The scientific concepts presented in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein helped introduce the public to concepts that would revolutionize the fields of science and medicine. First published in 1818, Frankenstein examined the role of science and religion, commenting on the dangers of "playing God." Frankenstein has been considered by many to be the first science-fiction novel written, and many of the concepts introduced have been further explored and developed which have led to the implementation of new and radical medical procedures present today.
Shelley exploits Victorian fears of scientific advancement and technology in Frankenstein. Driven by his desire to learn, Victor Frankenstein utilizes his formal and self-taught education to further develop his questions about science and natural philosophy. Frankenstein's thirst for knowledge leads him to study the works of "natural philosophers" such as Cornelius Agrippa, Paracelsus, and Albertus Magnus. Frankenstein states that with the guidance of these philosophers he "entered with the greatest diligence into the search of the philosopher's stone and the elixir of life; but the latter soon obtained [his] undivided attention" (Shelley, n.d., p. 47). Propelled by his desire to create life out of death, and in the process acquire God-like power, Frankenstein worked tediously and "[a]fter days and nights of incredible labour and fatigue, [he] succeeded in discovering the cause of generation and life; nay, more, [he] became…capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter" (p. 63).
Frankenstein alludes to several medical concepts that are necessary for the assembly of a humanoid creature. In order to understand the anatomy and physiology of the human body, one must study it extensively and conduct experiments in order to further scientific methods. One of the concepts alluded to in the novel is blood transfusion, one of the elements necessary to create and sustain life. Famously referenced to in Dracula by Bram Stoker, blood is a major component of life. Historical documents indicate that the first human-to-human blood transfusion occurred in 1818, the same year that Frankenstein was first published. James Blundell, a British obstetrician, transfused four ounces of blood from a man to his wife that helped to replace the blood she had lost during childbirth ("History of Transplantation," 2004). Documents show that ten other women were subjected to blood transfusions during the time, of which approximately half showed improvement.
Further hematological inquiry led to the discovery by Sir William Osler in 1874 that small fragments from bone marrow comprise the bulk of clots that are formed in blood vessels. These small fragments would later be identified as blood platelets ("Red Gold: The Epid Story of Blood," 2002). In 1901, Austrian physician Dr. Karl Landsteiner identified three main blood groups; a fourth blood group was identified in 1902 by Landsteiner's colleagues, Alfred von Decastello and Adriano Sturli ("Red Gold: The Epid Story of Blood," 2002). Shortly thereafter in 1907, Dr. Ludvig Hektoen of Chicago, Illinois recommends that blood by cross-matched before transfusion and shortly thereafter, Dr. Reuben Ottenberg performs the first transfusion utilizing cross-matching techniques and virtually eliminates transfusion reactions ("Red Gold: The Epid Story of Blood," 2002).
The amalgamation of body parts from various sources, specifically cadavers, was a precursor to tissue and organ transplantation. Frankenstein established a precedent for the transplantation of limbs and organs. The first successful human-to-human bone transplantation was recorded in 1878, a rare feat as the processing and preservation of human tissue had yet to be developed ("History of Transplantation," 2004). Though references have been made to skin graft operations for at least 2,000 years, the first skin graft utilizing cadaver skin was documented in 1881 and in 1896, the first experimentations with bone marrow occur ("History of Transplantation," 2004. Innovations in the 20th century led to the continued to success of experimentation and performance of transplants. Dr. Eduard Zirm who restored the eyesight of a day laborer who had lost his vision due to caustic lime performed the first successful corneal transplantation in 1905. Furthermore, techniques were developed that allowed for the development of xenotransplantation, or the transplantation of living cells, tissues, or organs from one species to another. Initial attempts in xenotransplantation occurred in 1909, though they were unsuccessful. The scientific community intensified its focus on the practice in the 1960s as the result of continued successes in human-to-human transplantation ("Xenotransplantation: The Benefits and Risks of Special Organ Transplantation," 2000). Continued experimentation in the early 20th century led to the creation of the first artificial organ, a kidney, in 1913. This kidney was never transplanted into humans, however, through the use of anticoagulants derived from leeches, the artificial kidney is able to achieve dialysis on animals. In 1936, Russian doctors attempt the first human-to-human kidney transplantation, but the experiment fails and the subject subsequently dies two days later ("History of Transplantation," 2004). Recent transplant successes have grown to include facial transplantations and the transplantation of human hands from cadaver donors.
A theme touched upon in Frankenstein is the theory of evolution. Frankenstein refuses to acquiesce the Monster's request to create a companion for him. Frankenstein is hesitant to create another monster, yet proceeds to acquire the necessary parts and components to do so. Frankenstein stops short of completing a second monster. Frankenstein does not harbor the fear that the second monster will be less destructive than his original creation, but rather fears that the female monster will be more destructive than her male counterpart. Frankenstein's fears also include the possibility that the female monster will reject her intended mate and turn to the "superior beauty of man" (Shelley, n.d., p. 218). Even if she does not reject her intended mate, there is the possibility that the monstrous duo will leave England and breed, thereby creating a new species of monstrous creatures. The concept of evolution was not a new one in the 19th century, but was further investigated by Charles Darwin in the 1830s. In 1858, Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace made a joint announcement regarding the theory of natural selection. A year later, in 1859, Darwin published The Origin of Species which contained his findings about evolutionary adaptations that he observed during his five-year voyage aboard the HMS Beagle (Lane, 1994). Gregor Mendel further explored genetic evolution and in 1866 published his findings on inherited traits that had been observed in pea plants. Thirty-four years later in 1900, Mendel's principles were independently discovered and verified by Carl Correns, Hugo de Vries, and Erich von Tschermak (Lane, 1994). These discoveries marked the beginning of modern genetic studies.
Another important element in the creation of Frankenstein's monster is the medical training provided and studied during the Victorian Era, as well as, the laws enacted in order to facilitate the procurement of cadavers. Frankenstein admits to having procured the parts needed for his creation by robbing graves, dissecting rooms, and visiting slaughterhouses. Through the 16th century, cadaver dissection was prohibited in England with restrictions being raised, but closely monitored, as the field of medicine began to grow. As the number of medical schools rose, the number of cadavers available for dissection was scarce and many schools turned to the illegal procurement of cadavers to meet the needs of the students. The Anatomy Act was passed in 1832 and was designed to increase the number of bodies available for dissection in anatomy schools and hospitals. The passage of the Anatomy Act also revoked the law that allowed executed murderers to be dissected and included provisions that would exempt people from being dissection after they died if they chose to do so (Walker, n.d.). The passage of the act forever changed how anatomy schools were viewed and saw a drastic drop in body snatching. By the 20th century, the practice of body snatching had virtually disappeared. The stigma of these anatomy schools has been overcome; the majority of the bodies made available…