Frankenstein: Penetrating the Secrets of Nature
Frankenstein: Penetrating the Secrets of Nature explored the enduring power of the Frankenstein story to expose hidden fears of science and technology—both in the original novel and shaped into new forms, such as plays, films, and comics. Captivating audiences for 200 years, as scientists have gained new knowledge, the Frankenstein story remains like a warning beacon, throwing its unsettling beam upon human efforts to penetrate the secrets of nature.
This exhibition was developed and produced by the National Library of Medicine, and National Institutes of Health. Please examine a selection of digitized, historical texts and images from the National Library of Medicine’s collections, which offers insight into the scientific practices and theories of the era.
On a dark and stormy night in 1816, Mary Shelley began writing a story that posed profound questions about individual and societal responsibility for other people. To make her point, the young novelist used the scientific advances of her era and the controversy surrounding them as a metaphor for issues of unchecked power and self-serving ambition, and their effect on the human community. Since that time, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus has become one of the Western world’s most enduring myths. The story provides a framework for discussions of medical advances, which challenge our traditional understanding of what it means to be human.
For more information about this topic, please visit National Library of Medicine/frankenstein/Introduction.
The Birth of Frankenstein
In 1816, Mary Godwin and her lover, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (whom she married later that year), summered in Switzerland near the shores of Lake Geneva. Together they visited with Lord Byron, who was staying in a villa nearby, where they avidly discussed literature, politics, and science. One night, Byron suggested that they take part in a competition to write a terrifying tale.
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An Extraordinary Life
The literary life attracted Mary Shelley from an early age. Her education stressed the development of the imagination; she was introduced to great works of literature, history, and mythology, and studied French and Latin. Her father’s London home attracted writers Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Charles and Mary Lamb, American politician Aaron Burr, chemist Humphry Davy, poet and physician Erasmus Darwin, and chemist-inventor William Nicholson.
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Boundary Crossing / 1818
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein reflected the interest of early 19th-century physicians and natural philosophers in human dissection and experiments on animals, as they explored the possibilities for generating life, resuscitating the drowned and the newly dead, and reanimating dead tissue using electricity. These researchers sought to benefit humankind and to end death and disease through their investigations into “the secrets of nature.”
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Transformation of a Monster
From its first appearance in 1818, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein both fascinated and repelled audiences. Her story, moreover, attracted other creative artists, who freely adapted the novel for audiences in England, America, and Europe. The monster underwent a transformation. From a sensitive, reasoning, and articulate being whose crimes resulted from his mistreatment at the hands of humanity, the creature mutated into a grunting brute, whose violent and cruel nature could only be understood as the product of science daring to usurp the god-like power of creation. “Frankenstein” came to represent the monster as much as his maker.
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Boundary Crossing / 1931
The myth of Frankenstein continues to resonate into and beyond the 20th century as science and technology gain ascendancy in American social and cultural life. Although many individuals welcome the changes caused by scientific advances, some worry about society’s ability to retain control of technologies that challenge their understanding of what it means to be human. Mary Shelley’s story offers a compelling framework for the public to articulate its uneasiness about scientific ambition and the nature of scientific responsibility.
For more information about this topic, please visit National Library of Medicine/frankenstein/Boundary Crossing / 1931