The Long Shadow of Frankenstein


In January 1818, a woman barely out of her teens unleashed a terrifying tale on the world: the story of a doctor who builds a creature from scavenged body parts, then recoils in horror, spurns it, and sees his friends and family destroyed by the monster. Two hundred years later, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is still essential reading for anyone working in science. The ill-fated creator she portrays has influenced public perception of the scientific enterprise unlike any other character, forever haunting the borderland between what science can do and what it should do.

The story has mutated and it has frequently been mangled. It has spawned countless books, plays, and movies—some pictured on these pages—and even a superhero comic. It has inspired technophobes and scientists alike. “Franken-” has become a passe-partout prefix for anything deemed unnatural or monstrous.

Interpretations of the tale have also multiplied. A story of scientific hubris, a creator consumed by his creation, a male scientist trying to eliminate women’s role in reproduction, an attempt by Shelley to deal with the trauma of losing a baby. To the growing group of scientists pondering the ways in which science might eventually destroy humanity, it is the earliest warning of such risks.

None of this quite captures the secret of the story’s longevity. To borrow the monster’s own description of indelible knowledge, Shelley’s tale “clings to the mind … like a lichen on the rock.” In the preface to the 1831 edition, Shelley wrote: “Now, once again, I bid my hideous progeny go forth and prosper.” It did. And it still does.


Along with fears, the Frankenstein story has inspired hundreds of whimsical names for products and phenomena.

Franken Berry A “monster cereal” introduced by General Mills Corporation in 1971. Ads claimed it was better than Count Alfred Chocula’s creation.

Frankenbombers Theoretical terrorists who have liquid explosives soaked into their clothing.

Frankenbrooms Supercoated broomheads used in curling, a winter sport played on ice.

Frankenbunnies Embryos made by Chinese researchers who fused human skin cells with rabbit eggs, hoping to create a source of stem cells.

Frankenburger Laboratory-grown beef.

Frankencell J. Craig Venter’s attempt to create an artificial cell containing the smallest possible number of essential genes.

Frankencorn Genetically engineered maize resistant to pests, herbicides, or drought.

Frankencotton Transgenic cotton that resists pests. Used to produce Frankenpants and Frankenjeans.

Frankenfears Exaggerated concerns about transgenic food (Frankenfood) and other products of genetic engineering.

Frankenfish Salmon engineered to grow twice as quickly as the natural variety. Also: Frankensalmon.

Frankenforests Engineered trees that grow more quickly, absorbing more carbon dioxide and providing more wood and pulp without the need for toxic chemicals.

Frankengene The catechol-O-methyltransferase gene. In 2008, researchers linked variants in the gene to the strong, frightful reaction some people have to horror movies.

Frankenmoth A male diamondback moth engineered to spread a lethal gene to females, creating nonviable offspring that reduce the moth’s toll on crops. Cousins include Frankenflies and Frankenmosquitoes.

Frankenmouse A genetically or surgically altered mouse. Variations have included the “oncomouse” that’s prone to cancer and the “earmouse” that had a human-shaped ear.

Frankenmums Mothers who freeze eggs for their infertile daughters to use.

Frankenpastry A croissant-doughnut invented by a New York City pastry chef in 2013. Also named Cronut.

Frankenpets Transgenic dogs that would repel fleas; cats that would not cause allergies.

Frankenphone A mobile, taco-shaped video game device introduced by Nokia in 2003 that doubled as a mobile phone.

Frankenpines Cellphone towers that resemble pine trees.

Frankenpork Meat from genetically engineered pigs, still under development, that would be resistant to disease.

Frankenrobot A robot, created at the University of Reading in the United Kingdom, that had a “brain” made of rat neurons placed on a multielectrode array.

Frankenschlongs Penises with transplanted erectile tissue, created in rabbits by researchers at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Frankenshoes Platform shoes with wedge heels or sneakers with heels.

Frankensites University websites that have conflicting material posted by professors and their departments.

Frankenspuds Genetically modified potatoes that are resistant to blight. Also known as Frankenfries.

Frankenstorm A combination of storms that creates a monster event. Superstorm Sandy famously merged with another storm in 2012 to wallop the U.S. East Coast.

Frankenturtles Dead loggerhead sea turtles that researchers from the College of William and Mary in Virginia stuffed and floated in the Chesapeake Bay in 2016 to better understand where they travel and die.

Frankenswine Pigs that would be engineered to produce human organs for use in transplants.

Frankenslime Synapses reportedly transplanted from one snail brain to another by a researcher in Canada in 2004.

Frankensperm Stem cells induced to become sperm cells by scientists at Britain’s Newcastle University in 2009.

Frankenviruses Viruses engineered to attack cancer cells.

Frankenwords Portmanteaus that combine two words. Widespread ones include guesstimate, gaydar, glamping, stagflation, and, yes, Frankeneverything.

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