Reanimating Frankenstein’s creature — and its lessons for medical ethics

As the frightful holiday of Halloween approaches, a physician and ethicist at Washington University School of Medicine would have us asking questions first posed by the teenage author of a timeless scary story.

In Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, a determined scientist creates an unusual being — one who suddenly appears as an adult human, but enters the world knowing nothing about it, in the manner of a child. The gentle creature comes to love nature and learns about humanity by observing people. However, when he eventually attempts to communicate with people, he is rejected due to his grotesque appearance. It is only after this rejection that the creature is driven to a violent rampage in which he destroys the very things he desired.

This riveting tale is often portrayed as a horror story of gruesome thrills. However, Ira J. Kodner, MD, the Solon and Bettie Gershman Professor of Surgery and director of Washington University’s Center for the Study of Ethics and Human Values, thinks Shelley’s seminal novel foreshadows many of the ethical, medical and social challenges our society confronts today.

Kodner will present The Science of Frankenstein: Medical Ethics and Frankenstein’s Monster on October 25 at the Saint Louis Science Center. His themes will include:

  • human nature and the power of isolation — How do we deal today with the underserved, the ugly or the deformed in our own society? (health care for the uninsured, HIV/AIDS, the disabled, rationing of health care and our aging population)
  • issues in scientific experimentation with life (embryonic stem cell research, genetic manipulation)
  • fears of science
  • the essence of being human
  • what is acceptable science, and when does it go too far?
  • the misuse of power

Just as the doctor in the novel displays passionate determination to attempt the seemingly impossible, the best intentions of modern medicine have generated some of the greatest successes and some of the worst nightmares. “We deal with ethical issues in medicine every day,” says Kodner. “We must constantly adjust the balance between doing some harm and ultimately doing good.

“It’s as if this young woman, just 19 years old when she wrote the novel, understood what was ahead for medicine and society, ” Kodner says of the perennial classic’s author. “She was an incredible genius who recognized the problems that confront humanity.”

The Science of Frankenstein: Medical Ethics and Frankenstein’s Monster will be presented as part of Science Café on October 25 from 6:30 pm to 9:30 pm at the Saint Louis Science Center. The interactive forum consists of a lecture, refreshments and round table discussions with the speaker. For tickets ($20 person, $10 students, discounts available for Missouri Botanical Garden and Saint Louis Science Center members) and information, visit or call 314-289-4424 (toll-free 800-456-SLSC).