From Alexander Pope to "Splice": a Short History of the Female Mad Scientist

The mad scientist is an icon of modern popular culture, but critics have traced its origin back centuries. Yet there seem to be few female mad scientists. Which is odd, because the first significant fictional mad scientist was a woman.

Brian Aldiss, in Billion Year Spree (1973), puts the mad scientist's origin in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818). Darko Suvin, in The Metamorphosis of Science Fiction (1979), nominates the Laputans (of Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726)) as "the first ‘mad scientists' in SF." Brian Stableford, in his essay "Scientists" (1973), goes farther back, stating that the mad scientist "inherited the mantle and the public image of the medieval alchemists, astrologers, and sorcerers." Robert Plank, in The Emotional Significance of Imaginary Beings (1968), claims Shakespeare's Prospero for the original mad scientist. And Peter Goodrich, in his "The Lineage of Mad Scientists" (1986), goes farther still, naming historical mad scientists, including the Persian scientist Alhazen (965-1040) and the English philosopher Roger Bacon (1214-1294), before tracing the origin of the mad scientist back to Merlin and to Prometheus, the Titan of Greek myth.

But the first mad scientist is undoubtedly Mathésis. She is the foremother of a long, but often neglected, tradition of female mad scientists in literature. Here we explore the history of lunatic ladies of in the laboratory.

Mad Mathésis, Her Feet All Bare

"Mathésis" is the ancient Greek term for learning/mathematics/knowledge/science, and in Alexander Pope's satire "The Dunciad" (1728) Mathésis appears as a captive of the goddess Dulness:

Mad Mathesis alone was unconfined
Too mad for mere material chains to bind
Now to pure Space lifts her ecstatic stare
Now running round the Circle finds it square.

But in Christopher Smart's "The Temple of Dulness" (1745), Mathésis takes on a more sinister tinge:

Next to her, mad Mathesis; her feet all bare,
Ungirt, untrimm'd, with loose neglected hair;
No foreign object can her thoughts disjoint;
Reclin'd she sits, and ponders o'er a point
Before her, lo! inscrib'd upon the ground
Strange diagrams th'astonish'd sight confound,
Right lines and curves, with figures square and round.
With these the monster, arrogant and vain,
Boasts that she can all mysteries explain,
And treats the sacred sisters with disdain,
She, when great Newton sought his kindred skies,
Sprung high in air, and strove with him to rise
In vain—the mathematic mob restrains
Her flight, indignant, and on earth detains;
E'er since the captive wretch her brain employs
On trifling trinkets, and on gewgaw toys.

Smart altered Mathésis' madness. Rather than someone whose insanity is harmless, Mathésis becomes a "monster, arrogant and vain." who creates "trifling trinkets" and "gewgaw toys." There is not a lot of distance between Smart's Mathésis, with her "loose neglected hair" and "trifling trinkets," and the modern mad scientist, with his unkempt, wild hair and dangerous technology. But Mathésis is female, not male.

No rush of fictional mad scientists, male or female, followed "The Temple of Dulness." The Romantics in general saw scientists as either impractical theorists or wicked materialists, and an occasional mad scientist showed up in Gothic stories and novels, but it wasn't until Frankenstein that the mad scientist was fully transformed from the medieval alchemist to a modern character. Although male mad scientists began appearing with some regularity in the 1860s, in penny dreadfuls and dime novels, it wasn't until the 1890s, 150 years after "The Temple of Dulness," that female mad scientists began appearing.

From Alexander Pope to "Splice": a Short History of the Female Mad Scientist

Pre-20th Century Female Scientists

It might be objected that the delay in the appearance of fictional female mad scientists came from a lack of real-life models. But this objection, however reasonable, is based on false premises. Though small compared to their male counterparts, there were female scientists active in the 19th century, both amateurs and professionals, and some some of those women were notable even in their lifetimes. As far back as the 1650s Margaret Cavendish (1623-1673) was well-known for her work on "natural philosophy," the pre-19th century phrase for the study of the physical sciences, and one of the most important mathematicians of the second half of the 19th century was Sofia Kovalevskaya (1850-1891).

As Richard Holmes points out, women played an important role in the Royal Society of London, historically the most important scientific establishment of Great Britain. American women were active as scientists from the nation's beginnings, as shown by Joan Hoff ("Dancing Dogs of the Colonial Period," Early American Literature n7, Winter 1973), Sally Kohlstedt ("In From the Periphery," Signs v4n1, Autumn 1978), and Margaret Rossiter ("Women Scientists in America Before 1920," American Scientist n62, May/June 1974).

From Alexander Pope to "Splice": a Short History of the Female Mad Scientist

So there was no lack of real-life female scientists. Nor was there a lack of real-life female mad scientists on which to model fictional female mad scientists. During her lifetime Cavendish was thought to be insane, and Kovalevskaya was not only an active nihilist and revolutionary at times in her life-her partial autobiography is titled Nihilist Girl-but was also an inventor of "unusual" electrical machinery.

The explanation is likely sexism, but a particularly Victorian kind of sexism. Although the sexism of the 19th century prevented women from appearing in as wide a variety of heroic roles in popular fiction as men could, there were female amateur detectives as early as 1837 (William Burton's "The Secret Cell"), female warriors as early as 1842 (Timothy Savage's The Amazonian Republic, Recently Discovered in the Interior of Peru), female cowboys as early as 1847 (Charles Averill's The Mexican Ranchero; or, the Maid of the Chapparal), female professional private detectives as early as 1864 (Andrew Forrester, Jr.,'s The Female Detective), female Zorros as early as 1882 (William Manning's "Lady Jaguar, the Robber Queen"), female pirates in 1896 (Guy Boothby's The Beautiful White Devil), and even female astronauts in 1900 (George Griffith's "A Visit to the Moon").

However, none of these roles allowed women to be intellectually dangerous. No women scientists showed up in popular literature, and only rarely in mainstream literature, with the exception of historical personalities like Hypatia (circa 360-415 C.E.), who appeared in Charles Kingsley's Hypatia (1852-1853). The premiere model of dangerous femininity in British fiction in the 19th century was the Fatal Woman, the Victorian version of the femme fatale. But the Fatal Woman is dangerous sexually and morally, not intellectually.

The Effect of the New Woman

It wasn't until the 1890s, with the advent of the "New Woman," that fictional women were allowed to be mentally as well as physically and sexually dangerous. The New Woman was a woman who took many of the theoretical ideas of feminism and put them into practice as a lifestyle. She was usually a college graduate–women had begun being admitted to the better British colleges in 1847. She advocated self-fulfillment rather than self-sacrifice, and chose education and a career over marriage. The New Woman was direct in speech and forthright about her political views. She smoked and drank openly, decried restrictive fashions, exercised and played sports. And she was sexually active, or at least advocated sexual freedom, and avoided marriage, seeing it as a trap designed to rob women of their independence.

The fictional female mad scientist was one of the many negative fictional reactions to the New Woman. For many middle and upper-class Victorian men, women were the guardians of civilization and English culture's higher values. For the New Woman to strive for more than a role as wife and mother was deeply threatening to conservative moralists. For the New Woman to become an intellectual rival to men was even more alarming. Most novels of the 1890s portrayed the New Woman as coming to bad ends, and the novels with fictional female scientists are one version of this reaction.

From Alexander Pope to "Splice": a Short History of the Female Mad Scientist

The First Three, And What Made Them Different

The first significant female mad scientist–possibly the first at all–is the titular character in George Griffith's Olga Romanoff (1893-1894). The novel, a sequel to Griffith's The Angel of the Revolution (1893), is set in the future and is about the efforts of Olga, the last of the Romanoffs, to overthrow the Aerians, the master race which rules the world. Toward this end Olga Romanoff builds a supersubmarine and a fleet of airships, drugs two high-ranking Aerians and Khalid (a powerful Muslim ruler) and makes all them her mind-controlled lovers, and fights a number of bloody, losing battles against the Aerians.

Following quickly on the heels of Olga Romanoff, and overtly referencing The Angel of the Revolution, was T. Mullett Ellis' Zalma (1895), in which Zalma von der Pahlen, daughter of the leader of the international nihilist and anarchist movements and, after his death, the leader herself of those movements, plots to spark a socialist revolution by launching a fleet of anthrax-infested balloons into the capitals of Europe. And after Zalma came L.T. Meade and Robert Eustace's The Brotherhood of the Seven Kings (1898-1899), about Madame Koluchy, the leader of an Italian secret society who tries to seize power in England. Her chosen weapons include setting loose tsetse flies infected with encephalitis, composing a waltz with deadly vibrations, and killing through overdoses of x-rays.

These three characters provided the rough model for most of the fictional female mad scientists which would appear over the next sixty years. Like their male counterparts, fictional female mad scienitsts were usually portrayed as Faustian (overweening ambition) and Promethean (striving for utopia). But male mad scientists were usually based in their laboratories, and were static, forcing the heroes to come to them; female mad scientists were dynamic and were primarily active outside their laboratories. Male mad scientists were asexual, either past their sexual prime or, as creatures of intellect, above sexual desires; female mad scientists were portrayed as sexual beings, either using their sexual attractiveness to manipulate men or being sexually profligate as a sign of their moral perversity.

Male mad scientists were usually passionless (though not emotionless), where female mad scientists were passionate. Male mad scientists were usually obsessed with their research, and the results of that research - a million pounds sterling or conquest of the world - were of secondary concern; female mad scientists had some ultimate goal in mind which their research was meant to achieve. Male mad scientists were rarely portrayed in more than two dimensions; female mad scientists were usually three dimensional characters, or as much so as the authors could make them. Male mad scientists were rarely portrayed in a sympathetic fashion, while female mad scientists almost always were.

A Real Life Female Mad Scientist

The next significant female mad scientist, however, came from reality and was largely an exception to the proceeding. (Life is rarely as neat or programmatic as art). Dr. Louise G. Robinovitch (née Luisa Rabinowitch; 1881-1942) became internationally known in the first decade of the twentieth century for her experiments with electricity and anesthesia, but by 1921 she had withdrawn completely from public notice, and for good reason. In addition to her involvement in her brother's larceny (he was convicted in 1911, though her case was dropped by the police for lack of proof), newspaper articles about her brought to the public's attention that she had brought a dead rabbit back to life through electricity. Newspapers trumpeted that she was a proponent of "electrical anesthesia," though she refused to discuss her findings with the press, and in Paris she had revived an apparently dead woman through the application of electrical "rhythmic excitations." Allegedly she planned to prove, in laboratory experiments on animals (and, it was hinted, humans) that resuscitation of the dead via electricity would be universally possible in the near future. Taken singly or even two at a time, the public could accept these facts, but together they presented the image of a cold, deliberately reclusive genius of frightening capabilities and ambitions.

In this Robinovitch was seen as a photonegative of Thomas Edison, at this time the archetype, in both fiction and reality, for the heroic supergenius of popular fiction. Where Edison was a promoter, Robinovitch was a recluse who shunned the press. Where Edison projected a genial image, Robinovitch's was cool, verging on disdainful. And where Edison's experiments promised to advance human civilization, Robinovitch's ultimate goal was an archetypal Going Where Humanity Shouldn't Go experiment. Robinovitch was not widely imitated in fiction, but she provided a new archetypal version of the female mad scientist, the passionless, clinical researcher distant from human concerns and fixated on her research.

Experimental Theater and Comic Books

The next major (fictional) female mad scientist was Claire Archer, in Susan Glaspell's play The Verge (1921). Archer is a botanist who attempts to create new plants which exhibit "otherness" and "outness." She nearly achieves "otherness" with the the "Edge Vine" and the "Breath of Life," which is "the flower I've created that is outside of what flowers have been." Archer is emotionally frustrated and driven to distraction by the intellectual inferiority of those around her and the impossibility of communicating her ideas to them, and at the end of the play she shoots her husband. Archer's significance comes from Glaspell's status: at the time Glaspell was a major experimental playwright, and her use of a female mad scientist in experimental theater elevated the concept of the female mad scientist from the pulp ridiculous to something which could be taken seriously, just as Wells had done with Doctor Moreau in 1896.

From Alexander Pope to "Splice": a Short History of the Female Mad Scientist

The female mad scientist was a rarity in the pulps, but it only took eighteen months for a female mad scientist to appear in superhero comic books. Action Comics #20 (January, 1940) showed Superman's first nemesis, the Ultra-Humanite, putting his (male) brain into the body of actress Dolores Winters. As Dolores Winters, the Ultra-Humanite fought Superman in Action Comics #20 and #21 before disappearing for forty years. The Ultra-Humanite was not influential, but is interesting as a rare example of pulp/comics gender ambiguity, although this aspect is not touched upon in either issue of Action Comics.

Respectability At Last

The first female mad scientist to appear in respectable, mainstream science fiction was Barbara Haggerwells, in Ward Moore's Bring the Jubilee (1953). Haggerwells develops theories of time and space which allow her to create a time machine. But because she lives in a timeline in which the Confederacy won the Civil War, she manipulates the main character into going back in time and altering the past so that the Union wins. Haggerwells is abrasive and psychologically damaged and is a good example of a female mad scientist who is both mad and on the side of the good guys.

Haggerwells is also the first female mad scientist to strongly resemble her male counterpart. Haggerwells is as much in the mode of the traditional male mad scientist as the female mad scientist. Though three-dimensional, Haggerwells is an unsympathetic character. She is static and lab-bound. She is briefly involved in a relationship with the narrator of Bring the Jubilee, but sex is not central to Haggerwells' character as it was to earlier female mad scientists. She wants to change the past, but her emotions are mainly negative, unlike her passionate predecessors. Following Haggerwells, the female mad scientist would usually become indistinguishable, with the exception of physical characteristics, from her male analog.

The thirty years following Bring the Jubilee were a dire period for female mad scientist. The figure of the male mad scientist was increasingly used in a serious fashion in film and literature, from Dr. Strangelove (1963) to James Blish's Black Easter (1968), but the female mad scientist was relegated to low budget movies and cheap cartoons. Where the male mad scientist became a meaningful metaphor, the female mad scientist was used in the service of hack horror films. It wasn't until the early 1980s, first with Whitley Streiber's novel The Hunger (1981), that the female mad scientist was used in a serious manner, and since then the female mad scientist has been allowed the variation in character and seriousness that the male mad scientists have always had.

From Alexander Pope to "Splice": a Short History of the Female Mad Scientist

An Incomplete List of Female Mad Scientists

1893: Olga Romanoff. George Griffith's Olga Romanoff. British novel.

1895: Zalma von der Pahlen. T. Mullett Ellis' Zalma. British novel.

1898: Madame Koluchy. L.T. Meade and Robert Eustace's The Brotherhood of the Seven Kings. British novel.

1921: Claire Archer. Susan Glaspell's The Verge. U.S. play.

1926: Hilda Thorsby. Petterson Marzoni's "Red Ether." U.S. short story.

1936: Malita. The Devil Doll. U.S. film.

1938: Dr. Hamilton. Daniel Lopez's "Tommy Grey." Spanish comic strip.

1940: Ultra-Humanite. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster's Action Comics #20. U.S. comic book.

1940: Dr. Jackson. Son of Ingagi. U.S. film.

1947: Madame Voss. Steve Dowling and Gordon Boshell's "Garth." British comic strip.

1948: Dr. Sandra Mornay. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. U.S. film.

1953: Barbara Haggerwells. Ward Moore's Bring the Jubilee. U.S. novel.

1957: Miss Branding. Blood of Dracula. U.S. film.

1959: Dr. Myra. Teenage Zombies. U.S. film.

1964: Madame Atomos. André Carpouzis' La Sinistre Mme Atomos and its 17 sequels.

1965: "The Master." "If I Fell." The Beatles. U.S. cartoon.

1966: Dr. Faustina. "The Night of the Big Blast." Wild Wild West. U.S. tv series.

1966: Maria Frankenstein. Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter. U.S. film.

1966: Poison Ivy. Robert Kanigher and Sheldon Moldoff's Batman #181. U.S. comic book. Poison Ivy's mad scientist aspects were emphasized in later appearances.

1970: Dr. Elaine Frederick. Flesh Feast. U.S. film.

1971: Tania Frankenstein. La Figlia di Frankenstein. Italian film.

1972: Dr. Eva Wolfstein. La Furia del Hombre Loco. Spanish film.

1972: Freda Frankenstein. Santo vs. La Hija de Frankenstein. Mexican film.

1973: Dr. Caligula. Alabama's Ghost. U.S. film.

1973: Susan Harris. Invasion of the Bee Girls. U.S. film.

1973: Unnamed female mad scientist. Supergirl. Filipino film.

1977: Dr. Ellen Kratsch. La Bestia in Calore. Italian film.

1977: Dianne Ashley. Kingdom of the Spiders. U.S. film.

1981: Dr. Sarah Roberts. Whitley Streiber's The Hunger. U.S. novel.

1981: Dr. Gwen Parkinson. Strange Behavior. U.S. film.

1985. The Rani. "The Mark of the Rani." Doctor Who. U.K. tv series. The Rani later appeared in the serial "Time and the Rani" (1987) and the charity special "Dimensions in Time" (1993).

1987. Beth Halpern. Michael Crichton's Sphere. U.S. novel.

1990: Dr. Babs Blight. Captain Planet and the Planeteers. U.S. cartoon.

1992: Washu Hakubi. Tenchi Muyo! Japanese anime.

1993: Jane Tiptree. Carnosaur. U.S. film.

1995: Professor Helena Slogar. Keith Baker's Gloom. U.S. card game.

1999: Dr. Susan McCallister. Deep Blue Sea. U.S. film.

2000: Helen Narbon. Shaenon Garrity's Narbonic. U.S. webcomic.

2003: Doc. Texhnolyze. Japanese anime.

2005: Angelika Einstürzen. Dogs: Bullets and Carnage.

2009: Dr. Elsa Kast. Splice. U.S. film.

2010: Zoe Graystone. Caprica. U.S. tv series.

My thanks to Mike Ashley, Paul Di Filippo, John Eggeling, Denny Lien, and David Pringle for help with research.

Jess Nevins is a librarian, pulp fiction historian, and comic book annotator. He also writes encyclopedias. You can find out more on his blog.