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Mary Shelley lives on for her 218th birthday celebration

Discussions of both the scientific and literary aspects of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein took place at the North Berkeley Library on Aug 29. ( Valarie Williams)
Discussions of both the scientific and literary aspects of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein took place at the North Berkeley Library on Aug 29. ( Valarie Williams)

On Saturday, Aug. 29 the North Berkeley Public Library branch hosted this celebration with a lecture by Stephanie Stewart-Bailey, Curator of The Body Appropriate and of the San Francisco Exploratorium.

This event was in partnership with Abigail Guerdat of the Bone Room, a retail store in Berkeley specializing in natural history items. Stewart-Bailey and Guerdat asked, “What would Frankenstein be like if he were alive today?”

Amidst slices of birthday cake, displays of mounted insects and pieces of brain, Stewart-Bailey addressed this question to a room full of Frankenstein enthusiasts. Active participation from audience members was highly encouraged. Between sips of tea and bites of cake, attendees happily discussed parallels between the text and scientific achievement. Specifically citing perfusion – the process of a body delivering blood to a capillary bed in its biological tissue Stewart-Bailey spoke of Shelley’s astute imagination.

“Mary Shelly was ahead of her times,” Stewart-Bailey said. “She wrote about scientific experiments that were not even possible in her lifetime, but we perform them now.”

Stewart-Bailey encouraged audience members to view the text as futuristic in its knowledge of medical advances that had yet to be invented in Shelley’s time, but are widely practiced today. Frankenstein discusses reanimation and organ transplants decades before these life-saving methods were options. While society in the novel feared these acts, Stewart-Bailey pointed out that in contemporary times, these methods are not only no longer feared, but are welcomed.

“We seem to be more comfortable with death now then in Shelley’s times,” she said during her lecture.

Body fluid transfusion, galvanism and electrophysiology — all scientific acts found in Frankenstein — are considered standard medical procedures now, nearly 200 years after the book was written. In Shelly’s time, such revolutionary acts were horrors, but today, many are commonplace; however, ethical questions surrounding transplants, reanimation and resuscitation persist.

While attendees were engaged with Stewart-Bailey’s thought-provoking take on the revolutionary scientific methods Shelley writes about in Frankenstein, many audience members were happily engaged with the discussion of the text as a timeless piece of literature.

However, the book has another appeal entirely, and it is not so easily identifiable.

Rebecca Cuthwell, a UC Berkeley student who is considering the book for her thesis project, remembers her father reading her the book when she was a child. Her interest in the novel is less scientifically focused. Cuthwell is interested in Shelley’s portrayal of social classes in the novel.

“It haunts me; I can’t seem to escape it now,” said Cuthwell.

She believes the novel maintains a place in popular culture due to its mutability. The novel has endured changes in both science and literature and maintains its place as a ground-breaking, awe-inspiring story.