"The Curren(t)cy of Frankenstein"

Performance and multidisciplinary lectures (September 2018)




Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the defining creation myth and horror story of the modern era, was published in 1818. The Medical Humanities program, the Center for the History of Medicine, with support from the Provost’s Office, the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, and the Division of Biology and Biomedical Science will host a three-day event, The Curren(t)cy of Frankenstein, to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the novel’s publication by contemplating its bearing today in the context of medical research, practice, and ethics.

The event will include a performance piece on Frankenstein directed by Bill Whitaker, professor of the practice in the Performing Arts Department. Whitaker has directed numerous plays at Washington University and regularly teaches at Shakespeare’s Globe Theater in London.

The performance will be followed by scholarly lectures on each of the three days of the event. Noted author Luke Dittrich will discuss the implications of Shelley’s Frankenstein for modern medical practice, specifically the ethical overlap with the subject of his recent book Patient H. M.: A Story of Memory, Madness and Family Secrets. Winner of the PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award and Los Angeles Times Book Prize Winner and named “One of the Best Books of the Year” by The Washington Post, New York Post, NPR, The Economist, Wired, and  Kirkus Reviews, Dittrich tells a very personal history of the rise during the 1950s of the psychosurgical procedure known the lobotomy, which his grandfather performed on the young epileptic Henry Molaison and countless others. Eminent historian of philosophy and science William Newman (Indiana University) will discuss and demonstrate alchemical experiments of the early modern era, for which raising the dead was the supreme feat of alchemy. Amy Pawl, senior lecturer of English at Washington University and expert on the literary innovations and influence of Mary Shelley’s novel, will also give a joint lecture with Minsoo Kang, professor of history at University of Missouri-St. Louis and author of the acclaimed book Sublime Dreams of Living Machines on the history of human automata.

The event will culminate each day with a panel discussion among noted medical practitioners, ethicists, and humanists on the relevance of Shelley’s novel and the questions it raises for medical practice today.

Panelists include Dr. Ira Kodner, professor of surgery and former director of the Center for the Study of Ethics and Human Values; Dr. Amy Cislo, senior lecturer in women, gender and sexuality studies at Washington University and expert on Paracelsus and transgender studies, Dr. Jeffrey Bishop, director of the Albert Gnaegi Center for Health Care Ethics at Saint Louis University; and Dr. Susan E. MacKinnon, director, Center for Nerve Injury and Paralysis, Sydney M., Jr. and Robert H. Shoenberg Professor, and chief, Division of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery.

Organizer: Rebecca Messbarger, Director of Medical Humanities