Lynn M. Morgan


On her book Icons of Life: A Cultural History of Human Embryos

Cover Interview of October 05, 2010

In a nutshell

Icons of Life explains how we came to think of embryos as tiny, unborn versions of our selves.

Today embryos and fetuses are veritable little persons; they star in their own videos, are featured in magazines, provide employment, and prompt legislation.  How did they become such animated, lifelike, volitional little things?

There was a time, not long ago, when even well-educated adults would hardly have been able to imagine what a human embryo looked like.  And they certainly did not grant embryos or fetuses much moral or political status.

In this book, I argue that our embryological world view is not based simply on an accumulation of facts, but on a rendition of those facts that portrays embryos as independent entities—and that masks the way in which fetal images are produced.

Icons of Life describes a little-known embryo collecting project funded by the Carnegie Institution of Washington in 1913.

Anatomists based at Johns Hopkins began to collect embryos and to encourage their colleagues to save the contents of the uterus when their pregnant patients miscarried, aborted, or died.  Early pregnancy testing did not yet exist, so some of the youngest specimens in the collection came from elective hysterectomies deliberately timed to coincide with the earliest stages of an undiagnosed pregnancy.  By 1944, the Carnegie Human Embryo Collection had grown to nearly 10,000 specimens.

Scientists’ descriptions of those specimens shaped much of what we now know about embryological development.

Ironically, those specimens came to symbolize the beginnings of human life.  Yet even many of today’s iconic images of embryonic and fetal “life” actually depict dead specimens.

Meanwhile, until now, the strange story of human embryo collecting has remained largely hidden.