From Dr. Frankenstein to The Knick: Uncovering the history of the modern day mad scientist
Hopes&Fears talks with literature professors, psychologists, historians, and sociologists to find out the origins of some of pop culture's most iconic mad scientists.
veryone knows the Mad Scientist — the white hair; the lab coats; the endless shouting and cackling; the lightning, oh, god, the lightning. Over the last 200 years, Mad Scientists have been a consistent trend in pop culture, transforming and evolving to fit our changing fears of and respect for technology, science, and the human body.
As technology and science became more accepted in our culture, the tropes of the Mad Scientist have shifted. Dr. House and Robert Downey, Jr’s Tony Stark have redefined what it means to be a snarky and obsessed scientist. They are Maverick Scientists, and they have all the traits of a Mad Scientist, but they exist within society, pushing the boundaries of science without considering the risks. Their obsessions and addictions hinder them—as does their disregard for morals, ethics, or patience.
But why are they here? From "The Knick", born of germ panic and shifting healthcare economics, to The Social Network's mythologizing and idolizing of big tech entrepreneurs, here's the history and context behind some of pop culture's recent Mad Scientists.
John Thackery — The Knick
Some diseases never get cured, and on Steven Soderbergh’s "The Knick" this proves doubly so. While the turn-of-the-century Knickerbocker hospital depicted on the series struggles to stay afloat and solve the problems of 1901, viewers will notice that most of these issues still linger today. In addition to practicing medicine that’s revolutionary for its time, such as blood transfusions, cesarean sections, and using a newfangled device called the X-Ray, Soderbergh uses Maverick Scientists to fight the plague of American healthcare: cost.
"The Knick" deals with this through class distinctions. Dr. Susan Smith, professor of History at the University of Alberta, where she teaches American Medicine and the History of Medicine says, “of course, the doctors, the board, the lady elites philanthropists, all see themselves as doing good, but for poor people the fears would often be that they had family members who went to hospitals and never came back, so it was very scary.”
The bridge for the two classes, the one getting his hands dirty, is John Thackery, a man you could call “Mad” if he wasn’t so good at his job. Thackery is the typical “Maverick Scientist,” an antisocial genius with a sharp brain, sharp wit, and a never-ending list of flaws. Both a revolutionary surgeon and a drug addict, Thack does the impossible in the hospital: he gets things done. Dr. Smith continues, “[The show is] always playing on that driven doctor that struggles for science no matter what the cost to the patient, to be a doctor himself, the cost of the modern scientific world, [that’s what] this show really emphasizes.”
In America, health is among one of the most debated, controversial, and expensive businesses of the day. The last few years alone saw the Affordable Care Act, the Republican witch-hunt of Planned Parenthood, and the Ebola outbreak. Many of these issues came down to who is going to pay for these programs that help the poor and vulnerable. "The Knick" parallels those with the concerns of the early 20th century. Dr. Dominique Bregent-Heald, associate professor of history at Memorial University of Newfoundland, explains, “The health concerns in urbanizing society would have been infectious diseases and contagions, such as influenza, typhoid, whooping cough, and tuberculosis. Cities grew quickly and without the necessary infrastructure (e.g. little access to clean water, mediocre sewer systems, overcrowding, lack of hygiene/sanitation) that accelerated the spread of disease.” While the hospital board decides whether to help the people subjected to these conditions, Thackery gets to work.
As reflected on "The Knick", the burgeoning New York population, a mix of European immigrants and migrating African Americans from the South, overwhelms the hospital. “By 1900, [the] hospital is transitioning from something like a warehouse for the dying to trying to recruit the middle class and the elite. So hospitals and institutions are really struggling to get the paying clientele," Dr. Smith explains. "There’s a lot going on because of this germ theory idea; fears that germs have no color line or class line, again that the workers in their factories could spread disease around, so motivations were very high that you should provide some kind of care so hospitals could be that place where you can off sick workers and sick poor people and it would ultimately benefit everyone because if they’re healthier than you won’t get disease from them.”
But Thackery doesn't warn us about the fears of modern healthcare in America—we already know those. He represents something we all wished we had: a solution. Dr. Thackery makes hard and risky decisions, despite poisoning himself with heroin and cocaine in the process. In many ways, he offers a darkly ironic and potent metaphor: the only thing that can save us is as sick as we are.
Victor Frankenstein — Frankenstein
In Western literature, the Mad Scientist begins with Frankenstein author Mary Shelley and her friends. Dr. Diane Sadoff, English Professor at Rutgers University, explains, “the first scientists/monsters in English were during the Romantic age. Byron wrote a poem, ‘The Giaour’, first. Then his physician, John Polidori, wrote ‘The Vampyre’ in 1819. They were living in self-imposed exile in Geneva, Switzerland; the Shelleys visited them. Mary’s novel was written in response to a challenge that the whole circle [Byron, the Shelleys, Polidori] write a ghost tale. Mary was the only one who finished hers.”
While not exactly the first Mad Scientist, Victor Frankenstein has become the template. About 100 years after Frankenstein’s publication, the James Whale-directed 1931 adaptation has since become the defacto version of both the monster and the Mad Scientist. Whale and actor Colin Clive brought the Mad Scientist to life on screen. They even gave the archetype a catchphrase:
“It’s alive! It’s alive! Oh, in the name of God! Now I know what it feels like to be God!”
Frankenstein hits all the tropes we’ve come to expect: The doctor distances himself from the mainstream scientific community, has a complicated and destructive fear of women, and, oh yeah, he has a major God complex.
Dr. Kevin Ferguson, Assistant Professor of English at Queens College, elaborates on the Mad Scientist's desire to play god, “these are examples of male-oriented films demonstrating an anxiety over not being able to reproduce.” He argues, “it's not like these male scientists are trying to create life for noble purposes, but rather for personal ones. In that sense, Mad Scientists are profoundly narcissistic and jealous specifically of women (kind of like the Greek gods Shelley invokes in her subtitle ‘The Modern Prometheus’).”
But just as he transformed from Victor to Henry over the course of 100 years, the character continues to change with the times. “The novel and character still interest us because the Mad Scientist, monster, and vampire morph during different historical moments and in different cultural contexts, to address the most alarming social anxieties of the day,” says Dr. Sadoff.
This fear is in the DNA of the character. Dr. Sadoff says, “In the 1990s, Kenneth Branagh made Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to address Anglo-American fears about new reproductive technology, its threat to natural reproduction and to the structure of the family. He was responding, and this is my interpretation, to NTT, the creation of IVF (in vitro fertilization). If you look at the monster’s birth scene, you’ll see that the technology Frankenstein uses looks like a giant male phallus, complete with eels as sperm, which enter the tub that evokes a uterus.”
Steve Jobs — Steve Jobs
and Mark Zuckerberg — The Social Network
Over the last fives years, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin has taken it upon himself to tell the stories of two of technology’s biggest success story: Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg. Both Steve Jobs and The Social Network didn’t necessarily tell the story of benevolent creators. Through a mix of updated Mad Scientist tropes and snappy dialogue, Sorkin helped solidify the Maverick scientist of the digital age.
The film versions of Zuckerberg and Jobs play on the idea that these two innovators in communications can’t communicate with the people around them. According to Dr. Aaron McCright, Associate Professor in Lyman Briggs College, the Department of Sociology, and the Environmental Science and Policy Program at Michigan State University, the idea of the outsider scientist isn’t far from reality.
“The historian of technology Thomas P. Hughes explained how many of the great American independent inventors around the turn of the 20th Century withdrew from society at large in a kind of self-imposed isolation,” says Dr. McCright. “This isolation freed them from management and bureaucratic organizations that many of them saw as constricting. It also released them from the status quo and sheltered them from potential ridicule of observers who could not ‘see’ or appreciate what they were working on.”
"Now, another aspect to consider is the perception that many ‘creative types’ (be they inventors, scientists, explorers, entrepreneurs, artists, etc.) have a reputation for being not so great around other people, to put it politely,” he continues. “While there is a lot of anecdotal evidence to support this assertion, I’m not sure if it rises to the level of robust ‘fact.’ Still, at least how they are portrayed in these two movies, Jobs and Zuckerberg certainly fit this mold.”
Much like how Dr. Frankenstein locks himself in the lab, so to do Jobs and Zuckerberg, albeit in updated or metaphorical settings. Zuckerberg has his dorm room, where he can blog about his ex-girlfriend, and Jobs has his own deluded relationship with his estranged daughter. Not only does this show their isolation, but also their fear of women.
Forcing humanity to evolve has always been at the heart of the Mad Scientist. They break some ethical scientific code and everything goes wrong. In the world of the Maverick Scientist that isn’t necessarily the case. The Social Network and Steve Jobs tell the origin stories of the biggest technological breakthroughs of our time, which come at a tremendous personal cost to their respective creators. That doesn’t mean the iMac or Facebook doomed the world despite what many believe, including characters in the film, who claim the creators are crazy, manipulative, and dangerous. Zuckerberg and Jobs scare other characters, because they aren’t afraid of changing the world.
Dr. McCright explains, “it's easy to look at things (e.g., technologies, relationships, behaviors) that are new and quickly believe they are clearly an advancement or a clear sign that we are devolving as a species into our own end. I myself have entertained thoughts that handheld communication devices and/or social media are pretty cool on one day and then a sign of the coming apocalypse on the next day. It often takes many years or a few decades to truly wrap our heads around the different impacts of new things. But, here is what I (and some other scholars) think is going on: For most of human history, we could only directly communicate with those in our physical presence. Then came writing, which allowed us to communicate across great distances but with a considerable time lag (e.g., letters, books, newspapers). Then came the telegraph, radio, phone, television, fax, etc. All of these increased the ability to communicate across great distances in relative real-time. But, there were constraints on the number of senders and receivers who could participate. With the rise of so-called “social media,” these constraints have been loosened. Across different platforms, we now can have interactions of many senders interacting with many receivers across great spatial distances in real-time.”
Both characters, however, share the same point that puts them in the same camp as Thackery: they are disruptors in the system, forcing people to face their fears of technology and science. Their science scares people, but that doesn’t make them inherently malevolent. The Maverick Scientist engages with the dangers of the future without giving people, including themselves, time to process it.
“People just don’t think about all of the risks or vulnerabilities they face by making more and more of their previously private information relatively or completely public,” says Dr. McCright. “Again, most people have just been caught up in the fervor of novelty of these things; really like the ability to share their (real or not so real) values, beliefs, and identities with others more than ever before; or they just like the convenience of having most/all of their online life connected together with only a few logins. But, over time, we have become more aware of risks such as online bullying, child predators, identity theft, losing employment opportunities from our social media posts, getting hacked, etc. So, even as we become more aware of the risks, it is getting harder and harder to disengage wholly or selectively. For instance, there are a good number of social apps that are quite difficult to use if you do not have a Facebook account.”
But as technology becomes more integrated into our daily lives, the more we’ll see these types of characters. McCright continues: “Computer programmers (and hackers by extension) are now having their moment in the sun: "Mr. Robot", "Halt and Catch Fire", "Silicon Valley", The Fifth Estate, The Social Network, Jobs, The Imitation Game, Ex Machina, Transcendence, Blackhat, among many others. There are kids’ books about promoting computer programming skills and summer camps to promote computer programming. More and more people I see online talk about the programming languages they know. And across all of these, it appears that we are acknowledging that all types of people can like and be good at computer programming (not just the nerdy teenage white guys from 80’s movies—like Matthew Broderick in War Games).”
Nathan Bateman —
Alex Garland’s Ex Machina has spent the better part of this year being the modern equivalent to the Frankenstein story, blending elements of Mad Scientist past with Maverick Scientist present. Nathan, our creator in question, plays to all the same beats as Victor Frankenstein, isolating himself in an outpost far from the boundaries of society. Unlike Victor, who rejects his work as an abomination, Nathan believes in the beauty and mastery of his creation. He is, as he mentions, “a god.”
“I think there's an interesting connection between ‘creating life’ and ‘being god,’” says Dr. Ferguson. “And that Frankenstein and Ex Machina both in particular add a third term to the mix: nature. So, for me, those two films question the connection between being god and creating life, suggesting that nature is the real source of life.”
Nathan is very much a product of the mad and the maverick, and Garland uses the aesthetics of modern tech to create a Mad Scientist narrative that relies on the idea that today’s superstars are tech giants—the entrepreneurs created in the wake of The Social Network. McCright pointed out the similarities Nathan shares with Jobs and Zuckerberg, too. “I think there are some clear parallels to the character of Nathan Bateman (played by Oscar Isaac in Alex Garland’s Ex Machina.) Finishing up this trope, I think this perception is widespread because these folks (who are nearly always white and male) are presented as single-minded, obsessive, etc.”
Yet Nathan is tied to the past. Even his creation, the beautiful cyborg Ava, is a throwback. “The sexy cyborg is a very old trope,” says Dr. Ferguson. “All the way back to Maria in Metropolis. It's hard to tell if contemporary films that sexualize cyborgs are, one, referencing that example or, two, still not able to move on and imagine a world where women are not sexualized and machines not feminized. If the mad scientists narcissistically want to create life, they don't want to replicate themselves, but instead their fantasies. All of this sexuality is really heterosexuality: the sexy cyborgs in Ex Machina and Blade Runner (and Ghost in the Shell and Wall-E, etc) respond to a very particular concept of what is sexually attractive along gender/race/class lines.”
Ex Machina updates the tradition of Mad Scientists. Frankenstein deals with a scientist of the past abusing his power. For readers, this creates a “conflict and interest by taking scientific principles or ideas and pushing them to an extreme,” says Dr. Ferguson. Ex Machina exploits the extremes of digital technology almost from its initial frames. Nathan abuses his power, exploiting the data from Caleb’s web activity to profile him and create Ava in Caleb’s image. For Caleb, to fall in love with Ava, only to find out that she’s been built to fall in love with him shows off Nathan’s power. Data allows Nathan to manipulate and play God, and when Caleb finds out that Ava’s connection to him was a fabrication, it sends him into a tailspin.
Characters discovering that they are part of the Mad Scientist's experiment is not new, but it is important to why audiences connect to these stories. “Aren't we all creations?” asks Dr. Ferguson. “Don't kids often wonder where they really came from? For Blade Runner and Ex Machina, I think part of the conflict is the discovery that they're not unique. So, for them (and for audiences), the anxiety is over whether or not we can be unique individuals, or whether our lives and experiences haven't already been done before by others. Ex Machina, more than Blade Runner, has a bit of body horror going on: concerned with penetrating bodies or body parts falling off. So, for Caleb (and spectators), the concern is that they have been lied to about how integral and complete their own bodies are (and that if they are creations, their bodies might be disassembled, and that they might not be the complete beings they falsely imagined themselves to be).”
The end of Ex Machina provides a dangerous tipping point for Maverick Scientists and Mad Scientists everywhere. As technology becomes more powerful and networked, it becomes more difficult to control. Likewise, as the Mad Scientist becomes more of a source of attraction, it blurs the line between Mad and Maverick. Today, people are more willing to bend to tech companies, because the tech creates connection—just as Caleb desires a connection with the cyborg Ava and Nathan’s Steve Jobsian intellect. Like Caleb, users trade privacy and freedom for a chance to live in a new world. They allow Google to save their searches and agree to iTunes’ Terms and Services, because it gives them power, convenience, and chance to exist in a larger network. Dr. McCright says, “In many parts of our society (and those of others around the world) it is indeed becoming more challenging to fully participate in social, cultural, political, economic, and spiritual life without the connectivity we get through computers and smartphones. The more we use these devices, the more we structure relationships and interactions around the use of them, the more we come to realize that they are becoming essential tools to allow us to function.”
Ex Machina offers a bitter indictment of Maverick Scientists. They use their cool, their arrogance, and their wit to supercede checks and balances. This leads to Thack’s destruction, i.e. the death of a child patient. This leads to Zuckerberg’s loneliness and Jobs’ spoiled relationship with his employees and family. They have the same God complex as all the rest, and they’re creating a world quicker. What Ex Machina posits is, in a networked world, that lack of patience can let the genie out of the bottle without any of us even knowing it.