Event report: February 15th meeting with Dr. Colin Kelcey – “Mary’s Warning”

In this event report, our newsletter editor Frances Lloyd summarises the presentation given by Dr. Kelcey about Mary Shelley and her novel Frankenstein.

Colin’s talk, illustrated with videos and pictures, was about Mary Shelley, her novel Frankenstein, the science at the time and how that science has progressed in the present day.

Mary was born in 1797 to Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin. Both her parents were great philosophers her mother being a feminist and her father a writer of political tracts. Mary’s mother died soon after her daughter was born and this coloured Mary’s life. Mary was highly intelligent and she used to sit in when friends of her father’s such as Percy Shelley, a poet, and Erasmus Darwin, a physician, would visit the house.

Mary wrote Frankenstein when she was 18. The story is of a student Victor Frankenstein who discovers the secret of life. He decides to construct a humanoid using bones etc. It is 8’ tall and Frankenstein is so horrified by what he’s created he rejects it and the creature runs away. The book then relates what happens with the creature after this. Mary’s novel was amended by Percy Shelley. It was published in 1818 though Mary – because she was a woman – didn’t put her name to it. The book is often seen today as the first science fiction novel.

Colin talked about the historical context of the novel. It was published at the dawn of the 19th century when the industrial revolution was revving up. There were political changes with a mass refugee problem in Europe and many people looking for work. It was also a period of major scientific advance. There was lots of talk in venues like coffee houses about science and Mary summed it up in Frankenstein. In the novel Professor Walton talks to Frankenstein about scientific advances. Mary was familiar with scientist Humphrey Davy’s ideas on chemistry which was a huge influence on her. His ideas loom large in the book. He believed that chemistry could change the world and would become the most important of the sciences.

In June 1816 Mary was staying at the Villa Diodati in Geneva. Lake Geneva gets extremes of weather and that year Mount Tambora in Indonesia had erupted and the resulting ash affected the climate. The weather at Geneva was described by Mary to her half-sister as being ‘the year without summer’. Mary was at the villa with Percy Shelley (with whom she had run off when she was 16), Lord Byron, Claire Clairmont (Mary’s half-sister and probably Byron’s girlfriend) and John Polidori, a physician and secretary to Byron. The group decided to each read aloud from a collection of German ghost stories. During the evening Byron issued a challenge that each of them writes a ghost story. It was to be a competition. The two who took it seriously were Mary and Polidori. Mary was clinically depressed having lost her baby daughter not long before. Mary won the competition with her creation of Frankenstein.

Frankenstein was very well received which reflects the 19th century interest in science and in the states of life and death. The novel was not alone in considering the boundary between life and death. In 1774 William Hayes and Thomas Coogan had set up the Royal Humane Society after looking into the feasibility of resuscitating people who had nearly drowned. At the time many people couldn’t swim despite living along rivers and waterways. Resuscitation kits were provided by the society at various points beside the Thames and other waterways. There were also receiving houses for casualties (Mary Wollstonecraft jumped off Putney Bridge and was brought back to life much against her wishes). There was concern that people could be buried alive e.g. paralysis or coma could appear as though the person was dead. There was a belief that death could be cured and that ‘putrefaction of the body the only certain way to say a person was dead’. In 1844 Edgar Alan Poe’s short horror story The Premature Burial’ was published. In 1896 The London Association for the Prevention of Premature Burial was founded. Contraptions such as safety coffins with bells, whistles and ejectors were made. Some graves had a window so it could be checked that the body was dead.

Mary and Percy Shelley believed the dead could be reanimated after their 4-year-old son apparently died but then lived for another 4 days. The work of Luigi Galvani, an Italian physician, who demonstrated how electricity can produce muscular stimulation, was influential and Mary mentioned in the Preface to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein that electricity can induce life (reanimation). Humphrey Davy believed chemicals could reanimate. The press at the time (serious and not so serious) made much of reanimation.

Where is this science 200 years later? How close have we come to Mary Shelley’s reality?

There are prosthetics, cochlear implants and transplants. Chimera research is about organ creation, injecting human stem cells into animals to create organs for humans. These stem cells have the potential to become the cells of any organ. Dr. Ren Xiaoping in China has plans to carry out a full body transplant. Biofabrication (3D bioprinting) is another example. Modern Galvanism is evident with defibrillators, pacemakers and electroconvulsive therapy. There are approximately 300 deep brain stimulations mostly for patients with Parkinson’s to stop tremors. There is also IVF and cloning (Dolly the sheep – why not a human?)

What has happened about reanimation? Two biotech companies in the US have been given the green light to bring people back from the dead. This experimentation will be carried out in India. Proof of concept is very scary ?? Cerebral organoids describes an artificially grown miniature organ resembling the brain.

In the 1800s advances in medical sciences outpaced social morals and ethics. Nowadays there are lots of moral and ethical concerns about this branch of science. The UN International Bioethics Committee follows progress in the life sciences and its applications in order to ensure respect for human dignity and human rights.