H.G. Wells on 19th century Science

First edition cover. Image by Heinemann, via Wikimedia Commons.

I recently re-read The island of Dr. Moreau as a part of Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World course. I’ve read it in a Russian translation as a child, but the only thing I remembered was men made from beasts.  30 years later I had different thoughts and discovered some interesting things about the writer.

Let’s look at the scientists of the novel. It’s narrated by a gentleman of leisure, Prendrick, rescued from a shipwreck by a ship, which apart from the crew, carries some wild animals and a doctor, Montgomery. Montgomery says that he was a medical student in London:

“Sixteen years being bullied by nurses and schoolmasters at their own sweet will; grinding hard at medicine, bad food, shabby lodgings, shabby clothes, shabby vice, a blunder,—I didn’t know any better,—and hustled off to this beastly island”.

And here lies my personal discovery. I think that Montgomery modelled on the H. G. Wells himself. Wells did study in a private school, quite a bad one. He never was a medical student, but  he studied biology under  the famous evolutionist Thomas Huxley, and a biologist is often a medical doctor thwarted in his/her ambition.

After this Wells studied in Royal College of Science Association new school until 1887.  In his Experiment in Autobiography, Wells says about this period that he was constantly  hungry.

It’s interesting to think that Wells projected his personal experience and imagined himself being a  doctor somewhere at the edges of the British empire. However, the figure of Dr. Moreau from the title is even more interesting.

Wells describes an eminent scientist, who became an outcast, because he placed his work above the society:

He had published some very astonishing facts in connection with the transfusion of blood, and in addition was known to be doing valuable work on morbid growths [cancer?]. Then suddenly his career was closed. He had to leave England. A journalist obtained access to his laboratory in the capacity of laboratory-assistant, with the deliberate intention of making sensational exposures; and by the help of a shocking accident (if it was an accident), his gruesome pamphlet became notorious….

It was not the first time that conscience has turned against the methods of research. The doctor was simply howled out of the country. It may be that he deserved to be; but I still think that the tepid support of his fellow-investigators and his desertion by the great body of scientific workers was a shameful thing. Yet some of his experiments, by the journalist’s account, were wantonly cruel. He might perhaps have purchased his social peace by abandoning his investigations; but he apparently preferred the latter, as most men would who have once fallen under the overmastering spell of research. He was unmarried, and had indeed nothing but his own interest to consider.

This could have been written about any scientist who’s fallen from grace, such as Hwang Woo-suk of the stem cells notoriety. His methods, such as getting graduate students donate their eggs for research skated close to Moreau’s vivisection.

The press loves  to raise up a scientific hero. It loves even more to tear him down. And the other scientists, most of whom hate press  exposure and the rest secretly envy it, stand aside. The scientists don’t like a smear by association.

Just as Moreau,  Hwang Woo-suk continued his research after his downfall. But Moreau’s work described in the book  the literatry traditions of scientists portrayal as lone wolves and of writing about islands as isolated worlds where the rules of the everyday work differently.  The Korean scientist  works in a 3.5 mil. institute with 45 staff.

 Another parallel between the two scientists is in their methods. Moreau used the scientific technique and leading science of the day – surgery and physiology – to create men from animals. A hundred years later  Hwang Woo-suk used stem cells and cloning plus genetic engineering to clone human cells.

Techniques du jour come and go. Scientist’s desire to go beyond the other scientists, using whatever means necessary, remains.

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One thought on “H.G. Wells on 19th century Science

  1. Pingback: 20th Century Art on Science: Gustav Klimt on Philosophy, Medicine and Jurisprudence | Go Yeast

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