Frankenstein, His Monster, Grave-Robbers and Anatomists, written by Stanley Wilkin at

Frankenstein, His Monster, Grave-Robbers and Anatomists

Frankenstein, His Monster, Grave-Robbers and Anatomists

written by: Stanley Wilkin



‘…..the ability to regard the human corpse as an object of close physical study represents a cultural detachment of no small dimension.’ Ruth Richardson. Death, Dissection and the Destitute. Routledge and Kegan Paul. 1988: 31.

‘Such hardening of medical students may irreparably sever them from their natural human response to death and human bodies, and replace it with a cold thirst for facts and observations from an inanimate ‘cadaver’ object. This may encourage and teach students to relate to their future patients in the same cold light, as a teaching material, to be used as required.’ Francis and Lewis 2001. What price dissection? Dissection literally dissected. Journal of Medical Ethics 27: 2-9.


By the early 19th century physicians in France and Germany had formed professional institutions due to a large extent to their involvement with the respective states. In Britain this alignment took longer to emerge and was accomplished through doctor’s exhaustive use of the corpses of the poor and, as elsewhere, the growth of hospitals. In effect, in all countries physicians developed their status and power through their relationship with the poor, especially those at the bottom of European societies. The events of this period effectively eliminated most medical competition within the general population, leaving physicians to assert their views on the body and mind with little fear of contradiction.

This work will consider the expansion of hospitals, the rise of anatomy, anatomy schools, bodysnatching, the expansion of hospital medicine and the novel Frankenstein, which throws light on commonly held perceptions of the poor, relevant in medical delivery to the present day. It will endeavour to demonstrate how doctors assumed control of the body, and, see above, in Britain became part of the state.
Near the end of this paper is a review of Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus’, connecting the ideas of the novel with Natural Science and medicine. Here, Frankenstein is seen as an emerging archetype of doctors in that period, linked to anatomists and their practices. In this section, I denote where a number of the observations on Frankenstein are linked to the rest of the text through the employment of ‘a’, onwards, indices. At times, more than one indices has been applied, within or outside the main identified theme.

The situation in France:

Before considering the situation in Britain, this paper will first briefly look at events in France where the association between physician and state reflected, although not completely, the physician’s present-day status. Here, in select environments, the physician was king.

Following the revolution, physicians in France now had complete control over both hospitals and patients,  who were probably without exception their social inferiors.  According to Risse (1999:310), patients gave over ownership of their bodies to doctors once they entered the hospital. Autopsies became routine, the principal method of understanding diseases, and the principle method of classification. By such methods, the errors of the ancients were gradually revealed and new explanations were discovered. Accumulative use of autopsies often served to overturn new conclusions.

Refined diagnosis, as the result of human-dissection, became a means of achieving prestigious hospital posts or money-spinning private practices. As in Britain, concentrating on human-dissection, which doctors (both surgeons and, increasingly, physicians) performed in large numbers, gained or preserved status, acquired students, and thereby increased commercial prominence. Moral issues, sparing relatives’ feelings, concerns over the provenance of corpses (particularly in Britain), became irrelevant (a). Actions contained within the hospital or/and dissecting rooms became largely removed from legal or ethical causation.   Conceptualisation of diseases, framing them accurately within approved frameworks of observation, became essential. In this fashion, physicians reclaimed the status and scientific respectability that the profession lost prior to and immediately after the revolution (Risse, 1999: page 316). Style and efficacy found a new paradigm in France. Such developments helped create or reinforce the connection between science and medicine, although, while developments in diagnosis occurred, the curing of disease remained largely a distant dream.

British Hospitals:

In order to obtain the distance required from their patients, coupled with increased financial security, physician’s assumed a sense of social and intellectual superiority to those they treated. In fact, the position of the scholarly physician had begun to permeate down the ranks to the jobbing medical practitioner. Once again, this was constructed upon the poor, in line with the increased physician/policing  (b) activity towards that group, turning them into dependent units of ill-health, creating victimhood from their poverty.

Power constructs perception. This idea has come down to us from Plato and remains forever relevant. Ideas can be seen as determined by political and social changes subject to or rebelling against overt or concealed modes of power. Medicine over the past three hundred years or more, through the development of exclusive medical buildings or villages and the connection between doctors and the state, has meant that power and medicine are now irretrievably linked. Our perceptions of the world have been shaped by medicine. Medical ideas infuse our lives through perceptions of normative behaviour, commonness of appearance, interpretations of character, motivations and decision making. (b) In the modern world we have now ceased to own our own bodies. At first power resided with patrons , and in the 19th century increasingly to physicians and surgeons. During the 19th century there was increasing patient demand for hospital space and services, the result, perhaps, of hard working urban inhabitants and country labourers to be temporarily free of their troubles, and the concomitant rise in hospital beds from the middle of the 19th century onwards. Henderson (2000: et al) writes that another reason was the greater status of hospital medicine and surgery, but this is difficult to believe before the invention and use of anaesthetics. Prior to this, palliative care must have been the chief reason for attending a hospital, a necessary relief from day to day toil for many and therefore a genuine opportunity for wounds to heal and diseases to abate.

From the latter part of the 18th century (Henderson, et al: 2000: 24), doctors rather than hospital governors determined hospital admissions, staff appointments, and general policy. Consequently, there was considerable nepotism involved in these processes, especially as, like now, training to be doctors involved several generations of the same families. Some asylums were run as family businesses. Hospital medicine became different from non-hospital medicine, involving a growing number of new techniques and instruments. The medicine, according to Henderson (et al.), was conceptually based in pathological anatomy, situated in post-mortem processes and the laboratory. This has allowed for a view of illnesses/diseases as subject to temporary remedies, and dependence upon medical environments. Hospitals had some success during this period, and it later became mandatory to consider hospitals as the proper place of care-certainly once issues of cleanliness were confronted. More illnesses were exponentially identified, including instances of physical diversity that were ignored by doctors and people alike. Also, the removal of patients for several weeks or months from the local, larger community created a medical mind-set where certain social classes began to be viewed, often indiscriminately, as patients, with a number of negative connotations attached. Although not exclusively so, two personality types emerged from the development of hospital care, based upon structured dichotomies: intelligent/unintelligent, lazy/vigorous, dependent/independent and finally professional/layperson (b). Such divisions were made possible by the seclusion of treatment and the development of small, walled off communities with their own elite.

General Hospitals, voluntary institutions established for charitable reasons, remained places where morality determined fitness for treatment. One of these, like now, could be for disobeying a doctor or ignoring medical advice. In ‘Investigating the deserving poor: charity and voluntary hospitals in nineteenth-century Birmingham’  (g) Jonathan Reinarz demonstrates the large number of patients ejected for misbehaviour.

In pursuit of his evidence, Reinarz passes doubt on the depersonalisation of medical care as propounded by Foucault and others, noting both the naming and reasoning of individual patients. They were not regarded as simply numbers or containers of one symptom/diagnosis or another. They retained a voice. As this is early in the process of medical industrialisation, these may be local factors he has revealed, based upon the local, charitable nature of the hospitals where patients were in the main already known to staff.
Where the education of doctors was concerned, the situation in Britain remained chaotic, with the same hotchpotch of training. There were those who had according to M. Jeanne Peterson  a classical university education with the obligatory study of Greek and Latin medical texts, to training in an apothecary’s shop, with the continued assortment of empirics and drug peddlers. Peterson considers early 19th century physicians to be organised through Webian pre-industrial status groups: differing duties, legal privileges and social ranks.

As in France, but to a lesser extent, laboratories became both public areas of demonstrating medical/dissecting skills, where doctors acted as officers of the state, butcher/surgeons, and natural scientists, and places of mystery where experimentation on willing or unwilling patients was conducted. Medicine also became allied to Museum Medicine where animal corpses, in various states of preservation, and choice human corpses that preserved particular deformities or diseases were kept for teaching purposes and public viewing. Imitated from Parisian examples, these museums became places for research, instruction, income, and career advancement , connecting pathology and clinical advertisement. They became an approved route for doctors seeking an academic career, and the London College of Surgeons required a doctor to own and run (Bates: 2010: 55) a museum before they were recognised as private teachers.

The development of observation as a credible method of diagnosis , involving physical examination, pathological examination and data collection, required a large, permanent environment. The idea of lesions, still appropriate, as the cause of disease, ensured the gathering together of medical people, and medical technology. As stated in my previous paper, interest accordingly turned from the patient to the disease, which was then studied in isolation. With many patients gathered together in the new hospitals, based upon training and doctor employment, similarities between symptoms were noted and categorised. The invention of medical tools, such as the stethoscope, facilitated distance between doctor and patients. Consequent to these developments, patient’s increasingly lost power over their own bodies and within hospital confines occupied the lowest possible social role.

The architecture of hospitals allowed for the development of power constructs, whereby they were structured for patients to be guided into sanctioned areas, with other areas, deeper within the hospital to be exclusively those of the more eminent staff members. There were few, if any areas, where staff and patients interacted and most interaction that occurred was already clinically based or restricted to the manipulation of screaming bodies and corpses. In such a fashion medicine became clouded in mystery, the abode of a highly-skilled and developed elite. With the employment of laboratory medicine, the connection between doctors, cures and mad seclusion (real or imagined) appeared in all its advantages and disadvantages for the patient. By then, a patient’s fate was further removed into the internal power structure of the hospital and its environs.

Medical Dissection:

In England, Henry V111 in 1540 gave the united companies of Barbers and Surgeons the right to the bodies of 4 executed criminals for dissection. This presented an important step in the connection between the medics and the state, the ruling elite and judiciary, dissection and exemplary punishment (Richardson: 1988: 32). Dissection became recognised as a punishment, one added to the painful execution of felons that affected the soul, Christian and Greek concepts of the body’s material unviability, and, as a result, provided a fate worse than death. Bodies were transferred from hangman to surgeon at the gallows, affording a public display of this appalling punishment, which the authorities hoped acted as an effective deterrent. The general public were both fearful and disgusted. Richardson (1988: 34) connects this behaviour to the earlier practice of hanging, drawing and quartering, pointing out that its executors were medical men who were helping humankind by extending medical knowledge, rather than paid executioners/torturers. By becoming servants of the state ‘The Company of Barbers and Surgeons’ gained status and, they hoped, royal preference.

In 1752 an Act of Parliament gave judges’ discretion as to what happened to a body after execution, whether the criminal’s corpse should be placed on a gibbet or dissected. Both the gibbet and dissection denied the victim a final resting place, therefore perpetual damnation. With the 1752 Act, dissection became the rule rather than a matter of judicial preference, with more crimes, other than murder, resulting in hanging. It was stated that no murderer should suffer to be buried (Richardson: 1988: 37). By now, surgeons were regarded as agents of the crown and acquired official protection. The 1752 Act also helped the students of the Royal Academy of Arts, which acquired bodies for its students, to hone their anatomical and drawing skills. A cast of one such unfortunate, both flayed and displayed, exists in the Royal Academy.

In the latter half of the 18th century private anatomy schools appear to have obtained greater prominence, especially in London. This was partly due to the inadequacy of the Company of Surgeons. These schools had no genuine authority to teach anatomy and no legal right to corpses. According to Richardson (1988: 40), the Company of Surgeons examinations were dire, far inferior to that of Europe and this resulted in a high number of deaths during surgery or afterwards. The development of rapid surgery by William Cheselden, whereby limbs for example were amputated at extraordinary speed to limit shock, improved statistics, but by and large surgery remained similar to ancient times-with little improvement. Surgery was of course performed on frightened people without anaesthetics. Patients would scream, thrash around and cry as surgical tools dug into the flesh. Devoid by now of alternative treatments, usually patients had little choice in the matter.

Richardson (1988: 50) suggests that clinical objectification was extended to the screaming, writhing bodies of the living undergoing surgery, although it remained much easier to objectify a corpse. She holds that the individuality of the living was put at risk, especially of charity patients, describing the process as one of social alienation. This was partly the consequence of the industrialisation of society, with workers no more than cogs.

This social alienation, focused on the desperate, the poor and criminals, can be seen in the life of Dr Knox, the anatomist principally involved with the bodysnatchers Burke and Hare, and also in Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein: or, the Modern Prometheus.   Richardson (1988: 51) points also to the transformation of the human corpse from an object of veneration into an object of scientific study, entrepreneurial satisfaction and into an object of commercial exchange: a commodity.

Growth in legal and illegal dissections:

Grave robbing was commonplace in the early 18th century. Richardson (1988: 55) believes that it was around this time that the human corpse was first viewed as a commodity. By the early part of the 19th century, with anatomists less involved with acquiring corpses but now merely receivers, exhumation had become a matter of public scandal. Perhaps, because many of the exhumed bodies were of the poor, little action was taken. Nevertheless, testimony by Sir Astley Cooper, recalled by Richardson (1988: 63), shows that one surgeon at least admitted that he would happily dissect the corpses of wealthier individuals if and when they could be obtained, pointing out in a statement to  a Parliamentary Select Committee (b/d)  that his practice was not against the law.

It should be remembered, that this was also a period of industrialised slavery in the USA, in which Britain had been for a long time deeply involved. The idea that some human beings were less important than others was commonplace and effectively a colonial construct, whether of Benjamin Franklin with regard to indigenous Americans, plantation owners and black people from Africa, industrialists in Britain and their workers (including children), French aristocrats and their useful peasants. This colonisation concentrated on the body, employing the urban poor to make wealth through repetitive labour, black slaves employed instead of machines and for casual sex, and peasants throughout Europe used on the land to enable aristocrats to live lives of luxury and pleasure, and in addition also to function as cannon fodder to defend the state, as understood as the aristocratic elite. Colonisation of India and Africa confirmed the power constructs and sense of (male) superiority evident throughout Western Europe.

Medical doctor’s employment of living and dead bodies had the same or similar focus on power and control, gradually mirrored by their greater power within hospitals. Human corpses were established as non-property, belonging neither to their families nor owners. At this time also, anatomy collections were commonplace, viewed as public exhibits, consisting of human and animal freaks. This has not yet died out.

Robert Knox:

Robert Knox is famous for his involvement with Burke and Hare, and their illegal acquisition of corpses for medical dissection. An ambitious physician based in Edinburgh, he trained at Edinburgh University, arriving there three months after leaving school in November 1810. The only entry requirements were half a crown to pay for matriculation and a knowledge of Latin in order to get through the final exams and write a short thesis (Bates: 2010: 20). The course lasted three years and at the beginning of each term students bought tickets for those lectures they wanted to attend. As the university was not collegiate, like Oxford and Cambridge, it did not provide student accommodation nor regulate student behaviour. Consequently many students ran riot without any authority to check them. Later, when a celebrated anatomist, Knox complained of the quality of university students, who were, he concluded, unable to read, spell or write (Bates: 2010: 63).

Anatomy, according to early 18th century anatomists, as widely taught in universities and colleges, cost students, at times, their humanity and religion. Human bodies, these wondrous creations of god, were reduced to: ‘certain assemblages of organs, holding relations, often mechanical, to each other.’   As Knox held (1854b: 393), the student could become unfeeling, looking upon that accumulating heap, ‘-that horrible Tower of Babel, composed of the fragments of human bodies of all languages and nations?’ (e)

A.W. Bates (2010) demonstrates that in the 19th century the human body was largely taboo, not just for religious reasons, but was also an object, when alive (or, to some, dead), of worship, lust and of social position. To be dissected meant you were at the bottom of the 19th century social pile. Of equal importance was a belief, promoted by Christianity, in the incorruptible bodily form, whereby beautiful women remained beautiful and important people did not decay. To destroy a physical ideal, in Christian terms, was for many horrifying. Cutting into and dismembering the human body was sacrilege.

Out of these practices grew a transcendental understanding of anatomical studies, whereby the interrelatedness of all things was searched for amongst the mush of organs and other body parts. The archetype fashioned probably as a result of disgust and disappointment in human mundanity, was likened by Goethe to ‘a vast musical symposium,’ (Bates: 2010: 23). As we will see, the uncomfortable nature of the human physical form was turned into heroic symbolism by Mary Shelley in ‘Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus’, whereby higher values are searched for as a result of the body’s desecration.

Robert Knox resembled Frankenstein in pursuing ‘knowledge for the sake of knowledge’, and his desire to ‘discover in the interior the secrets of the organisation, the mysterious laws of transcendentalism and the theory of life’ (2010: 24) (b). Frankenstein, although this view has been challenged,  represents the emerging archetype of the scientist, a term not invented at the time Shelley wrote the novel, or natural philosopher who neglected his life in pursuit of knowledge. In fact, Frankenstein represents an earlier pursuit of knowledge represented by alchemists, be it Faust or Isaac Newton. Early in his studies, Frankenstein in fact describes his love for alchemy.

Knox failed his viva voce in anatomy the first time so he put himself in the class of an extramural anatomy teacher. At the time the only lawful acquisition of corpses until the 1832 Anatomy Act was through voluntary donation or the gallows (Bates: 2010: 26). This opened entrepreneurial potential for the resurrection men or bodysnatchers.


From 1825-1828, Knox, established in Edinburgh, published many papers and his reputation grew. By this time, anatomy was universally held to be the ‘foundation of medical science.’ As such, it consumed the time of many medical students (Bates: 2010: 58). The glut of medical students studying in Edinburgh at the time meant that demand far exceeded legal supply (Bates: 2010: 58). By this time there was a European market in corpses, with Parisian dead being transported regularly to London for dissection. Nevertheless, in Edinburgh the retrieval of corpses from graves, or acquisition of corpses before internment, was common knowledge, widespread and lucrative. As a result of anatomical schools, dead human bodies had become a commodity. Ruth Richardson (1988: 52) holds that corpses first became a commodity in the late 17th century or early 18th century at the time that dissection became viewed as part of the punishment of malcontents. So fierce had competition become that by 1829 bodies cost £10 to 25 guineas each, a considerable sum. Knox, at this time, attempted to obtain a supply from London, offering up to £50 for each. While engaging in barely legal activities (e/g), Knox lectured on transcendental anatomy as part of his general anatomical teaching. One reason for this appears to have been to raise the intellectual level of anatomy, from that of material fit for mechanics to that of philosophy.

Burke and Hare:

The above resurrectionists and opportunistic murderers became involved with Knox by chance, dealing initially with his assistants (Bates: 2010: 66). Burke and Hare’s victims were largely found in the Old Town, a depressing, filthy slum, and mainly prostitutes and vagrants. Evidence suggests that Knox preserved one voluptuous, young prostitute’s body in alcohol for lectures on human muscles (b). The route to dissection, and/or subsequent public display, depended on the social status of the corpse when alive and concerns with the moral turpitude of the very poor urban populations. Like faulty parts of machinery, people were thrown away.

The involvement of Knox revolved around his ignoring of evidence of murder (Richardson: 1988: 136) and the general ease by which his school accepted corpses. Witnesses at a subsequent enquiry asserted that one body in particular was still warm with no evidence of prior burial. Knox kept his silence over the matter, coming under immense pressure from peers and the general populace, many of which gathered in protest outside his Edinburgh school. An effigy of Knox was carried through the street (Richardson: 1988: 138). Throughout, Knox remained arrogant, unwilling to justify himself or enter into conversation with those he perhaps considered beneath him as a driven scientist and teacher (b/e).

The Knox, Burke and Hare association encouraged the institution of a new law put forward by Henry
Warburton, an advocate of Benthamite politics, in 1829: Bill for preventing the Unlawful Disinterment of Human Bodies, and for Regulating Schools of Anatomy. This, in effect, merely provided clarity in how anatomy schools acquired bodies, its main intention appearing to separate anatomists from criminal elements and further restrict dissection to the poor, especially the workhouse poor (Richardson: 1988: 152). According to the Bill, all unclaimed poor would be subject to dissection. As there was evidence at the time, that the poor were being experimented on within hospitals, a fact generally acknowledged by that victimised class, this was not a huge step for medical men to take.

The Anatomy Act of 1832 confirmed that anatomists would receive the bodies of the destitute, concluding physician’s relationship with the poor, identifying the nature of the poor and affirming state involvement in medicine.

Knox, exonerated by the enquiry, continued to prosper, moving to the Old Surgeon’s Hall, now the University of Edinburgh Faculty of Social Sciences Graduate School. Nevertheless, the passing of the Anatomy Act limited his supply of corpses, causing difficulties in his teaching work. By 1836, Knox was no longer offering practical as well as descriptive anatomical teaching as his supply of corpses seems to have dried up (Bates: 2010: 97) By 1840 he appears to have been short of funds, his anatomical work having seriously declined.

As the destitute had no clear purpose according to Benthamite thinking, use made of their corpses had both a moral and scientific justification. They gave aid to the future. Here, we move onto a novel and its central characters, which, even if published before Burke and Hare’s opportunistic money-making endeavours and the Anatomy Act, personifies the character of the dissectionist and of many aspects of medicine in both the past and present.

The employment of the body as a teaching prop within the theatre of the dissecting room, open to students and public, purposed its use to instruction and entertainment. It provided careers in strict academic and scientific establishments, but equally in private establishments and those with fewer qualification barriers. A History of the Exeter Hospitals 1170-1948  describes the corpse of a murderer who killed both his parents( 56) being anatomised and his bones subsequently displayed as a ‘striking example to all parricides’, hospital authorities thereby inculcated into legal processes, including the institution of moral judgements. In 1797 a surgeon of ‘exceptional talent’ arrived at the above hospital, the son of an apothecary-surgeon in Tottenham Court Road. His father erected a museum to display their anatomical achievements, which was wrecked by a mob, possibly for what it contained. He opened his own Theatre of Anatomy in Lincoln Inn Fields, and went on to research into and write about the lymphatic vessels, particularly improving injection treatments that were the result of his earlier expertise in embalming bodies. Lauded as these improvements were, they were nevertheless conducted on screaming patients who likely as not died while the operation was taking place. But acquiring knowledge, such as it was, was more important than patient suffering (b/e/g).

In this fashion, the body, both dead and alive, assumed much greater importance than the living patient and their cure. The number of patients dying, either during or after operations, merely added another body to the anatomical table. The iconic nature of the body, dead/alive, will be seen in the analysis below of Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley. What is clear (Russell: 1976) is the importance given to a doctor’s added prestige, treatises on one, often dubious, practice or another, and ideas of knowledge that surmounted human suffering or practitioner responsibility. But the skills lauded during this period and later are those of the artisan, the mechanic, not exhibitions of great intellectual capacity. Observation plays a part, but again often the observation merely contributes to a growing mountain of replicated evidence, not of cures.
Anatomy schools gradually died out and by 1971 dissection had become the preserve of the Hospital Anatomy Schools (Richardson: 1988: Appendix 1: Anatomy Schools in London:  1826 and 1871). Nevertheless, the bodies used after the act continued in the majority to be from hulks, hospitals and parishes.

Officers of the state:

The assumption of total power over patients established a connection between citizen and state, providing their bodies for treatment, cures and sacrifice, with physicians as overseers, fully-paid up government officials. Autopsies were viewed as patient’s ‘final contribution to society’ (Risse: 1999: page 310.) A contribution they had no control over if they were, likely as not, poor. As now, bodies were for the improvement of medical science not for the preservation of souls or objects of equality and care. Upon entering a hospital, the patient was under the authority of the doctors, who within each medical establishment now largely reigned supreme. At this point in time, we can see the modern physician emerging, their views paramount on matters of human beings and human nature, spreading out to take in all human situations and all human behaviour. During the first half of the 19th century, doctors often established new treatment facilities due to blocked promotions in older facilities, which often owed their success or failure to improved organisational achievements or treatments. Hospitals became laboratories for furthering empirical practices based upon observation, with poor patients fodder for the advancement of medicine.


A.W. Bates (2010: 161) concludes that the first instance in literature of, referencing Robert Knox, a ‘radical, atheistic and intellectually arrogant anatomist, probing nature’s secrets in a room hidden from the public gaze’ is seen in Disraeli’s Venetia or the Poet’s Daughter (1837) in the character Marmion Herbert, who a wealthy amateur, shut himself up in his castle and occupied himself with solving ‘the great secret.’ Herbert was apparently based on Percy Shelley and Byron, exhibiting their sense of superiority over their fellow creatures. According to Bates, in Victorian fiction ‘the anatomist characteristiocally enjoyed, and often abused, literal power over the bodies of his social inferiors, thus representing metaphorically the oppressive exercise of social authgority.

This paper takes the view that in fact Frankenstein predated this novel in its examination of this matter, did it much better, and based its main protagonist on the same complex individuals-the archetype remaining with us.

Frankenstein: The modern Prometheus was written by Mary Shelley, wife of the poet Percy Shelley, and daughter of two radical thinkers, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, between 1816 and 1817, and published in 1818. Its genesis occurred as the result of conversations in a Byron’s villa in Switzerland between Byron, Dr Polidori, who wrote perhaps the original Vampire story, and Percy Shelley. In her 1831 introduction to the novel Shelley effectively thereby distanced herself from responsibility for the story. What emerges in both the Frankenstein and Vampire stories are the nature of death, the material survival of the body, the creation of alternative forms of human life, and the generality of the human corpse.

The Frankenstein story, while enjoying numerous motives, also provides a critique of the scientist/physician. Frankenstein is an Italian aristocrat, born in Naples, but whose family are from Geneva. As a teenager he becomes deeply interested in alchemy, in particular Paracelsus, the Renaissance physician we met in an earlier essay. Paracelsus believed amongst other things, that human beings could be produced alchemically. This foreshadows his Monstrous creation through his later obsession, upon witnessing the power of lightening, with natural philosophy/anatomy and medical discoveries. He replicates Faust, here and later.

When he reaches 17, he is sent to Ingolstadt University, where he was introduced to modern natural philosophy in the shape of laboratories and machines. From that day onwards, Frankenstein became obsessed with chemistry and thereby the ‘structure of the human frame’ (2000: 56) and the mystery of life. As a consequence, he becomes enthralled with bodily decay. Determined to create, or rather recreate, life he became a bodysnatcher.

By attending university, Frankenstein loses his dreams of alchemic success, and studies modern natural philosophy instead, which he associates with the acquisition of ‘almost unlimited powers’ (pp 30-31), as the result of medical discoveries such as the circulation of the blood. As can be seen above, Frankenstein’s relationship to nature, the everyday but not thoroughly understood world, is through paradigms of conquest or ‘hunt, violate and enslave’ (Marsh, Nicholas: 2009: 231).  In addition it is concerned with colonisation, referred through Cherval, his long-time friend who expresses a desire to go to India and use his knowledge to aid ‘European Colonisation and trade’ (Frankenstein: 2000: 139). Frankenstein has in effect colonised death and life, usurping the role of a god or gods. On page 93 (Frankestein: 2000) the Monster tells Frankenstein that he ought to be his Adam, but instead has become his fallen angel. Earlier in the novel, Frankenstein’s love of Milton’s Paradise Lost is considered. This assumption of YHWH’s power is more an accusation of the obsessiveness, hubris and pride of natural philosophers/doctors with regard to their claims over and control of both the body and mind.

Although the creation of the Monster is described briefly, it appears to have involved unnamed instruments, connecting this event with the growing separation of patient and physician through the greater use of instruments, and electricity. As the Monster begins to breath, Frankenstein is horrified by what he has done and runs away. Frankenstein’s monster, who is actually without initial gender-identification, is thereby soon orphaned from his creator and identified as its creator’s enemy, replicating perhaps the European elite’s response to the growing monster of the working poor. Coming upon a blind old man in a forest, the Monster spies on him, his friends and family, notes their kindness, and learns to read. He relates strongly to the group’s melancholy. The Monster later discovers that the old man is descended from an influential family in Paris, and his son, Felix, attendant on his father, went to the protection of a falsely accused Turkish merchant. After risking all to release the Turkish merchant, Felix transports him and his beautiful daughter to Leghorn. Subsequently, both his father and sister are thrown into prison. The family were exiled by the French government. The Monster notes the injustice they suffer, and in secret does small kindnesses for them. Although he quickly becomes erudite, reading history and philosophy books that he steals from the cottage in which the family live, he continues to see the family as naturally superior. When, in a flush of hope and idealism, believing they share qualities of mind, they horribly reject him.

While observing the family, the Monster learns not only to read, but learns also the nature of gender, positive relationships and the common presence of injustice. 
These events involve the Monsters humanisation:
•       Learning through senses from a blank slate
•       Learning language from observation and imitation
•       Growing in intelligence as a consequence of learning
•       Learns about human society, how good and how monstrous it can be.
•       Learns how justice systems victimise the just the poor and downtrodden. Can in fact act monstrously.

The Monster flees distraught, and shortly after is shot by a peasant who believes that he is harming a young girl he has just saved from a river. In his subsequent journeying, he comes upon William, Frankenstein’s younger brother, whom he accidentally kills.

Frankenstein sees the Monster in Switzerland after the accidental killing, and believing him a murderer desires to destroy him. The mountain air is lit by lightening, according to Frankenstein, the source of life. Later, Frankenstein and the Monster meet up in the Alps, where the Monster, now anger and scarred by his experiences in a world in which he is rejected, tells Frankenstein of his experiences since his creation. Given how miserable his life is, the Monster asks for a mate. This, initially, Frankenstein refuses. The Monster attempts to persuade Frankenstein by affirming that he and his mate will leave Europe and hide away in the wilds of South America, eating nuts and berries.

Although Frankenstein consents to make the Monster a companion, upon travelling to the Orkneys to complete his task, followed closely by the Monster, he destroys his second creation. The Monster threatens revenge, which almost immediately occurs when the Monster kills Frankenstein’s closest friend, Henry Clerval. Frankenstein is suspected of the crime, and held by the local inhabitants. He is set free months later when it becomes clear he could not have done the deed. United with his father, they arrive in Paris and travel on to Switzerland. Frankenstein and his cousin marry, honeymooning in Italy. There the Monster kills Frankenstein’s new wife, and Frankenstein vows vengeance, chasing the Monster into the Arctic, where events reach a conclusion. Frankenstein dies and his inconsolable creation, the Monster, kills himself on a funeral pyre.

Themes and motifs in Frankenstein:

Those themes and motifs pertinent to the matter of physicians, bodysnatching and dissection will here be referenced from a onwards and likewise identified in the above text.

a) Anne Mellor (Fulford et al. pp. 170-171) constructed a reading of the text that describes male science as exhibiting a desire to dominate and control female nature, which is passive and willing and waiting to reveal its secrets. In A Critical History of Frankenstein (Frankenstein: 2000: 245) Joanna A. Smith describes how in the 1970s critics now saw the novel’s narrative structure as feminine and feminist, with the three male narrators as a commentary on the expropriation of the conventionally passive female voice. Yet, the narrative is throughout about control, fitting more closely archetypal male agendas. At all times, once the Monster is created, destruction of others is viewed as the only possible response, and subjugation is considered a perfectly correct political and social paradigm. Frankenstein kills the Monster’s mate, as the Monster kills both Frankenstein’s closest friend and Frankenstein’s wife. The courts kill Justine, wrongly convicted of the killing of William. Society, as a whole, seeks to destroy the Monster based upon his appearance alone.

b) Argued by Robert Kiely in 1972, Frankenstein is accused not only of Promethean assumption of divine practices, but also of an attempt to usurp women. In fact, physicians’ can be seen as attempting this from the Renaissance, supplanting women as medical treaters, especially of the poor. Male doctors were/had supplanted midwives in supervising the birth process, substituting machinery for hands. The main force of the accusation concerns female birthing, but this surely is symbolic? (b) Not only does Frankenstein create a child, his child in effect, but he also destroys a potential mother in the Monster’s putative mate. He rejects his ‘child’, the Monster, in contradiction of the apparent natural responses of care and protection afforded by mothers to their newly arrived offspring. Frankenstein runs away. Added to this, William’s carer, Justine, is accused and condemned as William’s murderer, a child she saw as a surrogate child. In Frankenstein, all mothers and female carers die. Many of the main characters are orphaned either as children or in teenage years. This may be reflective of Mary’s early experiences of child-bearing, and of her mother dying to give birth to her.

Ensconced in the immense symbolism of the novel, some commentators, identifying feminine qualities in Frankenstein, believe that he is representative of the female author (2009: 228)-Mary herself or the other female authors writing or soon to engage in authorship during this period and the following decades. Many employed male pseudonyms or wrote anonymously. Frankenstein’s rejection of his creation thereby suggests some ambiguity in Mary towards her own ‘hideous progeny’.

c) The Monster is described as not only hideous but huge. There appears to have been no adequate reason why it/he should have been so large and strong as it/he was made from bodies found in graves and in laboratories. The size of the Monster perhaps denotes two constructs: Frankenstein’s concept of masculinity as powerful and violent, thereby replicating the other monsters identified within the novel, the ruling elite and justice system: the amorphous mass of the emerging working class as a dangerous and destructive force. At first the Monster has no gender identification, but when he assumes a male identity he/it expresses it with violence.

d) It is possible that Mary Shelly took a studied approach towards her novel, intending it to be a critique of male constructs (see both above and below). It is generally agreed that Frankenstein, with his idealism, scientific enthusiasms and drives is a portrait of Percy Shelley and probably Byron as well. Percy’s encouragement of her pregnancies, with their subsequent failure, connected birth and death. With the death of her mother as a consequence of giving life to Mary, the novelist was early engulfed within the male world comprising then and now, dominance, certainty and control. Mary, we know, read her mother’s feminist tracts. While the book was engendering within her, in her first introduction, Mary gave much of the credit to her husband and Byron, presenting herself as a passive vessel. In this fashion, Mary both identifies with Frankenstein, the creator, and kills him for his hubris, sense of superiority and arrogance. While this may be substantially true, Frankenstein represents her own distancing and rejection of her creation. Frankenstein is punished in the novel by his rejected creation in part because he represents masculine authority and irresponsibility. His punisher is the Monster, representing the oppressed, downtrodden and wilfully colonised.

Mary (2009: 231) critiques Frankenstein’s science from a feminist perspective, noting the ‘gendered concepts and language’ (2009: 231) of scientists such as Davy, Bacon, Waldman and Frankenstein who need to ‘hunt, violate and enslave’ nature, rather than live in co-operation with nature and natural forces. Masculine science desires to impose its own values and precepts onto the world, rather than simply understand. By turning on him, Frankenstein’s creation, representing nature, fights back and attempts dominance over its creator. This also, I suggest, provides an uncomfortable analysis of medicine and its practitioners then and now.

e) The above is connected to my overall theme of the medical evolution of the aristocratic characteristics of superiority and power. As is the following:

The dissection room becomes symbolic of physician/scientific control, distance from patients and objectification. Frankenstein works alone, with minimum human contact. He attaches/detaches limbs and other body parts with tools/machines. The tools/machines reflect thereby the cold, objective gaze of the physician/scientist. This again reflects the tools of the physician’s trade, such as the stethoscope. Also, in the laboratory bodies would be dissected after hanging or the poor after exhumation. During the period that Frankenstein was being written, the dissecting room had assumed immense importance in the medical world, including hospitals.

f) Frankenstein creates life from the body parts of the recently dead he has discovered in dissecting rooms or dug from their graves. His removal of corpses and reuse of body parts reflects the old Mesopotamian belief, found also in the Old Testament, that god (s) made human beings from soil. Death throughout is a constituent of the novel, with many of the characters dying. Here, then, Frankenstein’s work reflects on physical corruption, the effect of disease and plague. The Monster travels throughout Europe killing those his creator cares for. Frankenstein, symbolic of physicians, represents the doctor as bringer of death as well as life.

g) Added to these propositions are Godwin’s (Mary’s father) interest in necromancy, whereby the dead can be brought back to life as friends and companions: ‘”Dry bones” live again as “friends”, “brother-men”’ that Godwin desires to have share his life.   Mary may too have desired to resurrect others in her creation of Frankenstein, to create a defence against loss. Also of a method of dealing with trauma, a part of everyday life at the time, where the traumas of death, surgery, dissection are confronted and confounded. The Monster is made up of many men, and many lives, broken, dissected pieces reassembled-he represents all human death. In a sense, Shelley took death away from the grave and mausoleum, places her father’s thinking haunted, and returned it to the living to grabble with. Although Carlson (2003) writes of trauma as essential to Shelley’s worldview, the trauma is as much of the dissection room, where she feared her mother’s body had ended up, as of death itself and loss. The novel occurs during the life of Mary Shelley’s mother, with Frankenstein’s death occurring on the very day her mother died.

Frankenstein is a novel of dissection, of science and medical practices, as well as the other many motifs described here. Although Frankenstein represents arrogant alchemists and scientists, he also represents physicians/surgeons of Shelley’s present, out of control and uninterested in the opinions of others, using bodies for science but also for career-enhancement, status and wealth. Frankenstein has no interest in his creation, the object that was to bring him fame, nor does he attempt to save Justine from execution. Each is merely part of his drive to knowledge and to fame and therefore are unimportant. By behaving in such a way, he represents a surgeon/physician archetype of the time, his hands deep into corpses. Frankenstein’s experiments are done outside of normal human socialisation, in the laboratory, in seclusion, as increasingly doctor’s dissections and treatments were done outside of public space; that is the greater environment. In hospitals, experiments on the dead and living were performed.

Before Frankenstein’s creation of the Monster, new, living/animated creatures were created whole from dust/clay, as in Genesis and ancient Mesopotamian myths or in the later Golem myths, but Frankenstein constructs his Monster from separate bits. At this period medicine was increasingly concentrating on the body as individual parts with their own pathologies. A leg was categorised as having illnesses/diseases peculiar to the leg. Again, in this aspect, Frankenstein resembles the early 19th century physician. The apparent reanimation of dead animals and human bodies by sending electric currents through inert forms, connects science to the story and Frankenstein’s character.

Bouriana Zakharieva (Frankenstein: 2000: 418: Frankenstein of the Nineties: The Composite Body) takes the notion of a body-montage further by highlighting the misogynies of the male conquest of birth, done in an inorganic as opposed to organic fashion. The Monster represents a new Adam, composed of raw materials reconstituted by electricity. He is at one all men (or women? As gender is not specified) the mob, the people, but instituted into a whole. The transcendental understanding advocated by Knox is thereby symbolised by the Monster.

h) While at university, Frankenstein, as with many medical students of the time dabbles in the ‘unhallowed damps of the grave’, attends dissecting rooms, and becomes remote from human society. While he is presented as a superior being, part of the Italian elite, the Monster, according to Nicholas Marsh represents the working class/revolutionary mobs of France in the previous century. He represents that section of society de-humanised by medical science, the objects of its endless experimentation. Warren Meeting Montag (2000) holds that the story occurs during the French Revolution, and concerns both the emergence of the working class in Britain and France but also the arrival of new frightening technologies. The Monster resembles in his hair colouring, black or dark, the poorer classes (Frankenstein: 2000: 43). Like the French royal family, Frankenstein’s loved ones die at the hands of the new man/mob/Monster.

According to Ruth Richardson, The Gothic, London, The Novel 1780-1832,   Shelly’s novel reflects the activities of bodysnatchers, busy then illegally claiming  newly deceased bodies from graves for medical dissection. When courting Shelley, Mary was living near the churchyard of Old St Pancras, notorious for bodysnatchers.

i) Frankenstein’s psychology is connected to his understanding of natural science, his social status, previous alchemical role models and autodidactic education before arriving at his university.  This results in extreme hubris, and social isolation. He sees only his scientific goal and has no interest in nature or other people (Marsh: 2009: 117).


The fevered, rampant dissections of the criminal, poor and disadvantaged in 18th and 19th century Europe was done for reasons of medical science but equally to sustain careers, many of which were built on private anatomical lessons before these activities were pulled under the umbrella of hospitals. As well, they performed a socioeconomic purpose by disposing of a large number of corpses that had become the responsibility of the authorities, at the same time providing a definition of poverty and the very poor. Then as now, poverty, or certainly destitution, made a person worthless; non-or-sub-human. Disposing of society’s waste products, while at the same time making financial or scientific use of them made good Benthamite and commercial sense. Urban growth had brought with it overcrowding and a number of social problems that were dealt with through the bloody assizes, deportation and as the end product of a supply chain to the dissection room. The categorisation of the poor was done by doctors, an elite, whose powers were expanding, who were by now embedded within the state as both collaborators and enforcers, through the acquisition of aristocratic mores and habits that included assumptions of intellectual superiority and indifference to others (Bates: 2010, Shelley: 1818, Disraeli: 1837).

Although Frankenstein is described by Shelley as a natural scientist, not a doctor, certain elements of his character and actions are a testament to anatomists and prefigure the growth of medical clinical behaviour. His character indeed fits in many ways the exposition above. Frankenstein’s indifference to others not like him, that is privileged and aristocratic, predicts, through his Monster his own downfall and that of his loved-ones. Frankenstein’s seclusion in his dissecting room and his removal from everyday life, in some ways fits in with the above descriptions of early 19th century medical doctors obsessed with dissection, and also, allowing for extrapolation, identifies the group traits associated with hospitals and clinical laboratories.

Nevertheless, this period immediately preceded a time of actual cures, founded upon the discovery of the lesion, which were perhaps not legitimised by the countless legal and illegal dissections. Doctors’, particularly anatomists’, behaviour enabled the severance of many the medical professions’ ties with the larger community, restrained though they were in Britain by the Anatomy Act of 1832. The processes involved the alignment of physicians with the state, operating beyond accountability in more recent times. Frankenstein references this period, perceiving a doctor/natural scientist operating outside of nature and of many notions of morality.

Here now we can come again to a definition of professionalism extrapolated from the above developments, one of groups sharing agreed knowledge, education and to some extent or another a world-view, connected to the state through paid positions (as in Prussia) or through contracts established through law. Also, in this period of professional-group evolution, professionals can already be defined by their relationship to the most disadvantaged groups in society.

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