The Hearts Of Mary Shelley

02/11/2015 09:50 am ET | Updated Apr 13, 2015

"Perhaps a corpse would be reanimated... perhaps the components parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together and endued with vital warmth."
-Mary Shelley

anatomical heart

On Valentine's Day, we consider the heart. The heart is biological; it is the organ on which our life most depends. The heart is emotional, full of love and sorrow. The heart is wandering. No one knew our central muscle's multiple meanings better than Mary Shelley.

Mary Shelley was a writer's writer, depressive, miserable, and brilliant. So too the friends she gathered with, at the age of 18, in the spring of 1816 at two adjacent houses on Lake Geneva in Switzerland. The group planned to boat about and adventure, but it was a "wet and ungenial summer," and they instead found themselves contained indoors as the rain pounded on outside. They read aloud from Les Fantasmagoria, a French translation of a German book of horrors, and then Lord Byron, who was present, proposed that they should each compose their own horror story. Mary recused herself from this show of narrative improvisation, at least initially.

Then on June 21, 1816, Mary listened to a conversation between Percy Shelley, and Byron and it got her thinking about different sorts of ghosts, those of science and progress. Percy mentioned that the scholar Erasmus Darwin was studying the science necessary to bring dead animals back to life. To Mary, the idea was titillating and horrifying. What would stop scientists from doing it if they could and if they did, what would be the consequences?

Mary Shelley went to bed but slept uneasily. She woke in the middle of the night with what she called a waking dream. In it, she saw a pale scientist "kneeling beside the thing he had put together." He was looking down on the "hideous phantasm of a man stretched out," which then, thanks to some powerful engine, "showed signs of life" and stirred "with an uneasy, half vital motion." To Mary Shelley this scientist mocked the magic of life, the mechanism that lay hidden inside the body. It was frightful stuff -- frightful enough to be worth writing down and so, with the encouragement of Percy Shelley, she began to write, her fingers possessed with the vigor of her tale, Frankenstein.

"Frankenstein's monster would go on to look for love and kindness among humans and then -- in failing to find either -- to terrify the society and scientist who created it."
Frankenstein is the classic horror story of the ends to which science might go and the consequences of those ends. In writing Frankenstein, Shelley was inspired by Erasmus Darwin and his experiments with electricity. But rather than simply focus on the horrors implicit in reanimating flesh, she added a twist. The flesh came from multiple organs, the different organs and parts coming together to make a whole. Dr. Frankenstein assembled his monster piece-by-piece, until finally he gave it the element necessary for life. In the book, Mary Shelley did not spell out what the final element was, but in the science of the time only one organ could do the job she required, that of giving the spark of biological life and emotion, the heart. Imbued with life, Frankenstein's monster would go on to look for love and kindness among humans and then -- in failing to find either -- to terrify the society and scientist who created it.

In Shelley's time, the idea of living beings composed of parts of multiple origins was titillating and terrifying, but a long way off. It was not until a hundred years after Shelley died that scientists first performed the surgery closest to what she imagined, transplanting a human heart from one person into another. In the first decade of these transplants, they were a scientific success but for nearly all who received them, practical failure. The recipients of the new hearts woke, did interviews, voiced normal human emotions and then, in most cases after days, months or very rarely years, died. Lives were sometimes shorter due to the transplant than they would have been in its absence. Technology had proceeded faster than its consequences could be considered. This is a future Mary Shelley somehow keenly saw, a future we seem eager to anticipate as technology advances.

This is where the script of the story of heart transplants diverges from that of Frankenstein. In light of the early failures of heart transplants, many called for a moratorium on transplants. They were, it was said, too unsuccessful to continue. By the late 1970s they had nearly stopped, but if any patient wished to inflict harm upon the doctor who had given them a new kind of life, they didn't. A few families filed lawsuits. Mostly, the surgeons drifted into other types of surgery, mostly except for one man.

"If Shelley were rewriting Frankenstein today, she would have whole new realms of scientific hubris to worry about.
Norman Shumway was one of the first people to work towards attempting a heart transplant. He worked carefully and diligently. He worked patiently. This is why, even though he was almost without a doubt better able to do heart transplants in dogs in the 1960s, he was not the first to try one in humans. And so it is maybe not surprising that even after the other surgeons abandoned heart transplants that Shumway continued to work to try to figure out how to make them work. He wanted desperately to deal with the problems that arose during transplantation, problems due, at least in part, to the tendency of the body of the recipient, its immune system, to reject the donated heart.

Shumway got better and better at each part of the transplant, but he still needed a way to suppress the immune system of the recipient, so that the recipient's body would not reject the precious heart it had been given. Then, in the late 1970s, a soil fungus was found that produced a unique drug, cyclosporine. Cyclosporine could suppress the immune system well enough for transplants to work with much more success. And so, thanks to Shumway's heart transplants began to be, beginning in the early 1980s, more uniformly successful. As a result, thousands of people are alive today that would not be otherwise. One of these people, a high school student, came up to me last week after a talk about my new book about the stories of our hearts. She mentioned she had received a transplant and then went on to talk about planning for college, planning for college because she could depend on her new heart not for days but years, perhaps decades even.

If Shelley were rewriting Frankenstein today, she would have whole new realms of scientific hubris to worry about. She could write about genetically modified foods; they are something along the lines of a microscopic organ transplant among species. She could have written about the new work in which scientists are creating synthetic life, taking molecules and arranging them in such a way so as to make life out of nonlife. Perhaps she would write about the microbiome and the extent to which the species that live on and in us can affect our behavior and even our personalities, such that by changing the microbiomes among people we might be able to change who they are without even altering their own cells. Any of these could make for terrifying reading.

I for one would like to also remember (and read about) the work of people like Norman Shumway, people who take us beyond moments of scientific hubris to accomplishment, accomplishments as incredible as giving new life to the tens of thousands of recipients of organ transplants each year. All around us today are men and women who are enlivened by multiple parts -- folks like the woman who said hi after my talk. They are blessed with extra heartbeats, enough with which to do simple things like plan ahead or, given that the woman who said hi was about the same age as Mary Shelley started Frankenstein, write the great scientific drama for the next century.

Rob Dunn is the author of The Man Who Touched His Own Heart.