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It's (Still) Alive

A new exhibit reanimates Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and the controversy over bioethics


Ah, Frankenstein. Or more correctly, Frankenstein's monster. Frankenstein was the name of the doctor who crafted the legendary creature from spare body parts, while the monster went unnamed. That didn't stop him from killing his "father's" younger brother, and later, "daddy's" young wife. Quite an overachiever.

Of course, this tale of murder and family bickering was fiction, created by Mary Shelley in her 1818 novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. At the time, Shelley's novel aroused a furor because of its central theme of man supplanting God and the results of man's handiwork (that would be the killin' spree). In our sophisticated modern times, such a controversy would never arise over a novel; modern man has none of the "science phobia" that existed in Shelley's time, when man's mastery of science was in its infancy.

Think again, holmes. Kathleen Smith, librarian in history and genealogy for the St. Louis Public Library (1301 Olive Street, 314-539-0305), maintains that people still struggle with the same concerns about scientific advancements and their effects on our collective humanity. The library's new exhibit, Frankenstein: Penetrating the Secrets of Nature (running now through January 9), uses Shelley's novel as the point of origin for a series of discussions about the very same questions. Featured are large panels depicting early eighteenth-century experiments involving the electrical stimulation of corpses, early pacemaker designs, and of course, images of the Monster himself. The display ad-dresses "whether some things we can do are to the public's benefit, whether they're ethical," Smith says. Noting that "in St. Louis, we hear a lot more about the [genetically modified] plant issue than people do in other places. In fact, we asked folks at Monsanto if they would come and speak. You know, give them a chance to present their viewpoints, and the science behind what they're doing." Alas, Monsanto elected not to participate; it seems Frankenstein still has the power to stir up trouble, even after almost 200 years.

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