In January 1818, a woman barely out of her teens unleashed a terrifying tale on the world: the story of a doctor who builds a creature from scavenged body parts, then recoils in horror, spurns it, and sees his friends and family destroyed by the monster. Two hundred years later, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is still essential reading for anyone working in science. The ill-fated creator she portrays has influenced public perception of the scientific enterprise unlike any other character, forever haunting the borderland between what science can do and what it should do.
The story has mutated and it has frequently been mangled. It has spawned countless books, plays, and movies—some pictured on these pages—and even a super- hero comic. It has inspired technophobes and scientists alike. “Franken-” has become a passe-partout prefix for anything deemed unnatural or monstrous.
Interpretations of the tale have also multiplied. A story of scientific hubris, a creator consumed by his creation, a male scientist trying to eliminate women’s role in reproduction, an attempt by Shelley to deal with the trauma of losing a baby. To the growing group of scientists pondering the ways in which science might eventually destroy humanity, it is the earliest warning of such risks.
None of this quite captures the secret of the story’s longevity. To borrow the monster’s own description of indelible knowledge, Shelley’s tale “clings to the mind … like a lichen on the rock.” In the preface to the 1831 edition, Shelley wrote: “Now, once again, I bid my hideous progeny go forth and prosper.” It did. And it still does.