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A monstrous notion

Exhibit on Frankenstein looks at the intersection of scientific knowledge, creative power and human arrogance.

With his flattened pate, horrid scars and a set of neck bolts to keep his head on straight, the monster popularly known as “Frankenstein” is a lurching, grunting, remorseless killer. This image, made famous by a series of 1930s films starring Boris Karloff, can be seen on everything from cereal boxes to postage stamps and has come to represent the notion of science out of control. Any new technology that calls into question our traditional understanding of what it means to be human, from cloning to xenotransplantation, seems inevitably to raise the specter of author Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s hideous monster. Nearly two centuries after its creation, Frankenstein continues to haunt us.

According to Susan E. Lederer, Ph.D., associate professor of the history of medicine, the story continues to maintain its hold on the popular imagination. “It’s alive and it’s escaped,” says Lederer. “These represent primal fears about human agency and responsibility for creation.”

Lederer was the chief curator of “Frankenstein: Penetrating the Secrets of Nature,” a 1997 exhibit at the National Library of Medicine (NLM), and mounted a modified version of the show this summer in the rotunda of the Cushing/Whitney Medical Library. From the Yale archives, she added rare books on galvanism and the supposed reanimation of the dead that influenced Shelley’s 1818 novel. The exhibit examines how the author used the “scientific advances and controversies of her era as a metaphor for issues of unchecked power, self-serving ambition and their effect on the human community.” It also looks at how playwrights, filmmakers and cartoonists have transformed the image of the monster and how Frankenstein’s monster continues to emerge in debates about modern science. Over the next four years the traveling exhibit, drawn from the exhibit sponsored by the NLM and the American Library Association, will visit 80 libraries across the country.

While the idea for Frankenstein came to 18-year-old Mary Shelley in a dream, the monster reflected the curiosity of physicians and natural philosophers of her era in reviving the drowned and reanimating dead tissue using electricity. These researchers, according to the exhibit text, aimed to benefit humankind and end death and disease through their investigation into the mysteries of nature.

Assembled in secret from body parts gathered from graveyards and slaughterhouses, scientist Victor Frankenstein’s creation has flowing hair, black lips and shriveled yellow skin, which “scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath.” Despite his grisly appearance, the nameless monster is intelligent and sensitive. He seeks human companionship and educates himself by reading the works of Homer, Milton and Goethe. Only after his maker rejects him does the creature turn to rage and murder. The tragedy of the story is Victor Frankenstein’s arrogance and failure to take responsibility for his creation.

The monster in the novel is different from and more complex than the version that has been popularized. The collection of artifacts shows an 1823 English playbill for “Presumption, or the Fate of Frankenstein,” which portrayed the monster as a speechless brute. This marked the beginning of the simplification of the author’s tale that continues in films and commercial culture today.

The exhibit also explores the novel’s often-forgotten subtitle, The Modern Prometheus. This figure in Greek mythology was a symbol of optimism to Mary Shelley, who noted that he used “knowledge as a weapon to defeat evil by leading mankind beyond the state where they are sinless through ignorance, to that in which they are virtuous through wisdom.” Thus despite Victor Frankenstein’s utter failure, the exhibit points out, the author suggests the possibility that we can make responsible choices about scientific discovery.