On 1 August 1790, a precocious student named Victor Frankenstein submitted a radical 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 (IRB) 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," noted the budding scientist. 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.
Of course no such proposal ever went to bioethicists at the University of Ingolstadt, where the fictional Frankenstein created his monster. In 1790, even a real Frankenstein would have faced no ethical reviews. 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 2 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. In return, 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—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. She was 18, accompanying her married lover, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Her stepsister, Claire Clairmont, was there, as was Byron's live-in doctor, John William Polidori. It was the "year without a summer," a climatic anomaly caused by the eruption of Mount Tambora in the Dutch East Indies, and endless rain and gray skies kept the guests cooped up. Byron suggested as a party game that they each write a ghost story.
There was plenty to unsettle Mary's fertile mind. Mary and Percy had a 6-month-old baby together, but had lost another baby a year earlier. Mary's own mother had died of puerperal sepsis 11 days after giving birth to her fame-bound daughter. Percy, as a 2013 paper in >Progress in Brain Research recounts, had been booted from the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom for "extolling the virtues of atheism" and was a believer in "free love." Another paper, in a 2015 issue of The Journal of Analytical Psychology, suggests that Percy, Mary, and Claire had previously formed "a ménage à trois of sorts."
The Journal of Analytical Psychology paper's author, Ronald Britton, a prominent psychoanalyst, links these tensions and griefs to the daydream in which Mary Shelley first envisioned Frankenstein's monster—"the spectre which had haunted my midnight pillow," as she later put it. The "background facts to her nightmare," Britton writes, invoking Freud, "opened a door to unconscious phantasies of a dreadful scene of childbirth." He adds that after losing her first child in 1815, Shelley wrote in her journal that she dreamed about the baby coming back to life. "I thought that if I could bestow animation upon lifeless matter, I might, in process of time, renew life where death had apparently devoted the body to corruption," she wrote the year before imagining Frankenstein.
More horrors were to follow for Shelley after she completed the novel. She married Percy after his first wife's suicide, only to lose him 6 years later when he drowned in a sailing accident. But she called on science, not psychology, in explaining how she "came to think of, and dilate upon, so very hideous an idea" at 18 years of age. Among the influences she cites in a preface to an 1831 edition of her novel is Luigi Galvani, who in 1780 found that an electrical charge could make a dead frog's legs twitch. It was Percy who may have acquainted her with galvanism, which Frankenstein explicitly mentions as the key to reanimation in the 1831 edition. As a boy, the poet "had dabbled with electricity (on his sister's sores and the family cat)," another study in >Progress in Brain Research notes.