Frankenstein and the Scientific Self Frankenstein’s enduring popularity rests in part on our continued belief that hubris and empathy co-exist as a necessary duality in the modern ideal of a scientist.

Figure 2. Frankenstein in his laboratory. From Mary Shelley, Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus,, illustrated by Lynd Ward (New York: Harrison Smith and Robert Haas, 1934), 53.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein opens in the frigid Arctic. We first meet not Victor Frankenstein, but a young Robert Walton, an eager explorer hoping to discover an un-iced passage, hewing close to the Pole, to the northern Pacific Ocean. Shelley had crafted her novel as a first-person narrative embedded within an epistolary exchange—we learn of Frankenstein’s tale of hubris and loss through letters written by Walton to his sister back in England that recount the tribulations related by this strange new acquaintance.

The enduring legacy of the novel, as is clear from other essays in this collection, rests in part on the inner story, the narrative of the relationship between a man and the creature he created. Shelley added the outer, Arctic frame only when expanding her original ghost story into a novel of publishable length. Like Frankenstein, Walton committed himself to revealing Nature’s secrets, and both shared a passion for discovery that separated them from other men. Unlike Frankenstein, Walton tempered his ambition with empathy. Although the word “scientist” would not be coined until the 1830s, well over a decade after Shelley’s work electrified its readers, the intertwined fates of Frankenstein and Walton warned of the consequences of unfettered intellectual desire.

…the intertwined fates of Frankenstein and Walton warned of the consequences of unfettered intellectual desire.

Frankenstein joined a host of works that deemed some individuals more fit for the study of Nature than others, prescribed appropriate comportment for those who would pronounce on its laws, or imagined the consequences of a world shaped by reason alone. By tracing these precepts both backward and forward in time, we can locate Shelley’s novel within a long tradition of identifying the aspirations and dangers of the quest for knowledge. Shelley both drew on this tradition and articulated a resonant image of the scientific self that echoes even today.


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Walton had expected loneliness on his journey to the Arctic, believing that any true success required a denial of comfort and through that a steeling of the mind and body. Writing to his sister he confessed, “How slowly the time passes here, encompassed as I am by frost and snow! I have no friend, Margaret. When I am glowing with the enthusiasm of success, there will be none to participate in my joy; if I am assailed by disappointment, no one will endeavour to sustain me in dejection… I bitterly feel the want of a friend.” Walton was hardly alone, of course. He had surrounded himself with “sailors possessed of dauntless courage.” However, he penned, these men lacked the balance of a cultivated and capacious mind, a gentle and courageous spirit. He felt the press of his loneliness “as a most severe evil.”1

Rather than following the path of destruction, consider the confluence of physical and intellectual strain, the abandonment of personal connection, and the single-minded drive that allowed Frankenstein to succeed at the cost of everything and everyone else in his life.

Five months later, having set out from Archangel by sea, “so strange an accident” occurred that Walton at once started another letter to his sister, although he deemed it probable that she would see him before having the chance to read it. Surrounded by a thick fog, the men on board the ship perceived in the near distance a figure of “gigantic stature” on a sled driven by dogs, heading north across the “vast… irregular plains of ice.” The following morning, Walton awoke to discover his men talking off the side of the ship with a second figure who had drifted close in the night. The sailors encouraged the man to come aboard, as he had only one dog left alive and was adrift on a large piece of ice. He did so, but only after ascertaining that they, too, were headed toward the Pole. Over the course of the next five weeks, the gentleman shared pieces of his story, all of which Walton committed to paper. In other circumstances, Walton imagined, “before his spirit had been broken by misery, I should have been happy to have possessed [him] as the brother of my heart.”

Frankenstein, the gentleman Walton met on the ship, had as a young man been inspired by reading alchemical authors—in his account he named Albertus Magnus, Cornelius Agrippa, and Paracelsus—and had set himself the goal of discovering the “elixir of life.” When he reached university, however, the natural philosophers there looked askance at his reading habits. He feared he would be “required to exchange chimeras of boundless grandeur for realities of little worth.” Combining the proficiency of “modern masters” who worked on small chemical conundrums with the passion of natural philosophy more broadly rendered, Frankenstein labored day and night, eating rarely, never visiting home. After a few years, he succeeded in discovering the very cause of life. He became capable “of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter.” The discovery, he told Walton, left him pale and emaciated. He had toiled in secret, driven by a “frantic impulse” to create a living being “as complex and wonderful as man.” Then, in the first paragraph of the fourth chapter, Frankenstein “saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.”2 (This is surely the most quoted line from the novel.) Shelley’s tale of scientific pursuit is but the setup and the novel is transformed into a story of unforeseen consequences. A similar journey is repeated when the Creature asked Frankenstein to make him a companion so that he might not be alone in the world—a request Frankenstein denied.

Rather than following the path of destruction, consider the confluence of physical and intellectual strain, the abandonment of personal connection, and the single-minded drive that allowed Frankenstein to succeed at the cost of everything and everyone else in his life. Frankenstein’s instantaneous misery at the moment of the creature’s awakening served as a warning both to Walton and to Shelley’s readers. What, then, can we learn of what it meant for Shelley to devote one’s life to studying the intricacies of nature? That single-minded pursuit of knowledge, if divorced from human sympathy, could lead to personal ruination.


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Before the modern novel emerged as a stable genre, natural philosophers and explorers wrote about their experiences, too, although in the seventeenth century, the line between philosophy and fantasy was far more malleable.3 Astronomer Johannes Kepler, for example, wrote numerous treatises that included everything from positional tables to the fanciful Somnium. Born in 1571, Kepler came of age in a Europe wrestling with the Reformation. He trained to be a Calvinist theologian—a sure way of obtaining an education for a scholarly young man of little means—and found the astronomical sciences, where he excelled. Kepler would later recall two moments from his childhood that fixed his interest in the stars: the great comet of 1577, seen from a hill with his mother, and an evening lunar eclipse observed three years later with his father.4 Memory is a funny thing and it matters little whether Kepler embellished these events only in retrospect. In March of 1594, he gave up his theological studies to accept a teaching position in mathematics at the Protestant seminary in Graz.

Figure 1. Frankenstein contemplating the wisdom of creating a second, female creature.
From Mary Shelley, Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus, illustrated by Lynd Ward (New York: Harrison Smith and Robert Haas, 1934), 187.

Kepler dedicated each of his major astronomical works to a patron, a lasting reminder of the key role played by benefactors throughout the early modern period. Even one of his most whimsical essays—a 24-page exploration of the six-sided nature of snowflakes—took the form of a letter to a friend, mathematician and court advisor in Prague, Johannes Matthäus Wackher von Wackenfels.5 He wrote another lighthearted story for his friend, too, Somnium. Typically translated as “The Dream,” Somnium found its way to print in 1634, just after Kepler’s death, although the manuscript itself had a long history.6 As a student in  Tübingen he had begun to conceptualize how the Earth and other planets would appear to an observer positioned on the moon. He later refined these thoughts in conversation with Wackher, composing a “moon-geography” for him in 1609.7

In the opening paragraph of this charming story, Kepler wrote that one night he had fallen into a very deep sleep after staying up late to watch the stars and the moon. In his dream, he came across a book by a fictional Icelandic astronomer named Duracotus, who had worked, like Kepler, with the very real Tycho Brahe: “I, who had come from an entirely destitute background in a half-savage country, acquired knowledge of the most divine science, and this knowledge paved my way for greater things.” (The parallels with Kepler’s own life were anything but accidental.) As Somnium progressed, Duracotus met a “daemon of Levania” through the help of his mother. After Duracotus and his mother made the necessary preparations for the journey, they covered their heads with their clothing and this daemon, glossed in his notes as an embodiment of the science of astronomy, came to them in their dreams. It was possible for them to visit Levania themselves, the daemon explained, but difficult. In Kepler’s notes, at the mention of the Island of Levania, he calculated the distance to the moon, making it clear that this was the celestial body the daemon was describing, 50,000 German miles up in the ether.

The daemon waxed on, noting his preference for hearty travelers, “those who spend their time in the constant practice of horsemanship or often sail to the Indies, inured to subsisting on hardtack, garlic, dried fish, and unappetizing victuals.” He added, “We especially like dried-up old women, experienced from an early age in riding he-goats at night or forked sticks or threadbare cloaks, and in traversing immense expanses of the earth.” Lest someone take his comments about witches too seriously, Kepler added a note. “It was my intention merely to joke and reason jocularly. If it is true, as most courts hold with regard to witches, that they are transported through the air, I say that maybe it will be possible also, for some body to be violently removed from the earth and carried to the moon.”

The scientific self, in other words, played a key role here, too. Kepler described the necessary physical heartiness required of those who would choose to embark on such a dangerous venture. They must be so singleminded in their pursuit of truth that they forsook fleshy pleasures and remained wiry. Physical bodies were taken as signs of masculine prowess and feminine fortitude, self-control as evidenced through self-denial.

The astronomical daemon insisted, “We admit to this company”–and we can infer that he spoke of the company of astronomers–“nobody who is lethargic, fat, or tender.”Once on the moon, Duracotus marveled at the creatures and landscapes he beheld. The dark patches of the lunar surface, clearly visible to the naked eye on Earth, were great seas that heated to almost boiling during the lunar day as a result of the sun’s unremitting rays. At night, the waters cooled, allowing the return of creatures that had fled to shelter in nearby caves.

On the moon, Kepler reasoned, all living beings attained great height due to the reduced force of gravity. The following year, Kepler learned from his friend that Galileo Galilei had trained a new spyglass at the moon and concluded instead that the dark patches were mere shadows of towering mountains and giant craters. It was from Wackher that Kepler learned, too, of Galileo’s discovery of four moons around Jupiter.9

In 1620, the year after his friend’s death, Kepler revisited Somnium and, to highlight the astronomical, philosophical, and historical problems it contained, added 223 explanatory notes that far exceeded the length of the original story. In adding his footnotes, Kepler made visible to less intimate potential readers the philosophical heft behind his fantastical story. We can hear, too, anger and perhaps caution in his note about those who would take witchcraft seriously. His mother had been accused of being a witch in 1616, the culmination of a local feud over her treatment of a sick woman in the town where she lived. She was arrested while sleeping in the middle of a summer night in 1620 and her trial lasted well into the following year, leaving her chained in prison for fourteen months. Although acquitted, she died several months later.10

Duracotus and Kepler were equally passionate about their desire to understand the order governing the cosmos. Through the change of perspective intimately associated with travel both came to see the provinciality of their original cosmological outlooks. Somnium was serious didactic business, designed to nudge readers toward dismissing the foolishness of beliefs that the Earth lay at the center of the universe. The result was a twinned intellectual and physical journey, from which both Duracotus and then Kepler awoke with new perspective: “When I had reached this point in my dream, a wind arose with the rattle of rain … I returned to myself and found my head really covered with the pillow and my body with the blankets.”11


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In the four centuries since Somnium, and the two that have followed Shelley’s publication of Frankenstein, many other books have taken up the goal of representing the travails of the scientific life. A great many have been written by scientists. Among them, Jim Watson’s autobiographical yarn, The Double Helix, published in 1968, stands out for its frank discussion of competition among research groups.12 We can think of Watson as the anti-Frankenstein. Frankenstein brooded; Watson played tennis. Frankenstein spent long hours alone in his laboratory; Watson left early for pints at the Eagle with his co-conspirator Francis Crick. Frankenstein traveled to distant lands to extend his training. Okay, Watson did that, too, but he also made time for picnics with dates, train rides to hear friends give talks, and sailing. There is no evidence in Watson’s narrative of self-denial, only the limitations posed by his stipend.

We can think of Watson as the anti-Frankenstein. Frankenstein brooded; Watson played tennis.

James Dewey Watson had grown up in Chicago, earned his Ph.D. at Indiana University, spent a year in Copenhagen as a postdoctoral fellow, and then started a second fellowship at the Cavendish Laboratory of Cambridge University. Among the lessons he later recalled learning as a young boy were, “when intellectually panicking, get help quickly,” and “find a young hero to emulate.”13 At Cambridge, he met Francis Crick. In The Double Helix Watson described Crick as oscillating between states of boredom and enormous excitement about a novel idea. Crick’s manic enthusiasm was catching, Watson explained, partly because of the volume at which he spoke: “he talked louder and faster than anyone else and, when he laughed, his location within the Cavendish was obvious.”

Watson never described Crick’s physical appearance. He instead spoke of his sharp mind racing to reduce facts into coherent patterns at dizzying speed—whether in his own research or, when looking for distractions, in that of others. Not taking themselves too seriously, Watson and Crick managed to discover the structure of DNA. In 1962 they shared the stage in Stockholm with Maurice Wilkins as recipients of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Rosalind Franklin, who contributed crucial data to the discovery, had died of cancer four years earlier. Franklin and Wilkins overlapped at the Cavendish with Watson and Crick—in fact, they were hard at work on the problem of DNA’s molecular structure. Crick was supposed to be investigating the structure of hemoglobin and Watson’s postdoctoral sponsor had hoped he would devote his time to myoglobin. As a result, neither generated new data on DNA but spent hours discussing the X-ray photographs of light passed through DNA produced by Franklin and Wilkins, as well as the theories of Linus Pauling, whose laboratory at the California Institute of Technology was equally invested in the puzzle of DNA’s structure. In Watson’s telling, the ideal scientific self looked rather like Crick’s quick wit, natural bravado, and intrepid willingness to devote considerable swaths of time to conundrums technically assigned to other people.

Many of Watson’s colleagues hated the book. Crick and Wilkins deemed it so outrageous they eventually penned their own accounts of these same events. Some reviewers frowned upon his depiction of science as equal parts leisure and intellectual dabbling. Those who had known Franklin objected to Watson’s demeaning portrayal of her as “Rosy.” Attending a research seminar in which Franklin presented her X-ray photographs of DNA crystals, Watson had written that he had found himself wondering “how she would look if she took off her glasses and did something novel with her hair.” Franklin was “strong” and had a “good brain,” he added, but was also “belligerent” and could not “keep her emotions under control.”

Tensions came to a head when one day Watson “implied she was incompetent in interpreting X-ray pictures”—the core of Franklin’s research project at King’s. “Suddenly Rosy came from behind the lab bench that separated us and began moving toward me. Fearing that in her  hot anger she might strike me, I grabbed up the Pauling manuscript and hastily retreated to the open door.” If Watson’s tale contained a monster, Franklin was it: emotional, unbalanced, and dangerous. In his words, “the best home for a feminist was in another person’s lab.” How ironic that his depiction of “Rosy” (who bore scant resemblance to Franklin) was less sympathetic than Shelley’s depiction of Frankenstein’s creature and equally a product of his imagination. He feared what Rosy might do.

In an epilogue written after he completed the manuscript (at the urging of his editor), Watson admitted that his initial impressions of Franklin “were often wrong” and that “[t]he X-ray work she did at King’s is increasingly regarded as superb.” Watson appreciated years too late, he confessed, “the struggles that the intelligent woman faces to be accepted by a scientific world which often regards women as mere diversions from serious thinking.”14 The epilogue thus worked to situate Watson’s account as the perspective of the 23-year-old he had been at the time rather than the matured reflections of a retrospective autobiography.

The most common contemporary objection to Watson’s book, however, was the competitive spirit he imparted to the race for truth. When he and Crick learned that Linus Pauling’s American research team on the other side of the Atlantic had produced a three-chained model of the structure of DNA, their spirits at first sank. Pauling had dispatched copies of his paper simultaneously to the Proceedings of the National Academy, to await the review of his peers, to his son Peter, and to the head of the Cavendish Laboratory where he knew people were working on similar problems. Crick and Watson read Peter’s copy of the manuscript and realized that the chemistry would not hold. Watson then rushed from lab to lab, confirming their evaluation and sharing in the joy that Pauling had failed. “Then, as the stimulation of the past several hours had made further work impossible,” he wrote, “Francis and I went over to the Eagle. The moment its doors opened for the evening, we were there to drink a toast to the Pauling failure.”15

In the end, of course, Watson and Crick indeed succeeded. Triangulating a structure from X-ray data and the laws of stereochemistry, they built a double helix by soldering metal plates of purine and pyrimidine amino acids onto a sugar-phosphate backbone. With the knowledge that they had beaten Pauling firmly in place, Watson left to play tennis. A week later he traveled to Paris and was pleased to be the first to tell their French colleagues the news.

Watson had rejected chimeras of boundless grandeur for grubby competition. One reviewer commented, “There has never been anything quite like this tactless and truly remarkable book.”16 Another enjoyed Watson’s brashness, noting that both he and Crick “possess it supremely, that eye for the deep, gay conjunction of truth and beauty, a conjunction ultimately mathematical, be it in women or dinghies or in the structure of amino acids.”17 Strikingly, other readers saw in Watson a remarkable callousness towards his fellow scientists. One reviewer even found it “saddening.” The Double Helix reminded him of something he would rather forget, “that in Homo sapiens brilliance need not be coupled with compassion, nor ambition with concern.”18 Watson in these readings was very much like Frankenstein: all hubris, no empathy.

The difficulty of turning scientists from cultural icons into fallible people struck a chord in 1968. Americans worried about the deepening quagmire in Vietnam. By contributing to a conversation about science in public discourse, Watson’s book raised ongoing questions about the contested role of scientists in times of war and the increasingly tarnished image of science as entangled in political intrigue. Cultural concerns over the destructive power of scientific discoveries ran deep.


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By way of conclusion, recall Frankenstein dying slowly on the Arctic sea. Walton’s own single-minded pursuit of glory had involved pushing his men of “dauntless courage” to the deep north to find a Northeast Passage. Frankenstein’s arrival and the tragic story he related between bouts of fever saved Walton from a similar fate. When the sailors threatened mutiny if Walton did not head south once the ship was freed of the ice, Frankenstein brought them to heel by reminding them they would return to England heroes—even in his broken state, he urged others to glory and destruction. Yet the companionship of even this broken man provided Walton with the affective connection he so desperately craved. Well, that and an explicit warning: “Farewell, Walton! Seek happiness in tranquility and avoid ambition, even if it be only the apparently innocent one of distinguishing yourself in science and discoveries.” Frankenstein then uttered his last words. “Yet why do I say this? I have myself been blasted in these hopes, yet another may succeed.”19 Walton abandoned his quest and returned to England. In so doing he surely saved the lives of himself and his crew.

Frankenstein’s enduring popularity … rests in part on our continued belief that hubris and empathy co-exist as a necessary duality in the modern ideal of a scientist.

Later in the evening after Frankenstein’s midnight demise, Walton heard sounds from the cabin where the body of his friend remained. Upon entering he discovered a gigantic, uncouth form looming over the coffin. The creature attempted to explain that companionship was all he had ever craved. He argued that Frankenstein had never spared him any love, either personally or in the manufacture of a companion. Regretting even so that he had hastened Frankenstein’s death, the creature promised that he, too, would soon die, replacing his own agony with peaceful sleep.

In Frankenstein’s death, we catch a final glimpse of Shelley’s admonition to avoid ambition at the cost of personal intimacy. That she chose to frame these fears in a tale of scientific inquiry says much about the Romantic sensibilities of her era. Her descriptions of the scientific self,  however, had their own historical roots, as we can see in Kepler’s Somnium, and remarkable staying power, as evidenced in Watson’s self-fashioned maverick in The Double Helix.

Frankenstein’s enduring popularity, I believe, rests in part on our continued belief that hubris and empathy co-exist as a necessary duality in the modern ideal of a scientist. This of course says far more about our social expectations than about actual scientists, who have continued (above all else) to be human. As our cultural imagination imbues scientists with ever greater capacity to transform the world, we continue to hope that they balance this weighty prerogative with moral virtue—lest they unthinkingly create monsters.

1. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein: The 1818 Text, Contexts, Criticism, ed. J. Paul Hunter (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2012), 10. See also, Janice Cavell, “The Sea of Ice and the Icy Sea: The Arctic Frame of Frankenstein,” Arctic 70/3 (2017), 295-307.

2. Shelley, Frankenstein, 13-14, 23, 28, and 35.

3. Frederique Ait-Touati, Fictions of the Cosmos: Science and Literature in the Seventeenth Century, translated by Susan Emanuel (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011).

4. Max Caspar, Kepler, translated and edited by C. Doris Hellman, with a new introduction and references by Owen Gingerich (New York: Dover Publications, 1993), 37.

5. Johannes Kepler, The Six-Cornered Snowflake: A New Year’s Gift (Philadelphia, PA: Paul Dry Books, 2010).

6. Johannes Kepler, Somnium; The Dream, or Posthumous Work on Lunar Astronomy, translated with a commentary by Edward Rosen (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1967).

7. Caspar, Kepler, 351.

8. Kepler, Somnium, 5, 59, 60, 65, and 15.

9. Miguel Granada, “Kepler and Bruno on the Infinity of the Universe and of Solar Systems,” Journal for the History of Astronomy 39 (2008), 469-495.

10. Caspar, Kepler, 239-257.

11. Kepler, Somnium, 29.

12. James D. Watson, The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA: Text, Commentary, Reviews, Original Papers, ed. Guenther S. Stent (New York: Norton, 1980).

13. James D. Watson, Avoid Boring People: Lessons from a Life in Science (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 19-20.

14. Preceding quotes, Watson, The Double Helix, 9, 69, 166, 20, 226 and 223. Anne Sayre directly refutes Watson’s portrayal in Rosalind Franklin and DNA (New York: Norton, 1975); for a more balanced account of her life and scientific contributions see Brenda Maddox, Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA (New York: HarperCollins, 2002).

15. Watson, The Double Helix, 163.

16. Alex Comfort, “Two Cultures No More,” Manchester Guardian (May 16, 1968), 10.

17. F. R. S., “Notes of a Not-Watson,” Encounter (July 1968), 60-65.

18. Robert L. Sinsheimer, “The Double Helix (1968),” Science and Engineering (September 1968), 4-6.

19. Shelley, Frankenstein, 157.

Erika Lorraine Milam

Erika Lorraine Milam is Professor of History at Princeton University and has written extensively on evolutionary theories of sex and aggression. She is author of the forthcoming Creatures of Cain: The Hunt for Human Nature in Cold War America (Princeton University Press, 2019) and Looking for a Few Good Males: Female Choice in Evolutionary Biology (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010), and is co-editor with Robert A. Nye of Scientific Masculinities (University of Chicago Press, 2015). When she first read Frankenstein, she was ten years older than Mary Shelley had been when she wrote it.