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Jekyll and Hyde: Science and Scandal

April 7, 2011
Two men
Richard Mansfield as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde between, ca. 1885 and 1900 (Library of Congress).

New insights into the story behind Robert Louis Stevenson's classic novel "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" will be the focus of the University of Wyoming's President's Speakers lecture, Thursday, April 14, at 4:10 p.m. in Room 129 of the UW Classroom Building.

Caroline McCracken-Flesher, a professor in the UW Department of English and a widely-published specialist in 19th century British literature, will explain how Stevenson's universally-popular work reflects his own sickly childhood and contemporary societal beliefs about medicine and drugs.

"The tale of the doctor and doubleness could well be titled ‘Mr. Jekyll and Dr. Hyde,' for Hyde reveals the dark side of 19th century doctors, linking medicine and murder, drugs and dreadful deeds," she says.

McCracken-Flesher researched the 19th century scandals in which scientists paid for corpses to use as research subjects, which often led to documented incidents of murder for profit and grave-robbing.

Stevenson, argues McCracken-Flesher, retells the stories of some of the era's infamous scandalous figures, including a murderous dentist, Horace Wells, and a notorious dissectionist, Scotland's Dr. Robert Knox. Their stories shaped how the public viewed medicine and science, and influenced popular perceptions about accomplished scientists who followed, such as Louis Pasteur and Joseph Lister.

Since its publication in 1886, Stevenson's novel has been made into dozens of movies, and McCracken-Flesher has published work showing how each generation changed Stevenson's text to reflect its own fears and desires. She contributed a chapter, "Cultural Projections: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll, Mr. Hyde, and Cinematic Response," in "Narrative and Culture," (University of Georgia Press).

The President's Speaker Series encourages and honors individual faculty members who have been especially successful in balancing the research, educational, and service goals of the university. The series calls attention to some of the individuals who have made important, well-rounded contributions to the university's standing.

A committee comprising the speaker series' previous honorees nominates candidates for the series. Selection criteria include a long-term national recognition for research and/or creative activity and the ability to communicate with all members of the university community.

McCracken-Flesher has an M.A. degree from Edinburgh University, Scotland, and M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from Brown University. She also spent two years at Oxford University as a graduate student.

She has received numerous awards for teaching and research, including two  Extraordinary Merit in Research awards, two Mortar Board Top Prof awards, recognition for excellence in both advising and teaching, and UW's highest teaching honor, the John P. Ellbogen Meritorious Classroom Teaching Award.

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