Helena Franzén

helena_franzenPhD Helena Franzén is guest researcher at the Department of History of Science and Ideas at Uppsala University. She has training in archaeology and she holds her previous degrees in that field. Her fields of interest include the history of medicine, medical anthropology and the material culture of medicine and science. She has a special interest in the practices, infrastructures and knowledge production of embryology and anatomy in the nineteenth century.





Bodies in transformation: Obstetrical and embryological collections at Uppsala University, ca 1830–1930 (title. in transl.)

Today, some of Uppsala University’s museums contain old specimens of embryos, fetuses, newborns, and women’s pelves. These have survived from obstetrical and embryological collections assembled in the “age of museum medicine,” when museum collections were central sites of medical research and education, alongside clinics and laboratories.

The purpose of this compilation thesis is to examine how medical knowledge of fetal development, pregnancy, and labor were produced and communicated through such collection objects, along with models and surgical instruments, at Uppsala University circa 1830–1930. Collections are conceptualized as materializations of medical knowledge and the investigation is organized as four research articles: two are studies of the obstetrical collection and two deal with the embryological collection. Based on analyses of the materiality of the objects, as well as the surrounding system of information (e. g. museum catalogues and labels), together with scientific and popular publications, the case studies shed light on the making of the collections, but also on their shifting uses and meanings over time. Using a wide definition of knowledge, this thesis explores the dynamic relationships between the collections and a heterogeneous set of historical actors, including medical men, midwives, patients, and priests. The social networks and different social worlds these actors belonged to are shown to have impacted the understanding of collection objects, which became contested boundary objects.

Building on previous research about medical collections and drawing on previously unexamined empirical material, the study shows how the actors involved in the formation and uses of Uppsala University’s obstetrical and embryological collections produced a wide range of medical knowledge on reproduction. This included expanding expertise in managing complicated labors and pregnancies, knowledge of fetal malformations and normal development, and also contributed to constructions of race, nation, and sex. In addition, this thesis demonstrates that the embryological collection was used to introduce a biological view of life to audiences outside of the university, such as schoolteachers and secondary school pupils, thus constituting a form of public science.

Contributing to the growing historical scholarship on medical collections, Kroppar i förvandling argues that while obstetrical and embryological collections tend to be investigated separately, there is much to be gained in examining them together: the collections co-produced each other as well as the categories they represented, such as the pregnant and laboring woman and the fetus.

Publications and presentations:

Kroppar i förvandling: Obstetriska och embryologiska samlingar vid Uppsala universitet, ca 1830–1930 (title in transl.: Bodies in transformation: Obstetrical and embryological collections at Uppsala University, ca 1830–1930), Diss. Uppsala: Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis, 2020. Abstract

• ”Att lära sig se embryologiskt: Samlingsobjekt i forskning och pedagogiska kontexter 1870–1920”, Scandia (forthcoming, Spring, 2023).

• "‘The precious material’: Obtaining human fetal bodies for an embryological collection at Uppsala University, ca 1890–1930", Scandinavian Journal of History 47, no. 2 (2022): 178–202. Full text

• "From patient to specimen and back again: Radical surgeries and pelvic pathologies in the Museum Obstetricum”, Lychnos 2020, 33–57. Full text

• “Preparing, casting, and drawing: Visualising female pelves in nineteenth-century medical science“, presentation at the seminar serie Images of Science, Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge, 27 February 2019.

• “Från kropp till preparat: Mänskliga foster som vetenskapliga objekt i tidiga 1900-talets Uppsala“, presentation at the seminar serie Aspects of Death, Department of Archaeology and Ancient History, Uppsala University, 22 March 2017.

The materiality of teratology”, paper presentation, History of medicine today and tomorrow, Karolinska institutet, Stockholm, Sweden, October 2, 2017.

• “From embryonic bodies to scientific objects”, paper presentation, Nordic Science and Technology Studies Conference, Göteborg, Sweden, 31 May–2 June, 2017.

• “Kroppar i transformation: Mänskliga embryon/foster i museisamlingar och deras sociala världar”, paper presentation at the workshop Medical Humanities at Uppsala University, Uppsala University, April 14, 2016.


• The coming of age of the public fetus: Exploring pregnant and fetal bodies in visual culture, an international workshop at Uppsala University, Uppsala, Sweden, May 15-17, 2019, co-organized with Elisabet Björklund and Solveig Jülich. Read more

Valuations of life: Birth defects, prenatal diagnosis, and disability. An international workshop at Uppsala University, Uppsala, Sweden, September 25–26, 2018, co-organized with Annika Berg and Maria Björkman. Read more

Extraordinary bodies in early modern nature and culture. An international workshop at Uppsala University, Uppsala, Sweden, October 26-27, 2017, co-organized with Maja Bondestam. Read more

Email: helena.franzen@idehist.uu.se