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From Monsters to Malformations: Anatomical Preparations as Objects of Evidence for a Developmental Paradigm of Embryology, 1770–1850

Abstract

A common object found within medical museums is the developmental series: an arrangement of embryos depicting the transformation of an unremarkable blob into an anatomically organized and recognizable organism. The developmental series depicts a normative process, one where bodies emerge in reliable sequential stages to reveal anatomically perfect beings. Yet a century before the developmental series would become a visual model of embryological development, the very process of development itself was discerned through the comparative study of preserved human fetuses—specifically, those deemed “monstrous” or characterized as “malformations.” This article examines how anatomically diverse fetal bodies were reformulated from singular curiosities into alternative developmental pathways whose characteristics testified to the laws of nature and to the primordial, physical relationship between humans and other species. In early nineteenth century Amsterdam, the father-son team of physicians Gerard and Willem Vrolik built up an internationally renowned anatomical museum famous especially for Willem’s collection of fetal malformations. Physical preparations of fetal malformations play a central role in Willem’s monumental handbook on developmental embryology: comparing human embryos against one another and the embryos of other species, Willem plots out a sequence of embryological development in which a body’s form marks its place within the ever-unfolding natural order. In conversation with the literature on model organisms, this article explores how the “monstrous” gets standardized and, in doing so, contributes to the scientific production of a normative physiological process.

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Notes

  1. While this specific type of preparation is now called a “wet specimen,” my avoidance of that term in this paper reflects its recency; actors from the period referred to these objects as preparations even though the term applied more broadly to objects produced through a variety of preparation methods.

  2. For more on Ruysch’s preparations as commodities, see Margóscy (2011).

  3. For an examination of the role of parents—particularly mothers—in the collection of fetal material for scientific use in the context of nineteenth century America, see Withycombe (2019).

  4. Preformation held that the body exists in extreme miniature and that gestation is a simple growth process. Epigenesis claimed that bodies emerged in successive stages during gestation. Roe’s Matter, Life, and Generation (1981) examines the differences between these theories—and what they said about scientific practice and philosophy—through close examination of the debates between the preformationist Haller and epigenesist Wolff.

  5. In this context, evolution refers to linear growth in contrast to staged development.

  6. Agnietes Vrolik, Brief van Parijs. Nationaal Archief Den Haag, Het familiearchief van de familie Vrolik. 2.21.172.8. The Hague, Netherlands.

  7. The full Dutch title is De Vrucht van Den Mensch en van de Zoogdieren, Afgebeeld in Hare Regelmatige en Onregelmatige Ontwikkeling (The Fruit of Man and of the Mammals, Presented in Its Regular and Irregular Development). The text is published in side-by-side in Latin and Dutch and is most often referred to by its shortened Latin title, Tabulae.

  8. In modern physiology, this condition is called acardia and is defined by the body’s lack of heart. The fetus is also born without any head structure, hence Vrolik’s naming the condition hoofdelooze misgeboorten.

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Ray, S. From Monsters to Malformations: Anatomical Preparations as Objects of Evidence for a Developmental Paradigm of Embryology, 1770–1850. J Hist Biol 55, 35–57 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10739-022-09670-z

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Keywords

  • Embryology
  • Teratology
  • Monster
  • Reproduction
  • Abnormality
  • Anatomy museums