Frankenstein’s Footsteps: Science, Genetics and Popular Culture


This came out from Yale back in 1998 and was a kind of academic/popular crossover. That is, I was working in a university department at the time. Those things don’t usually work, but this one seemed to be received OK – it even won an award from the BMA for “popular medical book of the year”.

It is also still my main (only?) claim to academic fame – an examination of the Frankenstein frame as the governing myth for debates about life creation and biotechnology over two centuries. The same examination has been done a few times since by others, but I prefer my version – which is still in print. University Presses are good that way.

Reviews: (lots of reviews for this one)

“An important book, elegantly written”. Lewis Wolpert, The Times

“A serious and fascinating contribution to cultural history”. Mary Warnock, THES

“Jon Turney tries to extract lessons from some great examples of popular culture, a task he undertakes with insight, scholarship and courage…. Turney has to pick and choose his examples from the flood of recent biological developments, but his narrative maintains continuity and makes for a gripping, if terse and disturbing, read”. — Brian Goodwin, New Scientist.

“With lucidity and serenity, Turney re-tells the Frankenstein story as a history of apocalyptic anxieties and preposterous prognostications. His narrative provides good cause for alert calm.”—Paul Rabinow, University of California at Berkley”With lucidity and serenity, Turney retells the Frankenstein story as a history of apocalyptic anxieties and preposterous prognostications. His narrative provides good cause for alert calm.”—Paul Rabinow, University of California at Berkeley

“In this thought-provoking treatment, Jon Turney demonstrates that Mary Shelly’s classic novel and the myth it spawned have provided images incorporated into popular debates about advances in biology from the early 19th century to the contemporary furor over genetic engineering.”—Paul Northam, American Scientist

“The book provides a lucid and useful precis of popular attitudes and cultural artifacts regarding humanity’s real and potential manipulations of life, from the Golem to the genome and beyond.”—Philip Gold, Washington Times

“Turney has many interesting things to say about how biological science is communicated to the public, how the story of Frankenstein has conjured up in popular culture certain images of science and scientists, and how those images have changed over time. That we can learn from something how sf and film influence public perceptions of science is a very good notion and an important one to consider, especially in light of recent experiments on monkey head transplants and sheep cloning.”—Library Journal

“Jon Turney’s Frankenstein’s Footsteps offers a history of public images of biology organized around the image, myth and use of the story and metaphor of Shelly’s Frankenstein. . . . [Turney] gracefully and incisively traces the use of Frankenstein and subsequent popular works explicating the hazards of science. His close readings of the texts provide new understanding about the power of the Frankenstein myth and its relevance to the promises and threats of the new genetics.”—Peter Conrad, Society

“Turney devotes most of Frankenstein’s Footsteps to a splendid, quirky history of the 19th and 20th-century life sciences. Turney keeps at least two balls in the air at all times, describing both contemporary biology and the public reaction to it as reflected by contemporary fiction and popular journalism. . . . Turney’s eye and hands are sure, and what emerges is a complexly layered story of struggles within the lab to comprehend life; and struggles outside the lab to comprehend just what the scientists were up to, and why.” —Noah J. Efron, Boston Book Review

“Turney produces a welcome contribution to the cultural history of images. . . . Turney writes in a clear and direct style to produce a narrative that flows smoothly among the scientific, literary, and social strands of his theme without bogging down in any one domain. . . . Turney gives valuable understanding of the historical links between biology and each of social concerns, literature and movies, the media, the political actions.”—Patrick Colgan, Science Education

“This is a fascinating book, interweaving accounts of literature and popular culture with accounts of the growth of modern biology. . . . If one role of history is to enable us to learn from the misunderstandings and mistakes of the past, then Turney’s well-researched and thoughtful account will be of real value to us in addressing the problems of the present.”—John Polkinghorne, Crucible (Quarterly Journal of the Board of Social Responsibility)

“This is a thought-provoking account of a controversial subject.”—Lorn Macintyre, Herald (Glasgow)

“Turney is admirably qualified to trace journalists’ responses to the intellectual and technological leaps biologists have made in this century. . . . Frankenstein’s Footsteps should be read by all who are concerned about the social and ethical implications of DNA experimentation and, even more importantly, by those who are not.”—Roslynn D. Haynes, Nature

“The work is thorough, and Turney is quite evenhanded in his treatment of the scientific community and the lay public.”—Russell F. Trimble, Science Books & Films

Frankenstein’s Footsteps is original, provocative, instructive, and consistently interesting. Its appeal to historians is self-evident, but molecular biologists, geneticist, and physicians with literary inclinations will find this book worthwhile.”—Robert S. Schwartz, M.D., New England Journal of Medicine“[An] innovative book.”—Robert Schwartz, New England Journal of Medicine

“An attractively produced and engaging study of popular images of the biological sciences in nineteenth and twentieth century America and Britain.”—M. Susan Lindee, Quarterly Review of Biology

“Jon Turney’s book is a heroic canter through the dark and muddy landscape in which myth, metaphor, and matters of fact seem to co-exist. . . . A valuable book.”—Tim Radford, Lancet

“[A] nuanced and highly informative account. . . . Turney has provided a valuable perspective on the powerful images and metaphors that continue to inform policy and public debates in the life sciences.”—Susan E. Lederer, ISIS

Frankenstein’s Footsteps is a great read. Turney has a wonderful ear for a telling quote, uses vivid metaphors and sustains the chronological narrative at a rattling pace. . . . The book presents readers with an exceptionally rich and diverse range of texts.”—Jacquelin Burgess,Public Understanding of Science

“A delightful book that evokes in a reader the need to answer back. This is one of the reasons it has been put on the syllabus of ‘Good Breeding’, the Open University’s course on the eugenics movement. The organizers are sure the students will want to read it, and will want to discuss what they have read.”—Pauline M.H. Mazumdar, Medical History