A Novel Approach

Scientific Expertise Yields New Insights in Linda Hall Library “Frankenstein” Exhibit

“I saw — with shut eyes . . . but acute mental vision . . . the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life . . . Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavor to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.” — Mary Shelley in the Introduction to the 1831 edition of “Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus”

In July 1814, 16-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin departed her home in England and travelled to France with the already married poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley. Two years later, during the summer of 1816, they took up residence in Geneva, Switzerland, where, housebound by abnormally low temperatures that earned 1816 the epithet, “the year without a summer,” their companion George Gordon (Lord) Byron, suggested that the group engage in writing ghost stories. Mary’s contribution was the first draft of “Frankenstein,” sometimes referred to as the first science fiction novel.

In 1818, having returned to London (and married Percy), Mary Shelley published her novel. Signaling a deeper meaning to the Gothic novel, she added the subtitle, “the Modern Prometheus,” a reference to the Greek god who created the first human from clay and stole the sacred fire of Mount Olympus for mankind, for which Zeus condemned him to eternal punishment.

As she suggested in her introduction, Shelley’s novel was immediately recognized for the philosophical, even moral, implications that arise after an obsessed, if not mad, scientist assumes the divine-like power of creating a creature that ends up wreaking havoc on those around it. What started out as a kind of parlor game became a “morality play” that has resonated over the centuries with each new scientific breakthrough that relates to our powers over human life.

The story of Mary Shelley’s novel has been told many times, but not quite the way Linda Hall Library addresses it in its bicentennial exhibition, “It’s Alive Frankenstein at 200: The Science Behind the Story.” The title comes from the 1931 film version, wherein, upon realizing that his creation has come to life, Victor Frankenstein gleefully exclaims several times, “It’s alive!” Censors would not allow Frankenstein’s scripted next line: “Oh — in the name of God. Now I know what it feels like to be God.”

The exhibit is perfectly suited to Linda Hall — “the world’s foremost independent research library devoted to science, engineering, and technology.” Not only does the library bring impressive expertise to the exhibit, but its History of Science Collection provides every bound volume in the show.

The Science of “Frankenstein”

Curators Eric Ward (Vice President for Public Programs), Benjamin Gross (Vice President for Research and Scholarship), and Lisa Browar (Library President) address different parts of the story.

In “The Science behind the Story,” Ward provides a brief introduction to Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and her famous parents, proto-feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and radical political philosopher William Godwin. Ward then moves quickly to the events of the summer of 1816 that led Mary to prepare the first draft of her novel and two years later a substantially revised text for publication.

Visitors have much to explore in this gallery. For example, Shelley does not specifically say how Victor Frankenstein brought the creature to life — the “vital spark.” But the exhibit’s references to the electrical experiments of Luigi Galvani, Alessandro Volta and Giovanni Aldini provide hints as to what she may have had in mind.

Also included are the writings of Erasmus Darwin (Charles Darwin’s grandfather) on spontaneous generation as well as information on the eruption of Mount Tambora, located in present-day Indonesia but so powerful that its temperature-lowering effects were felt worldwide, hence “the year without a summer.” The gallery also addresses the polar explorations of Captain Cook, which influenced the “polar frame” of the novel, and the history of mountaineering, information Mary also used in the telling of her story.

Ward includes a particularly interesting sidebar in which he presents the findings of two anthropologists published in 2017 in the journal “Bioscience.” In the novel, the creature attempts to strike a deal with its creator wherein it would leave for the “wilds of South America,” if Frankenstein would create a mate for it. Frankenstein rejects the idea fearing that it would result in “a race of devils . . . propagated upon the earth who might make the very existence of the species of man a condition precarious.”

Anthropologists Nathaniel Dominy and Justin Yeakel show that this was no mere baseless speculation. They argue that through a process of “competitive exclusion” the creatures and their progeny might have overcome the entire population of South America in less than 4,000 years and the entire world in 6,000 years, resulting in human extinction.

Benjamin Gross conceived “The Education of Victor Frankenstein,” presented in the East Gallery. Yes, Victor Frankenstein is a fictional character. But that is what makes Gross’s design so interesting. It supposes what Victor Frankenstein would have learned at the German University of Ingolstadt, mentioned in the novel, in the 1780s and 1790s. Drawing on books from the library’s History of Science Collection, Gross introduces the visitor to works by Robert Boyle, Andreas Vesalius, Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier and others in relevant subject areas such as electricity, which Gross suggests was “the great new science of the Enlightenment,” chemistry (including alchemy), anatomy, physiology and more.

Gross points out, by the way, that references to “Dr. Frankenstein” are inappropriate, due to the creator’s failure to earn university degrees. He adds that even referring to Frankenstein as a scientist is an error, as the word was not coined until 1833. You can explore this more fully in the exhibit’s discussion of natural philosophy.

The West Gallery Alcove is a treat. Therein Browar provides a much lighter, but nevertheless interesting, overview of Frankenstein’s representation in popular culture. Titled “Mad Scientists of the Silver Screen,” Browar’s section contains movie posters from some of the best-known films concerning mad scientists and science gone awry, as well as several film clips from the dozens of films based on the novel, including the best known of the Frankenstein movies, the 1931 version noted above, starring Boris Karloff.

Be sure to explore the taxonomy, or family tree, of mad scientists organized by category and accept Browar’s offer to post the name of your favorite mad scientist who has been left off the tree. As Browar reminds us, not all mad scientists have been evil. Anyone remember Mr. Peabody?

You may leave “It’s Alive” tempted to read, or reread, Mary Shelley’s novel, realizing that it is a more complex book than you imagined or recalled. Novels that are embraced by popular culture often suffer such a fate. But after 200 years, “Frankenstein,” the novel, is alive indeed.

“It’s Alive Frankenstein at 200” continues at the Linda Hall Library, 5109 Cherry St., through Aug. 31. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. second Saturdays. For more information, 816.363.4600 or www.lindahall.org

About The Author: Bryan F. Le Beau

Bryan F. Le Beau

Bryan F. Le Beau is retired from the University of Saint Mary, where he served as Professor of History, Provost, and Vice President for Academic Affairs. He is the author of several books on American cultural and religious history.

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