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Preformationism in the Enlightenment

Preformationism was a theory of embryological development used in the late seventeenth through the late eighteenth centuries. This theory held that the generation of offspring occurs as a result of an unfolding and growth of preformed parts. There were two competing models of preformationism: the ovism model, in which the location of these preformed parts prior to gestation was the maternal egg, and the spermism model, in which a preformed individual or homunculus was thought to exist in the head of each sperm.

Format: Articles

Subject: Theories

Caspar Friedrich Wolff (1734-1794)

Caspar Friedrich Wolff is most famous for his 1759 doctoral dissertation, Theoria Generationis, in which he described embryonic development in both plants and animals as a process involving layers of cells, thereby refuting the accepted theory of preformation: the idea that organisms develop as a result of the unfolding of form that is somehow present from the outset, as in a homunculus. This work generated a great deal of controversy and discussion at the time of its publication but was an integral move in the reemergence and acceptance of the theory of epigenesis.

Format: Articles

Subject: People

Jan Swammerdam (1637-1680)

Jan Swammerdam, known as the founder of the preformation theory based on his extensive research on insect development, was born on 12 February 1637 in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, to Baertje Jans Corvers and Jan Jacobszoon Swammerdam. He began medical school on 11 October 1661 at the University of Leiden. A few of his classmates included Regnier de Graaf, Frederik Ruysch, Niels Stensen (Nicolaus Steno), and Robertus Padtbrugge. Padtbrugge would later join the East India Company and send Swammerdam exotic animals.

Format: Articles

Subject: People

Charles Bonnet (1720-1793)

Charles Bonnet was a naturalist and philosopher in the mid eighteenth century. His most important contribution to embryology was the discovery of parthenogenesis in aphids, proving that asexual reproduction of offspring was possible. In his later life, he was an outspoken defender of the theory of generation now known as preformationism, which stated that offspring exist prior to conception preformed in the germ cell of one of their parents.

Format: Articles

Subject: People

Ovism

Ovism was one of two models of preformationism, a theory of generation prevalent in the late seventeenth through the end of the eighteenth century. Contrary to the competing theory of epigenesis (gradual emergence of form), preformationism held that the unborn offspring existed fully formed in the eggs or sperm of its parents prior to conception. The ovist model held that the maternal egg was the location of this preformed embryo, while the other preformationism model known as spermism preferred the paternal germ cell, as the name implies.

Format: Articles

Subject: Theories

Nicolaas Hartsoeker (1656-1725)

Nicolaas Hartsoeker, a Dutch astronomer, optics manufacturer, and naturalist, was born 26 March 1656 in Gouda, Netherlands, and died 10 December 1725. His mother was Anna van der Mey and his father was Christiaan Hartsoeker, a prominent evangelical minister. His major contribution to embryology was his observations of human sperm cells, which he claimed to be the first to see under a microscope. His sketch of the homunculus, a tiny preformed human he believed to exist in the head of spermatazoa, is his lasting scientific legacy in the field of embryology.

Format: Articles

Subject: People

Karl Ernst von Baer (1792-1876)

Best known for his contributions to the field of embryology, Karl Ernst von Baer also pursued a variety of other areas of study including medicine, botany, zoology, and anthropology. Committing his life to scientific research, von Baer's work led to the advancement of the understanding of mammalian reproduction, development, and organ functioning. His embryological discoveries ultimately led him to a view of development that supported epigenesis and refuted long-held thinking about preformation.

Format: Articles

Subject: People

De ovi mammalium et hominis genesi (1827), by Karl Ernst von Baer

De ovi mammalium et hominis genesi (On the Genesis of the Ovum of Mammals and of Men) is an 1827 pamphlet by Karl Ernst von Baer about the anatomical observation and description of the egg (ovum) of mammals, like dogs and humans. The pamphlet detailed evidence for the existence of the ovum at the beginning of the developmental process in mammals.

Format: Articles

Subject: Publications

Hartsoeker's Homunculus Sketch from Essai de Dioptrique

This embryology image is a pencil sketch by Nicolaas Hartsoeker, published as part of his 1694 French-language paper entitled Essai de Dioptrique, a semi-speculative work describing the sorts of new scientific observations that could be done using magnifying lenses. Dioptrique was published in Paris by the publishing house of Jean Anisson. The image depicts a curled up infant-like human, now referred to as a homunculus, inside the head of a sperm cell.

Format: Articles

Subject: Theories, Processes

Spermism

Spermism was one of two models of preformationism, a theory of embryo generation prevalent in the late seventeenth through the end of the eighteenth century. Spermist preformationism was the belief that offspring develop from a tiny fully-formed fetus contained within the head of a sperm cell. This model developed slightly later than the opposing ovist model because sperm cells were not seen under the microscope until about 1677.

Format: Articles

Subject: Theories

Homunculus

The term homunculus is Latin for "little man." It is used in neurology today to describe the map in the brain of sensory neurons in each part of the body (the somatosensory homunculus). An early use of the word was in the 1572 work by Paracelsus regarding forays into alchemy, De Natura Rerum, in which he gave instructions in how to create an infant human without fertilization or gestation in the womb. In the history of embryology, the homunculus was part of the Enlightenment-era theory of generation called preformationism.

Format: Articles

Subject: Processes

Marcello Malpighi (1646-1694)

Marcello Malpighi studied chick embryos with microscopes in Italy during the seventeenth century. Trained as a medical doctor, he was among the first scientists to use the microscope to examine embryos at very early stages. Malpighi described early structures in chick embryos, and later scientists used his descriptions to help develop the theory of preformationism.

Format: Articles

Subject: People

Albrecht von Haller (1708-1777)

Victor Albrecht von Haller was an 18th century scientist who did extensive work in the life sciences, including anatomy and physiology, botany, and developmental biology. His embryological work consisted of experiments in understanding the process of generation, and led him to adopt the model of preformationism called ovism (the idea that the new individual exists within the maternal egg prior to conception). Haller was born in Bern, Switzerland, on 16 October, 1708. His mother was Anna Maria Engel, and his father was Niklaus Emanuel Haller.

Format: Articles

Subject: People

A History of Embryology (1959), by Joseph Needham

In 1931 embryologist and historian Joseph Needham published a well-received three-volume treatise titled Chemical Embryology. The first four chapters from this work were delivered as lectures on Speculation, Observation, and Experiment, as Illustrated by the History of Embryology at the University of London. The same lectures were later released as a book published in 1934 titled A History of Embryology.

Format: Articles

Subject: Publications

Milan Vuitch (1915–1993)

Milan Vuitch was an abortion provider in the twentieth century, who performed thousands of abortions in Washington, DC, at a time when abortions were legal only if they preserved the life or health of the pregnant woman. Vuitch was a frequent critic of Washington DC’s anti-abortion law and was arrested multiple times for providing abortions that were not considered necessary to preserve the pregnant woman’s life. After several arrests, Vuitch challenged the law under which he had been arrested, and his case made its way to the Supreme Court in Vuitch v. United States.

Format: Articles

Subject: People

Antoni van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723)

Antoni van Leeuwenhoek was born in Delft, the Netherlands, on 24 October 1632 to Margriet Jacobsdochter van den Berch and Philips Thooniszoon, both of whom were middle-class artisans. He attended grammar school in Warmond, and then temporarily moved to Benthuizen to live with relatives. Eventually Leeuwenhoek left for Amsterdam to work as a cloth merchant's apprentice. Returning to Delft, he married Barbara de Mey on 29 July 1654, and worked as a shopkeeper. The marriage resulted in five children, only one of whom, Maria, outlived Leeuwenhoek.

Format: Articles

Subject: People

Aristotle (384-322 BCE)

Aristotle studied developing organisms, among other things, in ancient Greece, and his writings shaped Western philosophy and natural science for greater than two thousand years. He spent much of his life in Greece and studied with Plato at Plato's Academy in Athens, where he later established his own school called the Lyceum. Aristotle wrote greater than 150 treatises on subjects ranging from aesthetics, politics, ethics, and natural philosophy, which include physics and biology. Less than fifty of Aristotle's treatises persisted into the twenty-first century.

Format: Articles

Subject: People

Abraham Trembley (1710-1784)

Abraham Trembley's discovery of the remarkable regenerative capacity of the hydra caused many to question their beliefs about the generation of organisms. Born 3 September 1710 to a prominent Geneva family, Trembley studied at the Calvin Institute, now the University of Geneva, where he completed his thesis on calculus. He went on to become tutor for Count William Bentinck's two sons, and it was while teaching the boys natural history that Trembley came across a strange organism in a sample of pond water.

Format: Articles

Subject: People

Lazzaro Spallanzani (1729-1799)

Lazzaro Spallanzani's imaginative application of experimental methods, mastery of microscopy, and wide interests led him to significant contributions in natural history, experimental biology, and physiology. His detailed and thoughtful observations illuminated a broad spectrum of problems ranging from regeneration to the genesis of thunderclouds.

Format: Articles

Subject: People

Making Visible Embryos (2008- ), by Tatjana Buklijaz and Nick Hopwood

Making Visible Embryos is a 2008 online exhibition of embryos authored and designed by Tatjana Buklijaz and Nick Hopwood who work in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge. Hopwood's research on the history of Ziegler wax models and the use of visual aids to promote the teaching and learning of science is well known.

Format: Articles

Subject: Organizations, Outreach

Charles Manning Child (1869-1954)

Born in Ypsilanti, Michigan, on 2 February 1869, Charles Manning Child was the only surviving child of Mary Elizabeth and Charles Chauncey Child, a prosperous, old New England family. Growing up in Higganum, Connecticut, Child was interested in biology from an early age. He made extensive collections of plants and minerals on his family farm and went on to study biology at Wesleyan University, commuting from his family home. Child received his PhB in 1890 and MS in biology in 1892, and then went on to study in Leipzig after his parents death.

Format: Articles

Subject: People

Karl Ernst von Baer's Laws of Embryology

In 1828, while working at the University of Konigsberg in Konigsberg, Germany Karl Ernst von Baer proposed four laws of animal development, which came to be called von Baer's laws of embryology. With these laws, von Baer described the development (ontogeny) of animal embryos while also critiquing popular theories of animal development at the time.

Format: Articles

Subject: Theories

Regeneration

Regeneration is a fascinating phenomenon. The fact that many organisms have the capacity to regenerate lost parts and even remake complete copies of themselves is difficult to fathom; so difficult, in fact, that for a very long time people were reluctant to believe regeneration actually took place. It seemed unbelievable that some organisms could re-grow lost limbs, organs, and other body parts. If only we could do the same!

Format: Articles

Subject: Processes

The Interpretation of Development and Heredity (1930), by Edward Stuart Russell

First published in 1930 and reprinted in 1972, Edward Stuart Russell's The Interpretation of Development and Heredity is a work of philosophical and theoretical biology. In this book Russell outlines a methodological and philosophical program aimed at reorienting the biological understanding of development and heredity.

Format: Articles

Subject: Publications

"The Potency of the First Two Cleavage Cells in Echinoderm Development. Experimental Production of Partial and Double Formations" (1891-1892), by Hans Driesch

Hans Adolf Eduard Driesch was a late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century philosopher and developmental biologist. In the spring of 1891 Driesch performed experiments using two-celled sea urchin embryos, the results of which challenged the then-accepted understanding of embryo development. Driesch showed that the cells of an early embryo, when separated, could each continue to develop into normal larval forms.

Format: Articles

Subject: Experiments, Publications

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