Future Tense

The Vivisectionist and Frankenstein

A new novel about a famous French researcher examines the ethical debates scientists and the public had in the 19th century.

Portrait of Claude Bernard (1813-1878), French physiologist.
A portrait of Claude Bernard, the French physiologist who became one of science’s most renowned vivisectors.

Wellcome Library, London/Wikimedia

When Mary Shelley sat down to write Frankenstein in the early 19th century, scientists had not yet figured out how to synthesize a genome from scratch. They hadn’t cloned sheep or dogs or Arabian sand cats, hadn’t engineered mice with human brain cells or transferred a bacterial gene into corn or even contemplated creating a three-parent baby.

Which makes it even more remarkable that Frankenstein has become so ubiquitous in our contemporary conversations about bioethics and biotechnology. It’s a sure bet: Whenever scientists announce a new technique for manipulating life, some headline writer or pundit or internet commenter will invoke the hubris of Dr. Frankenstein and his dangerous, lab-made monster. (I plead guilty myself: When I wrote a book about animal biotechnology in 2013, I titled it—what else?—Frankenstein’s Cat.)

Now, a new book, a modern successor and philosophical cousin to Frankenstein, details another series of 19th-century events that casts a long shadow over contemporary bioethical debates. Unlike Frankenstein, however, the story it tells is largely true. Experimental Animals, by Thalia Field, a professor of literary arts at Brown University, revolves around Claude Bernard, a renowned French physiologist who became one of science’s most famous vivisectors, conducting brutal experiments on unanesthesized animals just as the anti-vivisection movement was beginning to gain steam. Many of the era’s scientists found themselves drawn into the escalating debate over animal experimentation, but for Bernard, the controversy hit particularly close to home. One early anti-vivisectionist was Marie Françoise Martin—Claude Bernard’s wife.

Experimental Animals is itself a bit of a strange creature—the book’s subtitle is “A Reality Fiction”—weaving together narration by a lightly fictionalized version of Madame Bernard with real historical documents, including excerpts from Bernard’s experimental notebook, as well as letters, articles, and reports written by scientists, activists, and intellectuals. (All of the quotes from Bernard and his contemporaries in this piece are from the original primary materials included in Experimental Animals.) The result is a textured look at scientific ambition, risk, and responsibility, an exploration of many of the same concerns that animate Frankenstein—and our bioethical discourse today.

Claude Bernard was born in 1813 to a family of modest means in France’s Rhône Valley. As a young man, he apprenticed in a pharmacy before moving to Paris with dreams of becoming a playwright. After a critic cautioned him about the challenges of a life in the arts, however, Bernard enrolled in medical school instead. He eventually became a lab assistant to, and protégé of, François Magendie, a pioneering physiologist notorious for his experiments on—and public dissections of—living animals.

Bernard inherited his mentor’s reverence for the experimental method and unapologetic reliance on vivisection. In his basement laboratory, Bernard baked animals in ovens, snipped their nerves, and cut holes in their organs. Though he experimented on many species, dogs were his favorite research subjects; he severed their vocal cords to keep them quiet as he worked. His experiments could be brutal, but he viewed them as absolutely necessary—the very foundation of physiology. To Bernard, animals were “living machines,” which had to be taken apart to be understood. As he wrote in the French magazine Revue des Deux Mondes, “For the physiologist, it’s not the animal that lives and dies, these are organic materials made of tissues.” (In Shelley’s novel, Victor Frankenstein uses the same language, referring to animal body parts as “materials.”)

Bernard’s experiments did yield significant scientific dividends, including major discoveries about the role of the pancreas in digestion, the liver in glucose production, and the nervous system in regulating blood flow and body temperature. He also developed the concept that the body works to maintain a constant internal environment—a phenomenon that eventually came to be called “homeostasis”—and helped codify the principles of the experimental method. (His 1865 book, An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine, remains in print today.) He was enormously famous in his own time and accorded nearly every honor available to a French citizen.

Bernard’s home life, however, was disastrous. In 1845, he married Marie Françoise Martin, the daughter of a wealthy doctor. By all accounts, the marriage wasn’t about love—it was about the hefty dowry Bernard received, which allowed him to continue his physiological experiments. But Madame Bernard, known as Fanny, abhorred the work that her father’s money made possible. Although primary historical information about Fanny remains sparse, she apparently detested vivisection and became an active member of the Society for the Protection of Animals, founded in Paris in 1845. According to some sources, she even spirited away some of her husband’s experimental subjects. The Bernards’ daughters also grew into animal advocates, rescuing strays, founding an animal shelter, and helping to establish an animal cemetery.

Outside the community of anti-vivisection activists, however, Claude Bernard was revered, and many of his contemporaries—and later biographers—judged Fanny harshly. As the novelist Émile Zola put it, when discussing his intention to model a character on Claude Bernard, “I would make a scientist with a backward and bigoted wife who would destroy his work as soon as he did it.” And after Claude’s 1878 funeral, the Medical Tribune reported that the three Bernard women “hid their deep jubilation at the idea that they were burying this man religiously, after their daily persecutions took thirty years to kill him.”

Although few details about Fanny’s activism have survived, her advocacy was part of a larger, well-documented animal protection movement, which emerged in England at the tail end of the 18th century. By the second half of the 19th century, activists had set their sights on vivisection, speaking out about what they saw as barbaric laboratory practices. These activists, who were primarily women, formed anti-vivisection societies, made their case in articles and public lectures, disrupted demonstrations by prominent vivisectors, and lobbied for legislation to restrict or ban the practice. (They achieved a partial victory when Great Britain passed the Cruelty to Animals Act of 1876, which regulated vivisection and required scientists to anesthetize their animals, although many activists believed the law didn’t go nearly far enough.)

For their part, vivisectors defended animal experimentation as a scientific necessity and accused activists of being overly sensitive, more moved by animal pain than human suffering. Paul Bert, one of Bernard’s students, argued that because vivisection was useful and necessary, scientists who engaged in the practice had “courage to submit to this torturer’s profession” and that animal activists should consider “the moral sufferings of the vivisector.”

During the 19th century, the moral ramifications and potential overreaches of science became a matter of real public debate, one that played out everywhere from Bernard’s basement lab to the pages of Shelley’s Gothic novel. As Field puts it, both she and Shelley are “using a kind of shocking version of science to illuminate an ethical question.” And the questions at the heart of Frankenstein and Experimental Animals are ones that we’re still debating today: How do we balance the risks of experimentation against the potential benefits? Should we censure or celebrate scientists who push boundaries? What responsibilities do researchers have to their subjects? How far are we willing to go for knowledge?

Frankenstein popularized the character of the mad scientist—an ego-driven, morally blind experimenter who gives little thought to the consequences of his grotesque experiments. In the following decades, anti-vivisection activists found what may have seemed to be the real-life equivalent in scientists like Claude Bernard, who appeared untroubled by the suffering of animals and viewed them as machines to be tinkered with.

But Frankenstein is a more ambiguous novel than it may initially seem, and neither it nor Experimental Animals has clear-cut villains or heroes. “Each of these characters is so certain of how right they are, just so completely sure,” Field says of the real-life historical figures at the center of Experimental Animals. “They all die believing that they have fought to the death for this thing that they so truly believed in. It makes them all heroes in their own minds. And yet every one is a villain to someone else.”

This article is part of the Frankenstein installment of Futurography, a series in which Future Tense introduces readers to the technologies that will define tomorrow. Each month, we’ll choose a new technology and break it down. Future Tense is a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate.