Monday workshop
Monday, October 11, 2021 - 3:30pm

In keeping with current Covid-19 recommendations, this workshop will follow a hybrid format. The presentation will occur in-person with a small audience of Penn faculty and students and will be streamed via Zoom for all those wishing to join remotely. Participants on Zoom will be able to participate in the Q+A.

Monsters in the Model: Anatomical Preparations as Objects of Evidence for a Developmental Paradigm of Embryology, 1770-1840

Sara Ray, Doctoral Candidate in the History and Sociology of Science Department, University of Pennsylvania

A common object found within medical museums is the developmental series: an arrangement of embryos depicting the transformation of an unremarkable blob into an anatomically organized and recognizable organism. The developmental series depicts a normative process, one where bodies emerge in reliable sequential stages to reveal anatomically perfect beings. Yet a century before the developmental series would become a visual model of embryological development, the very process of development itself was discerned through the comparative study of preserved human fetuses— specifically, those deemed “monstrous” or characterized as “malformations.” This talk examines how anatomically diverse fetal bodies were reformulated from singular curiosities into alternative developmental pathways whose characteristics testified to the laws of nature and to the primordial, physical relationship between humans and other species.

In early nineteenth century Amsterdam, the father-son team of physicians Gerard and Willem Vrolik built up an internationally renowned anatomical museum famous especially for Willem’s collection of fetal malformations. Physical preparations of fetal malformations play a central role in Willem’s monumental handbook on developmental embryology: comparing human embryos against one another and the embryos of other species, Willem plots out a normative sequence of embryonic development in which a body’s form marks its place within the ever-unfolding natural order. In conversation with the literature on model organisms, this talk seeks to understand the “monstrous” gets standardized and, in doing so, contributes to the scientific production of a normative physiological process.

Sara Ray is a doctoral candidate in the History and Sociology of Science at Penn. With a background in museum studies, Sara’s research is on the historical preservation of human fetuses with congenital abnormalities, looking both at the history of these bodies— their births, their collection— as well as their scientific use as objects of evidence in early embryology and public health. Sara’s research has been supported by a Fulbright award, the Descartes Centre at Utrecht University, the Science History Institute, and, most recently, the Council for European Studies.