The Mad Scientist: A History

Movieland_Wax_Museum_Buena_Park_CA_Vincent_Price_House_of_Wax_1962_60618BBeginning with Faustus of Milevis, covering the historical association between genius and mental illness, mad alchemists of the Renaissance, grave robbing and organ snatching, io9 has a rollicking look at the mad scientist in Western culture:

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.

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.

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.

Read the rest at io9.