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

Class 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. There are significant differences between the original story of Frankenstein and the popular understanding of the Frankenstein story.
  2. Contemporary discussions of biomedical advances often draw on the Frankenstein story as it is popularly understood.
  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 and benefits of new biomedical technologies can be best addressed in a democratic, pluralistic society remains a challenge.
Class Resources
  • 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: New York University 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:
  • 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 “Frankentony,” 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’s monster is incorporated into an argument about scientific innovation. What elements of the Frankenstein or his creature are visible? How is the meaning expressed?
  6. What role do metaphors play in popular and professional understanding of science?
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