Visualizing the early stages of life: Images of generation and development in nineteenth-century comparative anatomy

Project leader: Eva Åhrén

This project focuses on the work of Swedish anatomists Anders Retzius (1797–1860) and his son Gustaf Retzius (1842–1919), situating them in relation to their contemporary peers. Both of them were prominent members of extensive scientific networks. From Anders Retzius’ study of genital development in the fetus to Gustaf Retzius’ comparative studies of brain development and sperm cells, visualization was key to understanding anatomical structures as well as communicating the new findings. Original drawings, photographs, and published prints will be analyzed, together with letters and other manuscripts, as well as published books and articles. The processes of preparing a specimen for microscopic study is often described in great detail in the publications, and methods of study make up a considerable part of the scientific arguments. These processes will be closely examined, as they were crucial to the development of new knowledge in anatomical science, and perhaps particularly so in embryology, which was developed in tandem with technological inventions and methods of observation and visualization. Questions regarding the role and status of the fetus in scientific research and communication will also be discussed. The fetus can be seen as a model for understanding and visualizing development and evolution. How were generation and development construed as objects of scientific examination? How were these questions addressed in scientific and popular media? In what ways does this reflect wider social and philosophical concerns?

Publications and presentations: