Lynn M. Morgan


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

Cover Interview of October 05, 2010

The wide angle

It was a beautiful day in June on the campus of Mount Holyoke College.  I had planned to go strawberry picking, but I found myself instead in the basement of the biology building looking at row after row of dead fetuses.  I counted 87 formalin-filled jars of decrepit human fetal specimens, long neglected on a storeroom shelf.  I left the building a bit dazed, but I wanted to learn how and why so many human specimens had found their way to those shelves, next to the fetal pigs and pickled snake.  Later I learned that Wilhelm His, the famous 19th century German embryologist, had often referred to human embryos as “the fruit.”

The Mount Holyoke collection was a link between the past—when embryo specimens were prized scientific objects—and the present, when encounters with dead fetal specimens are regarded as distasteful and macabre.  I later learned that Mount Holyoke’s fetal collection was a small outpost of widespread embryo collecting projects popular among American anatomists, zoologists, and doctors from the 1910s to the 1940s.

This vast collecting enterprise has now been largely forgotten, yet it is relevant to contemporary debates because it shows that embryological knowledge has always been steeped in social meaning.  Embryologists studied embryo morphology in exacting detail, but the knowledge they produced was heavily inflected by non-embryological controversies. Magnetic resonance image of a 50-day human embryo.  (Courtesy of Bradley R. Smith, School of Art and Design, University of Michigan.)

The book discusses a few examples.  Embryos were featured during the Scopes trial in the 1920s, when the embryo’s “caudal appendage”—otherwise known as its tail—was described in the popular press to prove the similarity between humans and monkeys.  Western anatomists gathered hundreds of fetuses in China in the late 1910s, in hopes of finding racial differences embodied in embryological development.  When early 20th century embryologists spoke publicly about the embryos, they spoke not about abortion or contraception—topics that were considered largely irrelevant to embryology—but about the biological basis of race, the doctrine of prenatal impressions, and the theory of evolution.

Like people everywhere, the participants in these controversies projected their cultural and historical concerns onto their understandings of embryonic life.  In other words, they saw what they wanted to see.  Icons of Life argues that there is not a pre-social or purely scientific way to “know” embryos: cultural understandings of embryos always reflect social concerns.

Early 20th century embryologists were confident they had the right to collect thousands of miscarried human embryos for scientific study—even if that meant performing a hysterectomy on a pregnant woman.  Their cavalier attitude may seem disturbing or illegal today—our discomfort just shows how drastically embryo meanings have changed over time.

Nowadays, embryos and fetuses are everywhere, but dead specimens have fallen out of fashion.  They’re too macabre.  They have been replaced by glamorous, computer-enhanced embryonic and fetal figures beckoning to us from plasma flat screens and sumptuous coffee-table books.  Few of us would imagine that these images are sometimes produced using the exact same decades-old specimens from the Carnegie Human Embryo Collection.

It isn’t easy to “read” these images as either pro-life or pro-choice, because contemporary embryos and fetuses perform complex political work, functioning often simultaneously as education, entertainment, art, and propaganda.