White Coat, Black Art

Frankenstein 101: What the monster teaches medical students

The 200th anniversary of Frankenstein is being celebrated at Stanford University this year. Anesthesiologist Audrey Shafer tells us what the Frankenstein story can teach today's doctors.
An illustration from the Mary Shelley's original novel, Frankenstein.

Originally published on April 14, 2018 

Two hundred years after it was first published, Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein is having another moment in the spotlight. Stanford University is holding a year-long examination of the book and its creator. 

In the faculty of medicine, anesthesiologist Audrey Shafer is one of the organizers of the celebration.

"Frankenstein is a cautionary tale about experimentation gone awry … and the experimenter turning away from the consequences of the experiment," Dr. Shafer explains to White Coat, Black Art host Dr. Brian Goldman.

Bringing that patient back is a kind of rebirth.- Dr. Audrey Shafer

At a time when we have the ability to use gene-manipulating technology to create new species, Frankenstein can foster a discussion about the responsibility of medical researchers.

"There's a question in the novel of who actually is the monster. Is it the creature or is it the creator," Shafer says.

Dr. Audrey Shafer is a professor of anesthesiology at Stanford University

The anesthesiologist relates Dr. Frankenstein's experience on a personal level.

"Each patient who undergoes anesthesia reacts in a slightly different way," she says. "So, in some ways, one is experimenting every single time."

"As an anesthesiologist, one is always individualizing the care, so practising the art and the science of anesthesia is in some ways like the experimental method of doing practice."  

From that perspective, medical researchers can learn much from Frankenstein, she says. The story mirrors our present day in that "sometimes medical advances happen faster than society can process how it will affect us."

We are in one of those periods,

Shafer says, pointing to ethical dilemmas around appropriate use of stem cells, questions about organ donation and organ harvesting, as well as animal-to-human transplants.

The story of Dr. Frankenstein's macabre experiments has contributed to a lingering distrust of doctors and what happens behind closed doors, says Shafer.

A colourized still image from the 1931 film Frankenstein shows Dr Frankenstein confronting his creation.

If the novel were set today, she muses, Dr. Frankenstein might be a "a tissue engineer because he used body parts from charnel houses in his experimentation."

All these ideas will be discussed during Frankenstein@200, a year-long series of lectures, courses and programs including a film festival, a play, and a conference. Frankenstein is being incorporated into more than 70 courses covering a variety of disciplines at Stanford University.

Beyond the connections between medicine and creating the monster, the moment Frankenstein's monster comes to life resonates with Shafer.

"Under anesthesia, the patient is helpless and the anesthesiologist is the protector and the guide," Shafer says. "At the end of the surgery, the patient is allowed to emerge from the anesthetic."

"Bringing that patient back is a kind of rebirth."

Stanford University's Frankenstein@200 will run through the end of 2018.