Making the Monster: The Science Behind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

Written by Kathryn Harkup
Review by K. M. Sandrick

The tale of the scientist Victor Frankenstein and the creature he fashions and animates is just as compelling today as it was when first published in 1818, and again in 1831 when it was rewritten and republished. Called the first work of science fiction, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus resonates not only because of its inventiveness. It is also compelling because it is believable. The actions taken by Frankenstein are rooted in the science of the time: the discoveries, explorations and instruments that spurred discussion by investigators and captured the imagination of the public during the Age of Enlightenment.

Author Kathryn Harkup, a chemist, educator and author of blogs and books on science, recreates the scientific community of Mary Shelley’s time and highlights aspects of Shelley’s life that influenced her writing. Harkup then explores the foundations of the Frankenstein chronicle itself—how body parts could be found, collected and preserved, then surgically connected in a reconstruction—and the emerging understanding of electricity and its role in powering muscle. She traces theories and pursuits that were later discredited, such as spontaneous generation and alchemy, and plants the seeds of modern chemistry and evolutionary biology.

This is not a dense, methodical treatise; it is engaging and interesting as well as informative. It illuminates for writers and readers the power of historical fact: what is known and believed in a particular period of time brings historical fiction to life.