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.
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.
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. This sketch was only a minor part of his first publication, Essai de Dioptrique (1694), which dealt primarily with the use of optical lenses in science. In subsequent years the sketch became iconic of the theory of embryological development known now as preformationism. Hartsoeker himself was a vocal adherent of spermist preformationism and is often cited as the originator of the idea.