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The First Century of Cell Theory: From Structural Units to Complex Living Systems

A Look from 1940 at 100 Years of Cell-Theory

Part of the Vienna Circle Institute Yearbook book series (VCIY,volume 20)


In his introduction to the volume entitled The Cell and Protoplasm in 1940, the editor Forest Ray Moulton noted that the American Association for the Advancement of Science was publishing the volume as the product of a symposium, held in 1939, to celebrate the centennial of Matthias Schleiden and Theodor Schwann’s 1838 cell theory. Because of the rich history of thinking about cells up to that time, “In a sense the Cell Theory is not new.” Yet, Moulton suggested, “In another sense the Cell Theory is always new, for every discovery respecting this primary and essential unit of living organisms, both plant and animal, has raised more questions than it has answered and has always widened the fields of inquiry.” The volume set out to show both what was already well-established and what was new.


  • Nineteenth Century
  • Living Organism
  • Sperm Cell
  • Cell Theory
  • Epistemological Assumption

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  1. 1.

    Schleiden (1838); Schwann (1839).

  2. 2.

    Forest Ray Moulton (1940), Foreword.

  3. 3.

    Sharp (1943), p. 21.

  4. 4.

    Harris (1999). Chapters 1 and 2 on early microscopists and early theories.

  5. 5.

    Baker (1948), page 103.

  6. 6.

    Raspail (1833), Quoted in Harris (1999), p. 32.

  7. 7.

    Harris (1999), p. 96.

  8. 8.

    Harris (1999), p. 98. Translated from Schleiden (1838).

  9. 9.

    von Baer (1827).

  10. 10.

    Newport (1851/1853/1854).

  11. 11.

    For discussion of this point, see for example: Churchill (1970).

  12. 12.

    Wilson (1895).

  13. 13.

    Robert (1855).

  14. 14.

    Harris (1999), p. 132.

  15. 15.

    Virchow (1858). Translated as: Cellular pathology, London: John Churchill, 1859.

  16. 16.

    Hertwig (1893/1898).

  17. 17.

    Wilson (1896), page 1.

  18. 18.

    Wilson (1925), page 1.

  19. 19.

    Wilson (1925), p. 1118.

  20. 20.

    For an excellent discussion of Boveri’s work, see: Laubichler and Davidson (2008).

  21. 21.

    Hamburger (1988).

  22. 22.

    Morgan (1901).

  23. 23.

    Baker (1948), p. 175. Sedgwick (1894).

  24. 24.

    For more discussion of this and related topics, see Maienschein (2014).


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Thanks to the &HPS organizing committee and to Friedrich Stadler to present this paper in 2014 in Vienna. And thanks to the National Science Foundation for support through a series of grants funding background research. I also appreciate my collaborators Manfred Laubichler, William Aird , and Karl Matlin for working together on understanding the history of cell biology.

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Maienschein, J. (2017). The First Century of Cell Theory: From Structural Units to Complex Living Systems. In: Stadler, F. (eds) Integrated History and Philosophy of Science. Vienna Circle Institute Yearbook, vol 20. Springer, Cham.

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