Science and Engineering Ethics

, Volume 21, Issue 5, pp 1139–1157 | Cite as

Victor Frankenstein’s Institutional Review Board Proposal, 1790

  • Gary Harrison
  • William L. GannonEmail author
Original Paper


To show how the case of Mary Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein brings light to the ethical and moral issues raised in Institutional Review Board (IRB) protocols, we nest an imaginary IRB proposal dated August 1790 by Victor Frankenstein within a discussion of the importance and function of the IRB. Considering the world of science as would have appeared in 1790 when Victor was a student at Ingolstadt, we offer a schematic overview of a fecund moment when advances in comparative anatomy, medical experimentation and theories of life involving animalcules and animal electricity sparked intensive debates about the basic principles of life and the relationship between body and soul. Constructing an IRB application based upon myriad speculations circulating up to 1790, we imagine how Victor would have drawn upon his contemporaries’ scientific work to justify the feasibility of his project, as well as how he might have outlined the ethical implications of his plan to animate life from “dead” tissues. In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Victor failed to consider his creature’s autonomy, vulnerability, and welfare. In this IRB proposal, we show Victor facing those issues of justice and emphasize how the novel can be an important component in courses or workshops on research ethics. Had Victor Frankenstein had to submit an IRB proposal tragedy may have been averted, for he would have been compelled to consider the consequences of his experiment and acknowledge, if not fulfill, his concomitant responsibilities to the creature that he abandoned and left to fend for itself.


Research ethics History of science Human subject protections IRB Human ambition Mary shelley Frankenstein Belmont report 



We thank John Gluck, Vanessa Tan, Peggy Gannon, Katie Trujillo, C. Brooke Cholka and the anonymous reviewers for comments on earlier versions of this manuscript.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of English, MSC03 2170University of New MexicoAlbuquerqueUSA
  2. 2.Graduate Studies, Department of Philosophy and Department of Biology, MSC03 2180University of New MexicoAlbuquerqueUSA

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