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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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ontogeny and Phylogeny (1977), by Stephen Jay Gould

Ontogeny and Phylogeny is a book published in 1977, in which the author Stephen J. Gould, who worked in the US, tells a history of the theory of recapitulation. A theory of recapitulation aims to explain the relationship between the embryonic development of an organism (ontogeny) and the evolution of that organism's species (phylogeny). Although there are several variations of recapitulationist theories, most claim that during embryonic development an organism repeats the adult stages of organisms from those species in it's evolutionary history.

Format: Articles

Subject: Publications

On the Generation of Animals, by Aristotle

Aristotle's On the Generation of Animals is referred to in Latin as De Generatione animalium. As with many of Aristotle's writings, the exact date of authorship is unknown, but it was produced in the latter part of the fourth century B.C. This book is the second recorded work on embryology that is treated as a subject of philosophy, being preceded by contributions in the Hippocratic corpus by about a century.

Format: Articles

Subject: Publications

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

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

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

The Cabinet of Frederik Ruysch

Frederik Ruysch's cabinet of curiosities, commonly referred to simply as the Cabinet, was a museum Ruysch created in the Netherlands in the late 160ss. The Cabinet filled a series of small houses that Ruysch rented in Amsterdam and contained over 2,000 specimens, including preserved fetuses and infants. The collection remained in Amsterdam until it was purchased by Tsar Peter the Great of Russia in 1717 and transferred to St. Petersburg, Russia.

Format: Articles

Subject: Organizations, Outreach

"The Cell-Theory" (1853), by Thomas Henry Huxley

The Cell-Theory was written by Thomas Henry Huxley in Britain and published in 1853 by The British and Foreign Medico-Chirurgical Review. The twenty-two page article reviews twelve works on cell theory, including those in Germany by Caspar Friedrich Wolff in the eighteenth century and by Karl Ernst von Baer in the nineteenth century. Huxley spends much of The Cell-Theory on a cell theory proposed in the late 1830s by Matthias Schleiden and Theodor Schwann in Germany.

Format: Articles

Subject: Publications

Annie Wood Besant (1847–1933)

Annie Wood Besant was a social activist who advocated for women’s access to birth control as well as marriage reform, labor reform, and Indian Nationalism in the nineteenth century in England and India. In her early career, Besant was involved in various social and political advocacy organizations including the National Secular Society, the Malthusian League, and the Fabian Society. Besant gave many public lectures and authored various articles in support of secularism, workers’ rights and unionization, and women’s rights.

Format: Articles

Subject: People

Frederik Ruysch (1638-1731)

Frederik Ruysch made anatomical drawings and collected and preserved human specimens, many of which were infants and fetuses, in the Netherlands during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Ruysch had many interests, including anatomy, botany, and medicine, and he discovered structures of the lymphatic system and of the eye. His collection of preserved human specimens were used as educational tools for his students and for other physicians, and they were displayed in a museum of his own making that was open to the public.

Format: Articles

Subject: People

Leon Richard Kass (1939- )

A PhD and medical doctor turned ethicist, Leon Kass calls himself an unlicensed humanist. Throughout his unique career he has sought to impact others and engage important cultural issues. This he has accomplished over the course of many years by studying biochemistry, teaching humanities, writing articles and books on ethics, and serving as chair of the President's Council on Bioethics.

Format: Articles

Subject: People, Ethics, Reproduction

Gunther von Hagens (1945- )

Gunther von Hagens invented a plastination technique and created Body Worlds, a traveling exhibit that has made anatomy part of the public domain. Von Hagens invented the plastination technique in 1977 while working at Heidelberg University in Heidelberg, Germany. Von Hagen's plastination technique preserves real bodies and tissues by the removal of the fluid and replacement with resin. Body Worlds features three-dimensional, plastinated human bodies.

Format: Articles

Subject: People, Outreach, Reproduction

Our Bodies, Ourselves (1973), by the Boston Women's Health Book Collective

Our Bodies, Ourselves, a succession to a pamphlet of resources pulled from co-ops of women in and around Boston, Massachusetts was published in New York in 1973 by Simon and Schuster. Retitled from the original Women and Their Bodies, Our Bodies, Ourselves was an effort by a group of educated, middle class women to reinforce women's ownership of their bodies. There have been eight editions of Our Bodies, Ourselves, as well as sequels such as Our Bodies, Ourselves: Pregnancy and Birth and Our Bodies, Ourselves: Menopause.

Format: Articles

Subject: Outreach, Reproduction

Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752-1840)

In eighteenth century Germany, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach studied how individuals within a species vary, and to explain such variations, he proposed that a force operates on organisms as they develop. Blumenbach used metrical methods to study the history of humans, but he was also a natural historian and theorist. Blumenbach argued for theories of the transformation of species, or the claim that new species can develop from existing forms.

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

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