Victor von Frankenstein was the iconic mad scientist of the 19th century, but he had competition for that role. Here is the bizarre and uncanny history of the greatest mad scientists of the industrial age.
The first major mad scientist of the 19th century, Dr. Coppelius, predated Frankenstein by a year. Dr. Coppelius appeared in E.T.A. Hoffmann's classic horror story, "Der Sandmann" (1817), and Coppelius and "Der Sandmann" were so striking and unnerving that Sigmund Freud himself wrote an essay, "The Uncanny" (1919), about the effects on readers of Hoffmann's work. Frankenstein was successful upon publication, but it was not until Presumption; or, the Fate of Frankenstein, the popular 1823 stage adaptation of Shelley's novel, and the third, revised edition of Frankenstein in 1831 that Victor von Frankenstein began to cast a shadow over other mad scientists.
Even with the popularity of Frankenstein, mad scientists from later in the century often carried his influence lightly and were much more influenced by the genres in which they appeared. The mad scientist who detective Tom Fox captures, in John Bennett's casebook (proto-police procedural) Tom Fox; or, the Revelations of a Detective (1860), has the broad outlines of a Frankensteinian mad scientist, but his experiments on cats, dogs, children, and prostitutes are more indicative of insanity than mad science and also show Bennett's concern for the effects of poverty on the poor.
Lord Manningtree, the mad scientist in the Charles Ross' penny dreadful Fanny White (1865), is Victor von Frankenstein's opposite: an insane, wicked, lust-filled obsessive who poisons dogs as a way to perfect his toxic formulae. Manningtree is an almost archetypal Depraved Dreadful villain rather than a Frankensteinian Gothic anti-hero. And Professor Lebensfunke, from Alvey Adee's "The Life Magnet" (1870), and Professor Stueckenholtz, from J.A.A.'s "Professor Stueckenholtz" (1880), are typical of the mad scientists appearing in the short fiction magazines of the time; both use (relatively) hard science for the creation of life, but both are coldly heartless in their approach to using other people's organs for their experiments.
Mad Doctors and Organ Theft Narratives
Much of Frankenstein came from pre-existing elements. Victor von Frankenstein's grave-robbing and organ manipulation was not Shelley's creation; the motif of the evil, grave-robbing, human-organ-manipulating doctor was well-established by 1818. In the 18th century, when medical students and doctors began using anatomical dissections for medical education and research, the public was horrified, and doctors became associated in the public's mind with organ theft.
Numerous urban legends sprang up about doctors killing people for their organs, and in 1768, in Lyon, France, a rumor ran riot that the local School of Surgery was sheltering a one-armed prince, and that every evening children were kidnaped from off the streets and had an arm cut off to see if it fitted the prince. The result was a riot in November, 1768 in which the rioters burned the School down. By the early 1800s the association between doctors and mad science was widespread in fiction as well as in reality. This association would linger throughout the century, and as late as 1887 Thomas Hardy, in The Woodlanders, has the amoral Dr. Fitzpiers terrorize one character into allowing Fitzpiers to buy her brain for dissection after she dies.
Victor the Hermaphrodite: Frankenstein and the Gothics
Though Frankenstein is often described as the first science fiction novel, it belongs to the Gothic genre. The Gothic, which began in 1764 with Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto and reached its heyday around 1810, was well into its decline by 1818, with satires like Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey (1818) becoming common. But as is often the case with literary genres, the Gothic's declining stage was when its most formally interesting and experimental works appeared. Charles Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) is generally regarded as the greatest of the Gothic novels, not least because of its skillful incorporation of the five major Gothic modes and of nearly every Gothic trope and motif. Frankenstein, which appeared in 1818, is likewise interesting because of Shelley's experiment with its protagonist: Victor von Frankenstein is a hybrid of the typical protagonists of both the male Gothic and the female Gothic.
Traditionally literary critics have divided the Gothic into binary/oppositional categories: "external" (socially-oriented, concerned with the home, whether lineage and patrimony or simply separation of lovers) versus "internal" (psychologically-oriented, dealing with the hero's rebellion and exile from home); "terror" (an elevating sensation which "expands the soul, and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life") versus "horror" (which creates dread and "contracts, freezes, and nearly annihilates" the intellect); and "male" versus "female." The male-vs-female schema is the oldest method used to analyse the Gothics–by 1800 the Gothics were already commonly thought of in sexual, gendered terms. The female Gothic is a Bildungsroman, a coming-of-age story for a female protagonist, with Sensibility (the superiority of emotions and emotional responses to logic and rational thought) a dominant concern and with a male authority figure as the story's villain. The male Gothic puts a male figure at the center of a story of social, sexual, and/or religious transgression, and reduces the female protagonist to the status of an object to be sexually and physically threatened, rescued, and married.
Frankenstein, and Victor von Frankenstein, liberally take from both the male and female Gothic modes. Frankenstein is, in its way, a coming-of-age story, and Sensibility plays a major part in Victor's personality in the form of what Goethe called the dämonisch ("daemonic") impulse, the unquestioning trust in the correctness of one's instincts and emotions, regardless of the laws of morality and society. (The dämonisch impulse would become common in mad scientists throughout the century). But Victor is also the passive figure who is pursued throughout the story by a threatening male authority figure, and Frankenstein is very much a story of transgression, from Victor's experiments to the Creature's murders.
Shelley was not the first author to write a Gothic with a mad scientist figure. William Beckford's Vathek (1786), a splendid cross between the Gothic and the Arabian Nights genres, has as its titular main character the Caliph of Samarah, who is intellectually curious and attempts to be a master of the sciences and the occult. Vathek's quest for ultimate knowledge leads him to become a doomed seeker after forbidden knowledge similar to other proto-mad scientists, but Vathek's quest is for occult knowledge rather than scientific. Similarly, William Godwin's St. Leon (1799) has an alchemist as its main character.
The Dangers of Materialism
The early 19th century was an exciting era for scientific discovery — but far more exciting for scientists than for laymen. Sir William Herschel (1738-1822) made remarkable advances in astronomy, from the resolution of nebulae to the discovery of Uranus to the cataloging of over 2400 new stars. John Playfair (1748-1819) published groundbreaking work on geology. But before Frankenstein the dominant fictional image of the scientist was not of brilliant men and women making startling discoveries, but of the comedic, impractical Laputans of Swift's Gulliver's Travels. Frankenstein changed that, and birthed the stereotype of the impious mad scientist. The forbidden knowledge and eternal life that the alchemists of the 17th and 18th centuries sought changed from being merely forbidden to being both blasphemous, and both the experiments and their end results were evil rather than neutral.
Worse, from the perspective of the 19th century, was the materialism of Frankenstein. "Materialism" in this case means the idea that all that exists is matter and that nothing exists which is not matter. This approach was a basis of much experimental science in the 18th and 19th centuries, but it brought with it other ideas which appalled the 19th century, including atheism, positivism, and nihilism. Worse, materialism denied other ideas, such as morality, free will, and the soul. Even the most educated men and women viewed themselves as a part of the humanistic tradition of moral education, and the impact of materialist, experimental science was seen as an outright threat to society.
Society's reaction to materialism heavily influenced the fictional portrayal of the mad scientist. One approach was to portray modern scientists as the 19th century version of the alchemist, complete with their traditional fictional flaws, and a surprisingly common version of these modern alchemists was the mad or corrupt or larcenous diamond-maker. One of the earliest of these is the titular protagonist of Jean Paul's Der Komet oder Nikolaus Marggraf (1820-1822), who though skilled enough at chemistry to be able to manufacture diamonds is socially ambitious, egomaniacal, and hubristic. A much later version, Wilkie Collins' Jezebel's Daughter (1880), has a diamond-maker who follows the path of his alchemist forbears to addiction and the financial and moral ruin of his family.
Chemists: Threat Or Menace?
A second reaction was to associate professional scientists with the negative ideas of materialism. Scientific professions bloomed during the Industrial Revolution, and as Roslynn Haynes shows in From Faust to Strangelove (1994) so did negative stereotypes about professional scientists. "Alchemist," a term laden with centuries of pejorative meaning, was the preferred descriptive term for contemporary scientists in much 19th century fiction and poetry. Chemists were particularly targeted by writers. Chemistry was the first of the new experimental sciences and for some time the dominant experimental science, but the chemical transformation of matter was seen by many as pointlessly destructive, and chemists were portrayed as blasphemous materialists and atheists who were working against God's will.
Chemist mad scientists were common in the 19th century. One such, only slightly more over-the-top than usual, is Don Juan, in Honoré de Balzac's L'Elixir de Longue Vie (1830). Balzac's Don Juan is not the libertine of European folklore and literature, but a young man obsessed with getting his father's wealth. After Don Juan finds an elixir of long life in his father's possessions and accidentally uses it to bring his father back to life, Don Juan murders his father himself. Don Juan becomes wealthy, and as an older, dying man, has his son apply it to him as he did his father–but an accident leads to only Don Juan's head and arm being revived. During the funeral Don Juan's head removes itself from his body, shouts blasphemies, and latches on to a priest's throat with his teeth, shouting, "Tell us now if there is a God, you idiot!"
In Alexandre Dumas' Joseph Balsamo (1846-1848), Dumas' version of the life of the alchemist Cagliostro, Balsamo assists his elderly master, Alhotas, in concocting the elixir of life. Alhotas has all but the final ingredient, which he dispatches Balsamo to get: the last three drops of the arterial blood of a child. And in Wilkie Collins' The Haunted Hotel (1879), the Baron who has a "single-minded devotion to the science of experimental chemistry" spends his entire fortune on experiments, then sells his sister to a rich English nobleman, then conspires with her to kill him to gain his life insurance premiums. They do so through the Baron's chloroform and poison, and then use his acids to dissolve the body.
The common beliefs about chemists began to change in the 1850s. A new consensus emerged: experimental science, and chemistry in particular, was similar to critical analysis, in that chemistry destroys matter, while experimental science and critical analysis destroy beliefs. The materialist/atheist chemist was replaced by the nihilist chemist, a character appearing in a range of genres in a variety of countries. In the epilogue to Alexandre Dumas' play Le Comte Hermann (1849) the chemist Dr. Sturler is a nihilist who wants to die and is sure that nothing exists after death, so he uses his death to promote scientific discovery. Sturler takes "laudanum of syridenham" and records its every change of his body, meanwhile disdaining to use the antidote to prove a philosophical/religious point. And Ivan Turgenev's Fathers and Sons (1862) mentions German chemistry students who "are brimming over with destructive criticism and conceit" and has as a main character Yevgeny Bazarov, an arch-nihilist obsessed with experimental chemistry.
Geniuses: Diseased Victims of Biological Determinism
Behind all of these portrayals was the concept of the scientist, mad or otherwise, as a genius. During the 19th century that term carried with it a number of negative assumptions.
"Genius" originally meant a guiding spirit, with the shift to its present meaning taking place in the late 18th century. But the Romantics of those decades portrayed the genius not only as someone possessing extraordinary intellectual ability but as someone who was a rebel against society and whose brilliance was more important than society's rules. For the Romantics, genius involved the classical furor poeticus, what Frederick Burwick, in Poetic Madness and the Romantic Imagination (1992), called an "aesthetic response that seemed to involve a spell, a rapture, a delirium, a momentary madness."
The excesses of the Romantics created a backlash in the early 19th century, and the Romantics' concept of genius was included in this. For post-Romantic authors, the genius was linked with monomania, what Daniel Pick, in Faces of Degeneration (1993), called the "idée fixe, a single pathological preoccupation in an otherwise sound mind" that could prompt "overweening ambition." The Victorians shifted their focus from the poetic genius (the beau ideal of the Romantics) to the scientific genius. By mid-century the genius' monomania was characterized as not just unbalanced but insane. As well, the cultural obsession with degeneration, so widespread in the mid- and late-19th century, was applied to intelligence. It was argued that the development of larger brains came at the expense of moral and physical strength and reproductive capability. (In H.G. Wells' "The Man of the Year Million" (1893) humanity is reduced to enormous brains and a muscular system which has "shriveled to nothing").
For the Victorians, scientific genius was innately linked with mental illness. The criminologist Cesare Lombroso (1835-1909), in his landmark work on criminals, L'uomo delinquente (1875), included Isaac Newton and Blaise Pascal in his list of mad geniuses. The French psychiatrist Jacques Moreau's Morbid Psychology (1859), the most influential work on mental illness in the 19th century, stated that "genius was essentially a ‘nervose' or nervous affliction similar to idiocy," that geniuses are "diseased victims of biological determinism," and that "the idiot, the hysteric, the epileptic, the madman, as well as the genius, are…branches growing from the same tree."
The Victorians did not glorify the creative powers of the genius: they pathologized them. The evolutionary ideal, for the Victorians, was the common man. In 1835 the Belgian sociologist Adolphe Quetelet published the essay "A Treatise on Man and the Development of his Faculties," in which he put forth the idea of the statistical "homme moyen," or the average man. For Quetelet, and for the many Victorians influenced by him, the average man is the center of a bell curve of human traits, with anything outside the peak of the curve–including extraordinary intelligence–being an aberration verging on, if not leaping into, the pathological and the diseased. The Scottish journalist and philospher John Ferguson Nisbet went so far as to say, in The Insanity of Genius (1891), that "It is inevitable that all departures from the mean, in the human species, including those which constitute genius, should be unsound."
Not Bad, Just Insane
A number of mad scientists of this era reflected these ideas. Nathaniel Hawthorne's Dr. Rappaccini (from "Rappaccini's Daughter," 1844) is not evil, but in the words of his rival he "cares infinitely more for science than for mankind. His patients are interesting to him only as subjects for some new experiment. He would sacrifice human life, his own among the rest, or whatever else was dearest to him, for the sake of adding so much as a grain of mustard seed to the great heap of his accumulated knowledge." Rappaccini even went so far as to raise his daughter (who he genuinely loves) on poisons, "from her birth upward, until her whole nature was so imbued with them that she herself had become the deadliest poison in existence. Poison was her element of life. With that rich perfume of her breath she blasted the very air."
In J.D. Whelpley's "The Atoms of Chladni" (1860) the scientist Mohler invents a device which picks up and magnifies sounds and records them on tape–a greatly advanced technology for 1860–but becomes obsessed by it and comes to believe that his wife is cheating on him and installs the device in his wife's room. In E.P. Mitchell's "The Soul Spectroscope" (1874) Professor Dummkopf [sic] has gone mad while photographing odors, sounds, and personalities. And in Edward Robinson and George Wall's The Disk (1884), John Alder goes mad and uses some of the devices he has invented, including one which projects light along a wire and can create television-like images and one which can place humans in suspended animation, to threaten his daughter's friends.
Frankenstein was the iconic mad scientist text of the 19th century until 1886, when Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was published. Dr. Jekyll, and after him H.G. Wells Doctor Moreau, would provide the new archetypal mad scientists for the coming century.
Jess Nevins is a librarian, pulp fiction historian, and comic book annotator. He also writes encyclopedias. You can find out more on his blog.