Journal of Medical Humanities

, Volume 34, Issue 4, pp 451–454 | Cite as

Mad Scientists, Narrative, and Social Power: A Collaborative Learning Activity



Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short stories “The Birthmark” (1843) and “Rappaccini’s Daughter” (1844) encourage critical thinking about science and scientific research as forms of social power. In this collaborative activity, students work in small groups to discuss the ways in which these stories address questions of human experimentation, gender, manipulation of bodies, and the role of narrative in mediating perceptions about bodies. Students collectively adduce textual evidence from the stories to construct claims and present a mini-argument to the class, thereby strengthening their skills in communication and cooperative interpretation of ethical dilemmas. This exercise is adaptable to shorter and longer periods of instruction, and it is ideal for instructors who collaborate across areas of expertise.


Science as power Narrative Human experimentation Body manipulation Gender Fiction Critical thinking Collaborative learning Argumentation Communication 

From Frankenstein (1818) to Never Let Me Go (2005), fiction dramatizing scientific experimentation on human subjects offers an opportunity to examine science as a form of social power. This literature readily lends itself to collaborative teaching and learning in the classroom. Particularly useful to this end are Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short stories, “The Birthmark” (1843) and “Rappaccini’s Daughter” (1844). Both stories are dense with ethical issues relevant to multiple disciplines yet succinct enough that students can discuss and present them in a single class meeting. In particular, both stories illustrate complex cases of obsessive male scientists who experiment on females (a wife in “The Birthmark” and a daughter in “Rappaccini’s Daughter”) who die as a result of the experiments. In what follows, we describe a collaborative teaching and learning activity about science as power using these two stories.

In one co-taught session, we combined two 300-level undergraduate classes—Berry’s “Cultures of Medicine” and Cerulli’s “The Perfectible Body.” We designed four questions and gave them to students to consider as they read the stories. These questions were the means to achieve our learning goals: to stimulate critical thinking about scientific activity as a form of gendered power deployment and to generate reflection on the role of narrative in defining and critiquing scientific power. The four questions were:
  1. 1.

    How does this story illustrate the deployment of science as power?

    This question prompts students to identify actors and subjects in scientific experimentation and to consider the ways in which science can be a mode of social control.

  2. 2.

    How does this story deal with issues of sovereignty and/or manipulation of the body?

    This question asks students to identify assumptions and beliefs about when, why, how, and which bodies should be altered.

  3. 3.

    What issues of gender does this story raise?

    This question draws students’ attention to the behaviors, performances, and expectations associated with masculinity and femininity and prompts them to question how these differences affect various persons’ roles in scientific experimentation as well as the consequences of gender difference.

  4. 4.

    Looking at the story as a piece of fiction, how does it narrativize or tell a story about the body, and what might be a larger cultural function of this narrative act?

    This question encourages thinking about how knowledge about the body is mediated by language and stories. In general, narrative acts represent conflicts using specific conventions; they also carry a truth-value (for example, fiction or nonfiction) that determines how we interpret their social relevance. By focusing on narrative acts we attend to issues involving the author(s), audience(s), and purpose(s) of narrative.


During class time, we divided students into small groups to discuss a single question on one of the two Hawthorne stories. We asked each group to construct an argument consisting of claims supported by two or three pieces of textual evidence. Each group then presented its argument and evidence followed by a brief discussion with the rest of the class, which we moderated jointly. We wrapped up the entire session by asking everyone to reflect on the advantages of examining these four questions through a fictional narrative rather than with a piece of nonfiction, a case study, or a clinical text.

Students generally exceeded our goals for critical thinking. Each group zeroed in on a key problem for each question. For science as power, students analyzed exclusivity, secrecy, and the social status of scientists. Regarding the sovereignty and manipulation of the body, they articulated issues of patient choice in, and the nature of, scientific “treatment”; the ethics of experimentation; and cultural power and influence in relation to individual agency. Gender analysts discussed the idea of woman-as-sacrifice in support of scientific gain; submissiveness of women to scientific authority and its allegorical presentation in marital roles; and the portrayal of feminine knowledge as it is manipulated and eclipsed by masculine science. Regarding the narrativization of the body, groups discussed the function of the supernatural in decoding the story’s meaning; fiction as a platform to dramatize the ethics of human experimentation; and the impact of conflicting narrative viewpoints on readers’ perceptions of the body. Student collaboration in finding textual evidence, forming arguments, and preparing a presentation revealed an enormous amount of cooperation in textual hermeneutics and meaning-making, even though most students did not have prior experience working together.

The most important indicator that we achieved our learning goals emerged when we posed a final question: “What are the advantages of studying these issues through fiction?” Students proposed three advantages: 1) Fiction allows for analytic distance because the reader is always outside, observing the characters; 2) Fiction allows for examination of extreme ethical dilemmas without hurting real people; 3) Fiction can clarify key ethical issues within science generally, and medicine specifically, and illustrate their social consequences by exaggerating them, whereas these issues and consequences may be more subtle and murky in daily life or clinical practice. These insights suggest that students evaluated the uses of literary analysis in medical or pre-medical education at two levels. First, they recognized that close textual examination enabled them to uncover specific social issues raised by experimentation on human subjects. Second, especially in the small group and class discussions, they determined that literary analysis is an effective method for studying social inequalities and their consequences in medical practice.

Mad scientist stories provide an opportunity for collaborative teaching and learning in undergraduate, graduate, and health professions programs. In undergraduate and graduate courses, this activity could bring together multiple disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. Instructors can use these stories to design questions that stimulate thinking about the economic, gender, sexual, epistemological, racial, global, and historical implications of scientific experimentation. The assignment we have described here takes one class period to complete, but more extensive inquiries could be adapted by using novels rather than stories, such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, and asking students to track the focus questions over a longer narrative. What is more, an in-depth exploration of a book’s social context at the time of publication or its relevance to current social debate will shed light on the treatment of a given ethical case. For example, Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein amidst a debate over whether electricity is the natural cause of human reproduction; instructors could also prompt students to connect the novel with the individual and social stakes in current resuscitation technology, legal and medical definitions of death, and life support protocols. The more recent novel, Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, most obviously addresses current arguments over cloning, and it would also nicely open up investigations of gender (the narrator-protagonist is a woman) in relation to organ donation and informed consent.

Hawthorne’s mad scientist tales of the 1840s evoke numerous current debates in clinical ethics, health policy, elective surgery, pharmaceutical development, and responsible research, to name just a few. In programs where students and instructors have less time, such as health professions training programs, one story can be distributed during class time (“The Birthmark” is shorter) along with questions for discussion. Using one story, different topics could be addressed in separate modules. Alternatively, instructors can excerpt passages from the beginning and end of either story. In addition, the film Rappaccinis Daughter (2005) could be substituted for the reading. Small group analysis of either story in a health professions training program would allow students to work on professional communication skills that they will need in coordinating care initiatives. In any educational setting, fiction offers a stage upon which questions about medical control of bodies in specific social situations may play out in what our students call “extreme” and “exaggerated” forms. Asking student learners for evidence and analysis to answer the focus questions encourages them to attend closely to the human aspects of who practices scientific medicine, for what purposes, and upon whom. Reflection generates thought about how bodies are “made” through storytelling as much as through nature and scientific manipulation, and why understanding the narrative and social aspects of medicine matter. Crucially, literature provides a common ground for instructors and students to work across disciplines and to critically examine, using multiple perspectives, the social-situatedness of scientific medicine.


  1. Hawthorne, Nathaniel. 1982 [1843]. “The Birthmark.” In Hawthorne: Tales and Sketches, edited by Roy Harvey Pearce, 764-80. New York: Literary Classics of the United States. Full online text:
  2. -----. 1982 [1844]. “Rappaccini’s Daughter.” In Hawthorne: Tales and Sketches, edited by Roy Harvey earce, 975-1005. New York: Literary Classics of the United States. Full online text:
  3. Ishiguro, Kazuo. 2005. Never Let Me Go. New York: Knopf.Google Scholar
  4. Rappaccini’s Daughter. 2005. DVD. Directed by Dezso Magyar. Thousand Oaks, CA: Monterey Video.Google Scholar
  5. Shelley, Mary. 2012 [1818]. Frankenstein, 2nd ed., edited by J. Paul Hunter. New York: W.W. Norton.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of English and Comparative LiteratureHobart and William Smith CollegesGenevaUSA
  2. 2.Department of Religious Studies and Asian StudiesHobart and William Smith CollegesGenevaUSA
  3. 3.Institut d’Études Avancées de ParisParisFrance

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