At the turn of the twentieth century, Edmund B. Wilson performed experiments to show where germinal matter was located in molluscs. At Columbia University in New York City, New York, Wilson studied what causes cells to differentiate during development. In 1904 he conducted his experiments on molluscs, and he modified the theory about the location of germinal matter in the succeeding years. Wilson and others modified the theory of germinal localization to accommodate results that showed the significance of chromosomes in development and heredity.
Julia Barlow Platt studied neural crests in animal embryos and became involved in politics in the US during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. She researched how body and head segments formed in chicks (Gallus gallus) and spiny dogfish (Squalus acanthias). Platt observed that in the mudpuppy (Necturus maculosus), the coordinated migration of neural crest cells in the embryo produced parts of the nervous system, bones, and connective tissues in the head. Platt's research indicated that the neural crest functioned like a germ layer, it challenged existing theories of what sorts of tissues arose from each of an embryo's germ layers, and it described early developmental stages of the nervous system.
In 1893, Julia Barlow Platt published her research on the origins of cartilage in the developing head of the common mudpuppy (Necturus maculosus) embryo. The mudpuppy is an aquatic salamander commonly used by embryologists because its large embryonic cells and nuclei are easy to see. Platt followed the paths of cells in developing mudpuppy embryos to see how embryonic cells migrated during the formation of the head. With her research, Platt challenged then current theories about germ layers, the types of cells in an early embryo that develop into adult cells. In most organisms' development, three types of germ layers are responsible for the formation of tissues and organs. The outermost layer is called ectoderm, the middle layer mesoderm, and the innermost layer endoderm, although Platt called it entoderm. Platt's research provided a basis for scientists to clarify the destination or function of the germ layers in vertebrates' development.
Charles Otis Whitman was an extremely curious and driven researcher who was not content to limit himself to one field of expertise. Among the fields of study to which he made significant contributions were: embryology; morphology, or the form of living organisms and the relationships between their structures; natural history; and behavior. Whitman served as director of several programs and institutions, including the Biology Department at the University of Chicago, where he helped establish a new style of biology and influenced the work of many researchers of his generation, as well as future ones. He also served as first director of the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) in Woods Hole, MA. Besides his considerable achievements with his own scientific research, Whitman was a tireless mentor who had many students who went on to achieve great success in the field of embryology.
The Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, began in 1888 to offer opportunities for instruction and research in biological topics. For the first few years, this meant that individual investigators had a small lab space upstairs in the one wooden building on campus where students heard their lectures and did their research in a common area downstairs. The lectures for those first years offered an overview of general biology with a focus on zoology, and they were intended for teachers and graduate students interested in acquiring the background for teaching about and/or actually doing laboratory work. As the lab quickly grew, it added sets of lectures that made up courses in zoology, then botany, then physiology, and in 1893 what became the first Embryology Course.