Alchemists, Astronomers, and Wild Men: A History of the Mad Scientist, Part One

The mad scientist is one of the standard archetypes of modern popular culture. Widespread in the pulps of the 1920s and 1930s, its modern inception dates back to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818). But the roots of the mad scientist go much farther back than Shelley, as we'll see.

Painting of Prometheus by Elsie Russell

The Two Modes Of "Mad"

The mad scientist can be usefully defined as an individual who conducts scientific experiments, invents something scientific, or does original scientific research, all while suffering from both psychological and moral insanity. This definition excludes several figures who are commonly (if erroneously) defined as mad scientists: Circe, from Greek myth, who practices magic, not science; the Faust of German legend and English and German literature, who does no research or experimentation, but instead sells his soul for magic abilities rather than science; and Agatha Heterodyne from Phil and Kaja Foglio's Girl Genius, who is not morally insane.

Historically the mad scientist has fallen into one of two modes. The first, what literary critics have variously labelled as "Promethean" or "utopian," roughly follows the model of the figure of Prometheus from Greek mythology: the scientist is not inherently evil, and in fact is usually portrayed as either a self-sacrificing idealist or a deluded comic figure. The scientist's mad science is morally ambivalent and ultimately degrades the moral sensibilities of the humans it comes in contact with. The Promethean/utopian mad scientist has noble goals but fails through human weakness, both his/her own and others'.

The second mode of mad scientist, and the more common of the two, is what literary critics call the "Faustian" or "gothic." In this mode, both the scientist and her knowledge are morally flawed, and the act of discovery — the research and experimentation — is as wicked and damning as the possession of the evil knowledge itself. As Victor von Frankenstein says in Chapter Four of Frankenstein, "Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow." Mad scientists in the Faustian mode are scurrilous or ambitious and use any methods, no matter how unethical, to discover dangerous knowledge.

Alchemists, Astronomers, and Wild Men: A History of the Mad Scientist, Part One

The Earliest Influences: Faustus of Milevis and Welsh Wild Men

The more immediate and obvious model for the "Faustian" mode is Faust, who like the mad scientist was willing to sell his soul for power and/or knowledge. But the source of both the Faustian myth and name, and hence the wellspring for the mad scientist archetype, was Faustus of Milevis. In the year 383 C.E. Faustus, then a high-ranking figure in the Manichaean religion, visited Carthage and delivered a series of lectures on Manichaeism, a dualistic, light-versus-dark religion which survived until the 15th century. Augustine of Hippo (354-430), later St. Augustine, was at the time a Manichaean but was so dissatisfied with the answers of Faustus and other Manichaeans to his theological questions that he left Manichaeism for Christianity. Later Augustine wrote an influential rebuttal to Faustus and Manichaeism, Contra Faustum (circa 400 C.E.), which cast both in a markedly negative light. Over the next several centuries numerous stories grew up around Faustus, stating that he had sold his soul in order to gain heretical and damnable knowledge about God. The long-lost original German chapbook about Faust was based on the legends of Faustus.

Figures like Faustus, in possession of dangerous religious knowledge, were common in Western popular culture for several centuries, but became less so after the 10th century and were replaced by figures in possession of dangerous magical knowledge. In the 12th century the figure of Merlin begin appearing in his modern form. As Irish scholar Padraig O'Riain showed in "A Study of the Irish Legend of the Wild Man" (1972), the standard version of Merlin was heavily influenced by the Wild Man figure of early Welsh poetry. Both the Wild Man and Merlin gave several things to the figure of the mad scientist. One of the most important was the notion of mental instability being inexorably wedded to special, dangerous knowledge–in the case of the Wild Man, possession by rather than of magical knowledge inevitably leading to schizophrenia or madness. The association between genius and mental illness was hardly new, having been made as far back as Aristotle (384-322), who famously wrote "no great genius has ever existed without some touch of madness." But unlike the earlier conception of the genius, the Wild Man was in possession of knowledge that was in itself dangerous.

More broadly, the Wild Man and Merlin gave to the mad scientist her or his liminal status. What O'Riain calls the Wild Man's "separation from wonted or due status" is his (and the mad scientist's) perpetually ambiguous and line-crossing state: straddling psychological and moral sanity and insanity, bridging society and solitude, stuck between mundane and magical, and bearing a heritage both human and supernatural (or devilish, in Merlin's case).

Alchemists, Astronomers, and Wild Men: A History of the Mad Scientist, Part One

This liminality and ambivalence was influential on the medieval stories about historical scientists like Roger Bacon (circa 1214-1294) and Robert Grosseteste (circa 1175-1253), both important figures in the history of science who became the subject of wide-ranging myths after their deaths. Like the later stories about "Virgil the Necromancer" — late medieval stories about the Roman poet Virgil (70-19 B.C.E.) which made him out to be, in the words of scholar John Spargo, the "Medieval Wizard of Oz"–the myths about Bacon and Grosseteste grew darker over time, playing down their good qualities, emphasizing their ambiguity, and making each more threatening and in possession of dangerous knowledge, skills, magic and/or science. The evil influence comes from either heredity (in the case of Merlin-like figures) or from an external source (whether poetic knowledge or magic). This darkening paved the way for figures like Faust and Frankenstein.

Alchemists, Astronomers, and Wild Men: A History of the Mad Scientist, Part One

The Renaissance: Greed and Deceit

The Renaissance version of the mad scientist was the alchemist. While alchemy is as old as human civilization, the modern literary figure of the alchemist was created in the 14th century by authors like Dante (who places an alchemist in the 8th circle of Hell in the Inferno (1308-1321)), Petrarch, (who describes alchemists as fools in De Remediis Utriusque Fortunae ( c.1370)), and Chaucer (who describes alchemists as thieves in "The Canon's Yeoman's Tales" section of The Canterbury Tales (circa 1399)). Following their model, authors from the 15th to the 17th century made the alchemist a favorite figure in satires.

The alchemist of this era appears in one of two forms. The first is the "mad alchemist," a seeker-after-knowledge who is so obsessed with the idea of transforming base metals into gold (and thus becoming rich) that he sacrifices his reputation, health, fortune and family toward achieving his goal. In real life, this type of alchemist was common enough that practising alchemists disdained them as "puffers" who foolishly and greedily sought for gold rather than insight and spiritual improvement.

The second form was the "cheating alchemist." This version is as obsessed with making gold as the mad alchemist, but rather than run through his own personal fortune, he finances his experiments with other people's money. The cheating alchemist uses simple alchemical tricks to get a person gold-crazy, and then has that person finance the cheating alchemist's experiments. After the target has run out of money, the cheating alchemist selects a new pigeon for plucking.

To the religious mind–which is to say, nearly everyone during the Renaissance–both the mad alchemist and the cheating alchemist embody sins: the mad alchemist, greed, and the cheating alchemist, deceit. But beyond that was the fear that the alchemist had success at the transformation of matter, even if it was not gold. To the medieval mind and to a large degree to the Renaissance mind, the manipulation and transformation of matter was the destruction of God's creation–no small thing to the Christians of the Renaissance.

Alchemists, Astronomers, and Wild Men: A History of the Mad Scientist, Part One

The 17th Century: The Astrologian and Prospero

Increasingly during the 16th century the fictional alchemist was shown to be striving to create not just for material goods but also the "elixir of life," the key to perpetual good health and immortality. During the 17th century the alchemist slowly disappeared from satires, with the miser and the gamester becoming the fictional vehicles for condemning greed and deceit. Alchemy became popular among the educated classes, with natural philosophers (the scientists of the era) stating that the transmutation of matter was at least theoretically possible. But the pursuit of the elixir of life remained condemned. Members of the Royal Society of London were quick to state that science could not explain the mysteries of Creation, and Isaac Newton, in his Principia (1713), ascribed the ultimate cause of the laws of motion to God — that is, something not discoverable by science. Even the most educated scientists would grant the possibility of the transmutation of matter but believed that there were limits to what humans could and should discover.

Different figures with what we would now think of as having a scientific orientation replaced the alchemist as the main mad scientist figure. In John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi (1612-1613), a set of eight madmen are brought in to terrorize the titular Duchess. One of the madmen is an "Astrologian" (astronomer), whose two most prominent lines are "Doomes-day not come yet? I'll draw it neerer by a perspective, or make a glasse, that shall set all the world on fire upon an instant" and "If I had my glasse here, I would shew a sight should make all the women here call me mad Doctor." (To Webster's audience a "doctor" was anyone skilled in a branch of learning, whether medicine, law, education, or astronomy).

Alchemists, Astronomers, and Wild Men: A History of the Mad Scientist, Part One

The Astrologian is threatening in a way that previous mad scientist figures had not been. The danger posed by the Astrologian lies in the discovery of something which existed before his discovery of it and would continue to exist after his death. The dangers posed by Faustus of Milevis and the various alchemists were limited and would end with them–what the Astrologian found with his telescope ("glasse") would not. Too, the Astrologian's threat is passive, while the alchemists et al. needed to be active (transforming matter, etc) to be dangerous to their targets. This kind of passive-but-unlimited danger would prove to be uncommon in later mad scientist figures.

Another figure who proved influential on later mad scientists was Prospero, from William Shakespeare's The Tempest (1610-1611). Prospero is no more a scientist than Faust, of course–Prospero is a white magician. But Prospero's hubris, his social isolation, and his mastery of dangerous (if not blasphemous) powers all appeared as part of mad scientist narratives in the same way that Faustus of Milevis' reputed soul-selling did. As well, Prospero, and the Tempest, were also the source of the motif, made popular in the pulps and B-grade science fiction films of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, of the hero falling in love with the mad scientist's daughter.

18th Century: The First True Mad Scientists

During the 17th century science and scientists were treated with some degree of respect, but this changed during the 18th century, when the respect was replaced with varying degrees of ridicule, disdain, distrust, and contempt.

The 18th century was largely the century of Isaac Newton, who though dead by 1727 was venerated throughout the century. But even Newton was often cast as a brilliant mind gone mad through too much solitude and too much pride. The profession of scientist came to be regarded as requiring so much solitude and so much concentration that it inevitably produces eccentricity and eventually madness. Coupled with this in the popular stereotype of the scientist was the idea that mastery of a field or discipline would led to a loss of contact with reality, whether moral, social, or material, so that the scientist would (according to the individual author's preference) become a buffoon, a dupe, or Mad.

Nor were the sciences exempt from this treatment. Variously, science became an innately limited pursuit because of human flaws and our inability to grasp God's grand design, the arrogant pursuit of forbidden knowledge, and something which will result in people believing that the world is completely mechanistic and lacking God.

The figure of the alchemist gained renewed popularity in fiction during the 18th century. But the portrayal of alchemy and the alchemist changed. The cheating alchemist was portrayed as a simple criminal, while the mad alchemist, now a "philosopher of nature," was portrayed as being obsessed with knowledge rather than morality and religion. True alchemy was portrayed as a spiritual pursuit, in search of God, while "wrong alchemy" was portrayed as the narrow-minded search for material (scientific) knowledge. A further twist was the portrayal of the mad alchemist who actually succeeded in finding the elixir of life or a surefire method for creating gold, only to discover that their success in creating long life or limitless wealth only made the more unhappy. Typical of this last was the titular character in William Godwin's Gothic novel St. Leon (1799), a man who is given the secrets of gold-making and eternal life, only to find that both do nothing but ruin his life and others'. More traditional, and straight-forwardly evil, alchemists did not completely vanish; in Antoine Galland's translation of "The Story of Hasan of El-Basrah" (1704-1717), the Arab alchemist Hasan is shown to be gullible and foolish, while the Persian alchemist who kidnaps Hasan is "a lewd and filthy villain" who ritually murders Muslims every year.

The Laputans of Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726), though credited by Darko Suvin in The Metamorphosis of Science Fiction (1979) as "the first ‘mad scientists' in SF," are more foolish than mad, and their schemes, though ingenious, are impractical: extracting sunbeams from cucumbers "to warm the air in raw inclement summers," reducing "human excrement to its original food, by separating the several parts, removing the tincture which it receives from the gall, making the odour exhale, and scumming off the saliva," feeding colored flies to spiders in order to produce colored silks, and so on.

Less innocuous is Mathésis, in Christopher Smart's "The Temple of Dulness" (1745). In the poem the goddess Dulness has taken prisoner Sophistry, Microphile (a satire of the microscope-obsessed scientist), Atheism (a satire of the atheist scientist), and Mathésis. Mathésis is a "monster, arrogant and vain" who "boasts that she can all mysteries explain," who tried (but failed) to soar into the skies with Newton, and who now creates "trifling trinkets" and "gewgaw toys." Mathésis may be the first mad scientist to invent gadgets, but what this passage emphasizes is her futility: for all her capabilities she is a prisoner who only creates "trifling trinkets" and "gewgaw toys" rather than something effective.

Much worse as mad scientists were Jacob Heinrichssohn, from Prussian satirist Heinrich Ludwig von Hess' Juno Abortans (1760), and Almani from de Sade's La Nouvelle Justine our Les Malheurs de la Vertu (1797). Both of these were significant. Jacob Heinrichssohn is the first modern evil doctor (a subset of the mad scientist), and Almani is the first modern mad scientist.

Juno Abortans is a satire of the animalcular theory of reproduction, or "preformationism," widely put forward in the 18th century, which held that tiny, perfectly-formed homunculi, called "animalcules," existed inside each sperm and were ready to expand once deposited in a womb. Heinrichssohn, who claims to have written a twenty-volume biography of legendary German rogue and prankster Til Eulenspiegel, conducts a series of experiments on his household maidservants. He uses a "cylindrical, catoptrical, rotundo-concavo-convex machine" to collect their "animalcula," artificially impregnates the women using the machine, and then uses another machine to induce abortions in the women. Heinrichssohn believes he has discovered the cure for immortality thanks to his machine, and can "cure" death. Heinrichssohn is shockingly amoral and utterly heartless about his victims.

La Nouvelle Justine, De Sade's sequel to his Justine (1791), has in its third book a passage in which de Sade, in Sicily, is enthralled by the destructive power of the volcano Mt. Etna, whose 1669 eruption was popularly (but erroneously) thought to have been enormously destructive to property and human life. De Sade is approached by a chemist, Almani, who shares de Sade's enthusiasm for sadism and has discovered the secrets of nature's destructive powers. Almani has spent twenty years creating artificial earthquakes, hurricanes, and volcanoes, and killing ordinary people with them, and he offers to help de Sade. Together the two build artificial volcanoes on Sicily, eventually killing 25,000 Sicilians.

Both Heinrichssohn and Almani are significant firsts, but neither were influential–Juno Abortans was obscure and La Nouvelle Justine, though scandalous, was little-read. In the history of mad scientists Heinrichssohn and Almani occupy the same position that the proto-police procedural Richmond: Scenes in the Life of a Bow Street Runner (1827) does in the history of mystery fiction: potentially significant, but neither imitated nor influential. The role of the first influential mad scientist was filled by Victor von Frankenstein, who I'll cover in the second part of this essay.

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