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.

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. The Hallers were an old family in Bern, and Haller spent the majority of his life there. During his life, Haller made many important contributions to medicine, botany, anatomy, and physiology. Haller became one of the most outspoken supporters of preformationism, and the long debate between Haller and Caspar Friedrich Wolff, who supported the competing theory of epigenesis in which form emerges gradually, is a hallmark of this time period in developmental biology. Haller also formulated an accurate model of the rate of fetal growth during gestation, demonstrating statistically that development at the beginning is more rapid than growth later on.

From its founding in 1910 until it closed its doors in 1939, the Eugenics Record Office (ERO) at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York was the center of the American Eugenics Movement. Charles Davenport, a geneticist and biologist, founded the ERO, and served as its director until 1934. Under the direction of Davenport and his associate, superintendant Harry H. Laughlin, the influence of the ERO on science and public policy waxed during the early twentieth century until after World War II. The ERO is important to the history of embryology because of the key role it played in the application of scientific theories about heredity to the formulation of reproductive social policies.

In 1917 the Oregon State Legislature, in Salem, Oregon, passed a bill titled, 'To Prevent Procreation of Certain Classes in Oregon.' Passage of the bill created the Oregon State Board of Eugenics, an organization that presided over the forced sterilization of more than 2,600 Oregon residents from 1917 to 1981. In 1983, Legislation abolished the State Board of Eugenics, by that time called the Oregon State Board of Social Protection. For more than seventy years, the State Board was involved in the US eugenics movement, using theories partly constructed from genetics to control the reproductive health of citizens.

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.

Sir Francis Galton was a British science writer and amateur researcher of the late nineteenth century. He contributed greatly to the fields of statistics, experimental psychology and biometry. In the history of biology, Galton is widely regarded as the originator of the early twentieth century eugenics movement. Galton published influential writings on nature versus nurture in human personality traits, developed a family study method to identify possible inherited traits, and devised laws of genetic inheritance prior to the rediscovery of Gregor Mendel's work. His most important contribution to the field of embryology was his work in statistical models of heredity.

Charles Benedict Davenport was an early twentieth-century experimental zoologist. Davenport founded both the Station for Experimental Evolution and the Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor in New York. Though he was a talented statistician and skilled scientist, Davenport's scientific achievements are eclipsed by his lasting legacy as the scientific leader of the eugenics movement in the US. Eugenics, an attempt to apply genetic science to improve humanity by selective breeding, was a major public health movement in Europe and the United States in the twentieth century prior to World War II. Davenport's involvement in the eugenics movement helped pave the way for the sterilization of tens of thousands of US citizens.

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. It was, however, the first work to provide a comprehensive theory of how generation works and an exhaustive explanation of how reproduction works in a variety of different animals. As such, De Generatione was the first scientific work on embryology. Its influence on embryologists, naturalists, and philosophers in later years was profound. Among these were Hieronymus Fabricius, William Harvey, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Charles Darwin.

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. The homunculus was the fully formed individual that existed within the germ cell of one of its parents prior to fertilization and would grow in size during gestation until ready to be born.

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. Spermism was never as dominant as ovist preformationism, but it had ardent followers whose work and writings greatly influenced the development of embryology in this time period. Spermism was and is now sometimes referred to as animalculism, a name taken from the term most naturalists at the time used to refer to microscopic organisms, or vermiculism, which comes from a specific term for sperm cells referring to their worm-like appearance. The most notable spermist philosophers and scientists were Nicolaas Hartsoeker, Anton Leeuwenhoek, and Wilhelm Gottfried Liebniz.

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