On 200th Anniversary, Frankenstein Still Shocks, Inspires

On 200th Anniversary, Frankenstein Still Shocks, Inspires

Tuesday, 13 March, 2018 - 06:15
A statue of Frankenstein's monster in Geneva. (AFP)
London - Asharq Al-Awsat
On August 1, 1790, a precocious student named Victor Frankenstein submitted a first-of-its-kind proposal to an ethical panel at the University of Ingolstadt in Bavaria.

Under the title "Electro-chemical Mechanisms of Animation," Frankenstein explained how he wanted to "reverse the processes of death" by collecting "a large variety of human anatomical specimens" and putting them together to try and "restore life where it has been lost."

Frankenstein assured the institutional review board that he had the highest ethical standards.

"If I do succeed in fully animating a human or human-like creature, I will provide the creature with information about the study and allow it, if it is capable, to choose whether or not to participate further in continued observation and study," he noted.

If the creature had "diminished capacity," Frankenstein promised to bring in a third party to act in its interest and treat "the being" in accordance with recognized standards.

But the proposal does exist in a 2014 paper, which speculates about whether the Frankenstein story would have had a happier ending if 21st century safeguards had existed two centuries ago.

It is one of many riffs on the novel to be found in biomedical literature.

In conceiving her story, Mary Shelley was influenced by the nascent medical science of the day and by early experiments on electricity.

Frankenstein has haunted science ever since.

First published anonymously in 1818, the book and subsequent films and plays have become what Jon Turney, author of the book “Frankenstein's Footsteps: Science, Genetics and Popular Culture,” calls "the governing myth of modern biology": a cautionary tale of scientific hubris.

And as with all long-lasting myths, it is not one myth, but many, as a search for "Frankenstein" in the PubMed database, the main catalog of life sciences papers, makes clear.

Scientific literature, like the popular press, is rife with references to Frankenfood, Frankencells, Frankenlaws, Frankenswine, and Frankendrugs, most of them supposedly monstrous creations.

Other papers explicitly mentioning Frankenstein; there are more than 250 of them that analyze the science behind the novel or even, in a twist that can be down-right bizarre, draw inspiration from it.

Several reports in psychological journals delve into the state of mind of its author when she first imagined the tale during the summer of 1816. Then Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, she was visiting the poet Lord Byron at Villa Diodati, a mansion he had rented on the shores of Lake Geneva in Switzerland. At the time, she was 18.

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