Mad scientist (also mad doctor or mad professor) is a caricature of a scientist who is described as "mad" or "insane" owing to a combination of unusual or unsettling personality traits and the unabashedly ambitious, taboo and/or hubristic nature of their experiments. As a motif in fiction, the mad scientist may be villainous (evil genius) or antagonistic, benign or neutral; may be insane, eccentric, or clumsy; and often works with fictional technology or fails to recognize or value common human objections to attempting to play God. Some may have benevolent or good-spirited intentions, even if their actions are dangerous or questionable, which can make them accidental villains. Some are protagonists or allies thereof, such as Dexter in the animated series Dexter's Laboratory; Professor Calculus in The Adventures of Tintin; Dr. Muto; Professor Farnsworth on Futurama; Philo in UHF; Dr. Benjamin Jeffcoat of My Secret Identity; Emmett Brown of Back to the Future, Dr. Walter Bishop of Fringe, or Okabe Rintarou from the anime series Steins;Gate. Occasionally, there are parodies of mad scientists making fun of this trope.
Since the 19th century, fictitious depictions of science have vacillated between notions of science as the salvation of society or its doom. Consequently, portrayal of scientists in fiction ranged between the virtuous and the depraved, the sober and the insane. Until the 20th century, optimism about progress was the most common attitude towards science (with notable exceptions as Herbert G. Wells), but latent anxieties about disturbing "the secrets of nature" would surface following the increasing role of science in wartime affairs, as well as increased scrutiny of vivisection and the development of the animal rights movement.
The prototypical fictional mad scientist was Victor Frankenstein, creator of his eponymous monster, who made his first appearance in 1818, in the novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley. Though Frankenstein is a sympathetic character, the critical element of conducting forbidden experiments that cross "boundaries that ought not to be crossed", heedless of the consequences, is present in Shelley's novel. Frankenstein was trained as both alchemist and modern scientist which makes him the bridge between two eras of an evolving archetype. The book is the precursor of a new genre, science fiction, although as an example of Gothic horror it is connected with other antecedents, as well.
1896 saw the publication of H. G. Wells' The Island of Doctor Moreau, in which the titular doctor—a controversial vivisectionist—has isolated himself entirely from civilisation in order to continue his experiments in surgically reshaping animals into humanoid forms, heedless of the suffering he causes.
Fritz Lang's movie Metropolis (1927) brought the archetypical mad scientist to the screen in the form of Rotwang, the evil genius whose machines gave life to the dystopian city of the title. Rotwang's laboratory influenced many subsequent movie sets with its electrical arcs, bubbling apparatus, and bizarrely complicated arrays of dials and controls. Portrayed by actor Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Rotwang himself is the prototypically conflicted mad scientist; though he is master of almost mystical scientific power, he remains slave to his own desires for power and revenge. Rotwang's appearance was also influential—the character's shock of flyaway hair, wild-eyed demeanor, and his quasi-fascist laboratory garb have all been adopted as shorthand for the mad scientist "look". Even his mechanical right hand has become a mark of twisted scientific power, echoed notably in Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove and in the novel The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965) by Philip K. Dick.
Nevertheless, the essentially benign and progressive impression of science in the public mind continued unchecked, exemplified by the optimistic "Century of Progress" exhibition in Chicago, 1933, and the "World of Tomorrow" at the New York World's Fair of 1939. However, after the first World War, public attitudes began to shift, if only subtly, when chemical warfare and the airplane were the terror weapons of the day. As an example, of all science fiction before 1914 which dealt with the end of the world, two-thirds were about naturalistic endings (such as collision with an asteroid), and the other third was devoted to endings caused by humans (about half were accidental, half purposeful). After 1914, the idea of any human actually killing the remainder of humanity became a more imaginable fantasy (even if it was still impossible), and the ratio switched to two-thirds of all end-of-the-world scenarios being the product of human maliciousness or error. Though still drowned out by feelings of optimism, the seeds of anxiety had been thoroughly sown.
A recent survey of 1,000 horror films distributed in the UK between the 1930s and 1980s reveals mad scientists or their creations have been the villains of 30 percent of the films; scientific research has produced 39 percent of the threats; and, by contrast, scientists have been the heroes of a mere 11 percent.
In comic books many of the earliest foes were mad scientists. The Ultra-Humanite, an evil crippled scientific genius, was Superman's first recurring foe and possibly the first comic book supervillain. He apparently served as a model for the more well-known Lex Luthor. Other examples include early Batman foe Hugo Strange. However, many of these villains come more under the classification of evil genius.
Mad scientists were most conspicuous in popular culture after World War II. The sadistic medical "experiments" of the Nazis, especially those of Josef Mengele, and the invention of the atomic bomb gave rise in this period to genuine fears that science and technology had gone out of control. The scientific and technological build up during the Cold War, with its increasing threats of unparalleled destruction, did not lessen the impression. Mad scientists frequently figure in science fiction and motion pictures from the period. Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1963), in which Peter Sellers plays the titular Dr. Strangelove, is perhaps the ultimate expression of this fear of the power of science, or the misuse of this power. In the 1950s there was a great deal of enthusiasm for scientific progress, perhaps typified in films such as Disney's Our Friend the Atom, in which a scientist holds a piece of radioactive Uranium and discusses the positive benefits radioactivity will bring, without due consideration to the potential downsides. Another popular example is the scientist Davros, creator of the villainous Dalek race in long-running British science-fiction series Doctor Who. Davros has similarities to Hitler with his speeches of Dalek supreme power, but ultimately his creations turn on him as he made them consider all other forms of life enemies.
In more recent years, the mad scientist as a lone investigator of the forbidden unknown has tended to be replaced by mad corporate executives who plan to profit from defying the laws of nature and humanity regardless of who suffers; these people hire a salaried scientific staff to pursue their twisted dreams. This shift is typified by the revised history of Superman's archenemy, Lex Luthor: originally conceived in the 1930s as a typically solitary mad scientist, a major retcon of the character's origins in 1986 made Lex Luthor the head of a megacorporation who also plays a leading role in his research and development department.
The techniques of mad science also changed after Hiroshima. Electricity was replaced by radiation as the new tool to create, enlarge, or deform life (e.g., Godzilla). As audiences became more savvy, quantum mechanics, genetic engineering, and artificial intelligence have taken the spotlight (e.g., Blade Runner). Some more recent depictions have had the mad scientist focused upon sacrificing humanity for their creation, with sacrifices ranging from a few people to the entire world population.
In the 2000s, a number of works have featured the trappings of mad science as familiar, even mundane elements, and shifted to toying with the implications of a setting where mad scientists may live and thrive. The webcomic Narbonic ostensibly chronicles the daily grind of an evil laboratory in a world where henchmen have unionized and the New Journal of Malology competes with Modern Madiagnosis. Madwoman/small business owner Helen Narbon plays counter to type by being a plump, cheerful twenty-something blonde, obsessed with the color pink and hideous biological experiments involving gerbils. Comic book turned webcomic Girl Genius takes a combination of mad science and steampunk to a logical extreme: a Europe reduced to scattered city-states, divided by the clockwork and biological abominations unleashed by its "Spark" overlords. Other commercial examples are Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog by Joss Whedon, where the main character has a vocal coach to help him develop a maniacal laugh, and the novel Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman. Dr. Jumba Jookiba who prefers the term "evil genius" in Lilo & Stitch. The 2008 animated feature film Igor depicts an entire nation of mad scientists. The 2011 anime work Steins;Gate is known for featuring mad scientist Rintarō Okabe who is known for his catchphrase "I am the mad scientist of insanity, Hououin Kyouma!" (Japanese: 俺は狂気のマッドサイエンティスト鳳凰院凶真) which is said throughout the series.
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- Garboden, Nick (2007). Mad Scientist or Angry Lab Tech: How to Spot Insanity. Portland: Doctored Papers. ISBN 1-56363-660-3.
- Haynes, Roslynn Doris (1994). From Faust to Strangelove: Representations of the Scientist in Western Literature. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 0-8018-4801-6.
- Christopher Frayling – Mad, Bad and Dangerous?: The Scientist and the Cinema (Reaktion Books, 2005) ISBN 1-86189-255-1
- Junge, Torsten; Doerthe Ohlhoff (2004). Wahnsinnig genial: Der Mad Scientist Reader. Aschaffenburg: Alibri. ISBN 3-932710-79-7.
- Norton, Trevor (2010). Smoking Ears and Screaming Teeth. (A witty celebration of the great eccentrics ...). Century. ISBN 978-1-84605-569-0
- Schlesinger, Judith (2012). The Insanity Hoax: Exposing the Myth of the Mad Genius. Ardsley-on-Hudson, N.Y. Shrinktunes Media ISBN 978-0-98369-824-1
- Schneider, Reto U. (2008). The Mad Science Book. 100 Amazing Experiments from the History of Science. London: Quercus. ISBN 978-1-84724-494-9
- Tudor, Andrew (1989). Monsters and Mad Scientists: A Cultural History of the Horror Movie. Oxford: Blackwell. ISBN 0-631-15279-2.
- Weart, Spencer R. (1988). Nuclear Fear: A History of Images. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
- Analyzing the culture motif
- Gary Hoppenstand, "Dinosaur Doctors and Jurassic Geniuses: The Changing Image of the Scientist in the Lost World Adventure"
- The Scarecrow's Brain – images of the scientist in film, Christopher Frayling
- Breaking Down the Stereotypes of Science by Recruiting Young Scientists
- The Mad Scientist Database with links and Looks
- Mad Science Experiments
- TV Tropes article on the Mad Scientist stock character
- James T. Webb, Ph.D. (September 12, 2012). "A Book Review of The Insanity Hoax: Exposing the Myth of the Mad Genius". The National Psychologist. Retrieved 28 May 2015.