Franklin Paine Mall was born into a farming family in Belle Plaine, Iowa, on 28 September 1862. While he attended a local academy, an influential teacher fueled Mall's interest in science. From 1880-1883, he studied medicine at the University of Michigan, attaining his MD degree in 1883. William J. Mayo, who later became a famous surgeon and co-founder of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, was a classmate of Mall's. Throughout his studies at Michigan, he was influenced by Corydon L. Ford, a professor of anatomy, Victor C. Vaughn, a biochemist and bacteriologist, and Henry Sewall, a physiologist.
To Lynn M. Morgan, the Mary E. Woolley Professor of Anthropology at Mt. Holyoke College, nothing says life more than a dead embryo. In her easily readable book, Icons of Life: A Cultural History of Human Embryos, Morgan brings together cultural phenomena, ethics, and embryology to show that even dead embryos and fetuses have their own stories to tell. As an anthropologist, Morgan is interested in many things, including the science of embryology and its history. But she also wants to know how culture influences our views on embryos and the material practices that accompany their study. Her intent is to establish a relationship between specimens collected in the remote past and the contemporary cultural politics of abortion (p. xiii). The eight chapters in Icons of Life do not provide an exhaustive historical look at early American embryology, but they do weave together the Carnegie Institute of Washington Embryology Department (CIWED), its major human embryo collector Franklin Paine Mall, and how early twentieth-century science worked. Morgan ably describes the CIWEDÕs early foray into embryo collecting, but she wants to do more than just describe how embryos made their way to the laboratory. She wants us to ask why it was even possible for such a thing to happen without so much as a fuss being made from the public. This involves looking at culture.
Historically the exact age of human embryo specimens has long perplexed embryologists. With the menstrual history of the mother often unknown or not exact, and the premenstrual and postmenstrual phases varying considerably among women, age sometimes came down to a best guess based on the weight and size of the embryo. Wilhelm His was one of the first to write comparative descriptions of human embryos in the late 1800s. Soon afterward, Franklin P. Mall, the first director of the Carnegie Institution of Washington's (CIW) Department of Embryology, expanded upon His' work. Mall's first efforts were to place embryos into stages based on menstrual ages and body length. This method ran into problems however when it became apparent that obtaining menstrual ages was often impossible or simply too inaccurate even if the information could be obtained from the women who carried the embryos. Mall decided instead to look for patterns among embryos to come up with some type of staging system whereby embryo age could be more accurately determined.