americans respond to developments in the biomedical sciences, particularly around the beginning and end of life.

This module takes Frankenstein: Penetrating the Secrets of Nature as a starting point, and students should begin by visiting the web site and exploring the six exhibition sections as well as the links to digital documents. Questions students may consider as they review this material include: How did Mary Shelley draw on developments in medicine and science to create her novel? What did Mary Shelley intend by selecting the subtitle, The Modern Prometheus, for her book? Why was the book first published anonymously and why did no one consider that a young woman had written it? Why has Shelley’s novel (originally published in 1818) continued to resonate so strongly with readers in the 20th and 21st centuries? Does the culturally potent image of a “Frankenstein monster” influence the societal response to biomedical discoveries? If so, in what ways?

Following Frankenstein: Mary Shelley, The Monster, and Medical Science builds on the exhibition with additional readings and discussion points. Each of the three units in the module contains a brief overview, a list of essential readings, some visual materials, and several questions to consider in the class. The questions are intended as suggestions for opening the discussion with students; they are by no means exhaustive. Instructors may wish to pursue some questions and not others, or to await the way the discussion develops organically within the group.


At the conclusion of a unit or an entire module, students are expected to:

  • demonstrate a basic understanding of how scientific developments in the early 19th century raised questions about how doctors and patients understood the line separating life and death and the possibility of resuscitation.
  • evaluate how Mary Shelley’s novel and its translation to popular film continued in the 20th century to shape popular ideas about scientific responsibility, the role of biology in human behavior, and the possibility of restoring life.
  • analyze and understand how the Frankenstein story and myth continues in the 21st century to resonate with cultural responses to such biomedical innovations as stem cells, genetically modified foods, and human cloning.
  • relate historical concepts and beliefs to how we understand, define, experience, and treat concepts of scientific responsibility today.
  • demonstrate an ability to read and interpret primary and secondary source materials.
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