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.
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. Gould suggests that, although fewer biologists invoked recapitulation theories in the twentieth century compared to those in the nineteenth and eighteenth centuries, some aspects of the theory of recapitulation remained important for understanding evolution. Gould notes that the concepts of acceleration and retardation during development entail that changes in developmental timing (heterochrony) can result in a trait appearing either earlier or later than normal in developmental processes. Gould argues that these changes in the timing of embryonic development provide the raw materials or novelties upon which natural selection acts.
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.
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.
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.
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. Karl Ernst von Baer was born on 28 February 1792 in Piep, Estonia, to first cousins Juliane Louise von Baer and Magnus Johann von Baer. As one of ten children, von Baer spent his childhood in Coburg with his father's brother Karl and his wife, Baroness Ernestine von Canne.
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.
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.
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. This sketch is important to embryology because it is one of the most illustrative examples of preformationism, a theory of generation stating that each future member of any given species exists, fully formed though miniscule, within the gametic cells (sperm or eggs) of its parents. This theory was popular among naturalists in the eighteenth century.