"They may come up with a disease that can't be cured, even a monster. Is this the answer to Dr. Frankenstein's dream?"
The time was the early 1970s. The speaker was the mayor of Cambridge, Massachusetts, warning against a proposed DNA laboratory at Harvard University. Today, we almost expect to hear references to "Frankenstein"--whether monster, scientist, novel, film, image, or myth is often unclear--whenever some powerful new technology poses risk to humankind or challenges our ideas of what it means to be human. The atomic bomb, interspecies organ transplants, genetic engineering, and cloning, among many others, have each prompted such warnings; Mary Shelley's hideous brainchild continues to embody and express our fears.
The Search for Balance
What is "acceptable" science and medicine? Who decides?
How can society balance the benefits of new medical discoveries against ethical or spiritual questions they may pose? Or the human urge to know and understand against problems arising from that knowledge?
Researchers have made such seemingly philosophical questions as timely as tomorrow's headlines. The transplantation of tissue from one species to another raises them. So does the use of dissected human corpses in medical research. But the process of resolving both issues has profited from an openness of public debate that Victor Frankenstein, alone in his laboratory, could scarcely have imagined.
The smallpox vaccine, originally prepared from the lesions of people infected with cowpox (a much milder disease contracted from cows), made many people fearful--of cow-borne disease, of usurping God's will, of the unknown. This 1802 cartoon shows Edward Jenner, the vaccine's discoverer, administering it, as previous vaccine recipients erupt with cow-like features.
Animal Organs in Humans: Unresolved Risks
The Greek word xenos means stranger or guest; a xenograft is the transplantation of organs and tissue from one species to another. Desperately ill patients, today condemned to early death, might some day live years longer should biomedical advances permit them to receive baboon hearts, pig livers, and other animal organs.
But what of the public health risks, such as the transmittal of animal viruses to humans? And what of the moral dangers in usurping the "natural" order? These issues remain unresolved. But today, unlike Mary Shelley's time, they are debated openly.
This infant, known only as Baby Fae to protect her privacy, was born with a fatal heart defect. In 1984, she became the first infant to receive a baboon heart transplant; she died twenty days later.
Human Dissection: A Social Consensus
In 1993, technicians sliced the body of an executed murderer into thousands of razor-thin sections. Today, photographed and digitized, these tissue sections help teach anatomy and surgical techniques, and people can view them for free on the World Wide Web. The researchers who undertook The Visible Human Project (sponsored by the National Library of Medicine) sought and received the condemned man's permission to use his body. Social consensus on issues of human dissection represents the culmination of years of public debate, from before Mary Shelley's time to our own.
The Price of Secrecy
In Mary Shelley's novel, Victor Frankenstein keeps silent about his grisly project. He says nothing of the creature's escape, nor of what he knows about his brother William's murder--and so lets an innocent girl be hanged for the crime.
Today, biomedical knowledge withheld from the public similarly risks doing harm. Tobacco industry executives, for example, long ago learned of nicotine's addictiveness, but kept quiet about it. On the other hand, the Human Genome Project, rich with promise of medical breakthroughs, has laid open to public scrutiny issues raised by genetics research, and makes public the knowledge it gathers.
On April 14, 1994, chairmen of the leading tobacco companies testified before Congress that nicotine is not addictive. By 1963, however, tobacco industry scientists knew that the nicotine in cigarettes was addictive. But they never advised the office of the U.S. Surgeon General, which in 1964 issued its report linking smoking and lung cancer. "One can speculate only with enormous regret," observed former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, "how knowledge of the nicotine's addictiveness might have influenced the report, thus saving countless lives."
Dolly and the Frankenstein Syndrome
In early 1997 word reached America that Scottish researchers had cloned a sheep--"Dolly." There was widespread excitement and amazement at what these scientists had achieved. But there was also troubled speculation.
Can we let scientists who hold the kind of power cloning represents proceed without constraint? Dare we embrace such a breakthrough's benefits heedless of its risks? This time, society answered "no" to both questions. Newspapers, magazines, and broadcast media seized on the cloning issue. People wrote letters to the editor, called talk shows, took to the Internet. President Clinton asked the National Bioethics Advisory Commission to investigate; in the meantime, he issued a moratorium on human cloning.
Mary Shelley's scientist, Victor Frankenstein, had done just as he pleased, in secret, with disastrous consequences to himself and others. Scientists involved in cloning in the United States, on the other hand, are able to pursue their research only with the oversight of an alert and knowledgeable citizenry and its social and governmental institutions.
For those few months in early 1997, cloning epitomized society's struggle to navigate the shoals of unsettling scientific change. But as science more deeply penetrates the secrets of nature, issues like cloning will arise again and again. Each time they do, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein will sound its note of warning.