Medical History, Mary Shelley, & Frankenstein


Now in the 200th year since its publication, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or, the Modern Prometheus continues to raise questions about humanity, scientific ethics, and the place of the monster in our imaginations. This exhibit features books and manuscripts from the John Martin Rare Book Room and the University of Iowa’s Special Collections, which together trace the creation of the novel and the scientific world that it grew out of.

'No Father Watched my Infant Days' by Barry Moser

"No Father Watched my Infant Days" by Barry Moser, from Frankenstein (Pennyroyal Press, 1983)

In 1816, the Shelleys—along with Lord Byron, John Polidori, and Claire Clairemont—traveled to a villa in Switzerland. To entertain themselves one stormy night, they each came up with a scary story to tell the group—and Frankenstein was born.

The house on Lake Geneva where Mary Shelley began writing Frankenstein in the summer of 1816.

"We will each write a ghost story," said Lord Byron; and his proposition was acceded to. There were four of us. […] I busied myself to think of a story, —a story to rival those which had excited us to this task. One which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror—one to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart."

Mary Shelley, in the Preface to the 1831 edition

Illustration from Andreas Vesalius, De humani corporis fabrica librorum epitome (1543)

"I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavor to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world."

Mary Shelley, writing about her inspirations for the story

©2018 John Martin Rare Book Room, Hardin Library for the Health Sciences, 600 Newton Road, Iowa City, IA 52242-1098. Image: Illustration by Barry Moser from Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelly (Pennyroyal Press, 1983).