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Needham J. A History of Embryology. (1959) Cambridge University Press, London.

1959 Needham: Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4

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This historic 1959 embryology textbook by Needham was designed as an overview of embryology history. Currently only the text has been made available online, figures will be added at a later date. My thanks to the Internet Archive for making the original scanned book available.
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A History of Embryology

Joseph Needham, F.R.S.

Fellow of Grmville E‘! Cain: College, and Sir William Dunn Reader in Biochemisty

in the University of Cambridge

Second Edition Revised with the Assistance of

Arthur Hughes, Ph.D

Lecturer in Anatomy in the University of Cambridge


At The University Press

1959 Published By The Synod Of The Cambridge University Press, London 0559: Benllty House

First edition 1934 Second edition 1959


Preliminary Note

List of Plates

Chapter One - Embryology in Antiquity

  1. Ideas of Primitive Peoples
  2. Egyptian Antiquity
  3. Artificial Incubation
  4. Indian Antiquity
  5. Hellenic Antiquity; the Pre-Socratic
  6. Hippocratic Embryology and the Doctrine of the Two Seeds
  7. Aristotle’s great Systematisation
  8. The Doctrine of the Menstrual Blood
  9. Denials of Maternity and Paternity
  10. Formation, Recapitulation and Fermentation
  11. The Aristotelian Balance—sheet
  12. Aristotle’s Theory of Causation
  13. The Hellenistic Age
  14. Galen and the Vital Faculties

Chapter Two - Embryology From Galen To The Renaissance

  1. Patristic Speculation
  2. Contributions of Jewish Thinkers
  3. Embryology among the Arabs
  4. Alchemy and Embryology
  5. The Visions of St Hildegard
  6. Albertus Magnus; the Re-awakening of Scientific Embryology
  7. Aristotle’s Masterpiece
  8. Scholastic Ideas on Generation
  9. The Insights of Leonardo da Vinci
  10. The Macro-Iconogrnphers of the Sixteenth Century
  11. The Movement to Rationalise Obstetrim

Chapter Three - Embryology In The Seventeenth Century

  1. The Opening Years
  2. Developmental Determinism and Trasplantation; Digby, Higlunom and Tagliacozzi
  3. Thomas Browne and the Beginnings of Chemical Embryology
  4. William Harvey and the Identification of the Blastoderm
  5. The Riddle of Fertilisation
  6. Harvey's Achievements and Influence
  7. Atomist Theories of Embryonic Development; Gaucndi and Dcscm-ta
  8. Fixatives and Uterine Milk; Robert Boyle and Walter Needhzun
  9. The Discovery of the Follicles of the Mammalian Ovary
  10. The Micro-iconographers and Preformatianism; Marcello Malpighi and Jan Swammerdam
  11. Foetal Respiration and Composition; John Mayow and Robert Boyle

Chapter Four - Embryology In The Eighteenth Century

  1. Theories of Foetal Nutrition
  2. Growth and Difierentiation; Stahl and Main-e-Jan
  3. Chemical and Quantitative Approaches to the Origin of Organisation; Boerhnave, Hamberger and Mazin
  4. Albrecht van Haller and the Rise of Techniques
  5. Embryos and Theologians
  6. Ovism and Animzdculism
  7. Spontaneous Generation
  8. Preformation and Epigenesis
  9. The Closing Years



Traditional methods of incubation

Portrait of William Harvey, act. 6t (1639)

Preliminary Note

The contribution to the history of science contained in the following four chapters first appeared as the opening part of a treatise on Chemical Embryology, published in 1931. They were delivered in the form of lectures about the same time at the University of London under the title “Speculation, Observation and Experiment as illustrated by the History of Embryology." The munificence of that University assured their appearance in separate, and amplified, form.‘

I suppose that the study of the history of science needs no apology. If at first sight the discussion of what was thought in the past rather than what is known now appmrs to be of merely antiquarian value, a deeper consideration will admit, with Louis Choulant, that the history of science is the guarantee of its freedom. The mistakes of our predecessors remind us that we may be mistaken; their wisdom prevents us from assuming that wisdom was born withus; and by studying the processes of their thought, we may hope to have a better understanding, and hence a better organisation, of our own. Theoreticil errors, such as the final cause, preformationisrn or phlog-iston; practical errors, such as the divorce between speculation and technique in the Hellenistic age, are always able to show us a more excellent way.

The present contribution does not claim, what probably no historical work can tnrly deserve, the ascription of a complete lack of bias in its presentation. Designed as it was to introduce a discussion of the border- line between embryology and biochemistry, it sought rather to lay bare the roots of chemical embryology in history, than to collect data indis- criminately on all the interesting aspects of the subject. Its title, “The Origins of Chemical Embryology," made no secret of this. And no obvious disadvantage attaches to such a plan, except the difficulty of deciding when to leave off. For although it is possible in reasonable space to try to dojustice to all aspects of embryology before 1800, after that date the number of investigators and thevariety of problems attacked becomes too great to handle conveniently on the same scale as before.’

‘ By embryology we mean in this book the embryology of animal: txduxivlly. The history ofthe embryology of plant: has been fully written only in Russian, by Bannov, but there is 1 shorter work by Souéges in French.

I or. the valuable work of Srudmflu; Florian; Dogelb; Oppenheimer; Fischer 5: Schopfer; and others.

Bifurcation bcgms; the spheres of morphology and ph,11o1ogy more obviously separate, and In the latter division chemical researches play an ever-increasing part. It is now hoped that a group of workers Wlll soon be able to continue the story in a companion volume through the nineteenth century under a number of separate hadings.

No exhaustive treatise on the history of embryology as yet exists.‘

The nearest approach to it is the very valuable memoir of E. Bloch with its epitome. but this only covers the era of the Renaissance with thor- oughness. Hertwig's account, which he printed at the beginning of his great Haruibuth tier Enlwicfalungxlehre, does not deal very fully with any aspect of the subject before x8oo, nor do the much shorter ones of Hen- neguy and Minot. The latter paper is interesting in that it ends with an emphasis on the need for physico-cherniczil work in the future. The introduction to Keibel's book is much slight;-r, but contains some useful information. There are various monographs and papers on special points, such as Youchet's rather untrustworthy treatment of the em- bryology of Aristotle, and Lones’ discussion of it, which is worse. Camus‘ notes are still the best commentary on the I1z'.rtlm‘a Animalium. Again, useful information on some cultural points is to be had from the treatise ofl"loss 6: Bartels. The introductions to certain books also con- tain valuable information, and in this class comes Dareste's remarkable book on temtology. The bibliographies contained in Von Hallefs eighth volume and in the books of Schurig and Hefiter are naturally of the greatest assistance. The valuable books of F. J. Cole and Thadeusz Bilikiewicz on seventeenth~century embryology appeared too late for use in the first prepamtion of this book, but have contributed to its revision.’

In 1939 there appeared a work, The Rise of Ermlryalagy, by the learned Californian anatomist A. W. Meyer, author of numerous periodical publimtions on our subject, some of which are referred to in the bibliography. His book stands to mine in much the same relation as the second volume of David Eugene Smith’s notable History qfMaihe- malice to the first; the one adopting 2| basically chronological treatment, the other A topical form in which separate subjects are chosen in succes- sion for consideration. However, Meyer devotes the bulk of his work to

I am we cannot attempt to provide a bibliography of the more upP°¢,m'fl modem work dealing with the subject melt". Yet in case suenufic mm or historians of other fields might appreciate some helpful introduction to embryology. Inlntton rnly ‘>9 made oi the popular boolu of Rouund, Wnddington mil Guttnnrher. An engineer or on hillflnan of xstronmny might lhlfl proceed to the recent tunes: of Wlddington,

man, or Willier 2: al. _ . - Certain minor works on the history of embryology hive proved maee¢sxble— Beulre; Eccleahymer; H. Fnheuder; Fnvaro; l’-‘enzkel; Gills: Hapr; Ottow. Other

urtides deserving mention are those of Gerber; Keller; du Ems.

the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, passing over the earlier periods in his first thirty pages. His treatment of the nineteenth century is in- teresting indeed, though nothing could supersede the remarkable work of E. S. Russell, Form and Function. Particular interest attaches to L. A. Blacher’s monograph on Embryology in Russia in the 18!]: and 191/: Centun'e.r (195 5), since so much of the classical work centring around 1800 was done or published in that country.

These observations made, the principal reviews of the subject are chiefly to be found in histories of science in general, such as Sartou’s; histories of biological theory, such as R.’idl’s; histories of obstetrics, such as von SieboId's, Spencer's and E. F asbender's; histories ofgynaecology, such as McKay’s; and histories of anatomy, such as Singer's and Von T6ply's. Histories of medicine as a whole are numerous and good: I have found those of Garrison and Neuburgcr-Pagel most useful. Those which deal with special periods are also of assistance, such as Schrutz and Browne on Arabian, I. Bloch on Byzantine, and I-larnack on Patristic medicine. Histories of chemistry provide no help, for ancient chemistry was so oriented towards “practical” results, such as the lapi: philorophomm and elixir vitae, that the egg was only considered as a raw material for various preparations. The investigation of its change of properties during the development of the embryo did not occur to the alchemists. Detailed studies of particular subjects, such as those con- tained in Singer's two excellent volumes, The History and Method of Science, may also be of some assistance. Again, there are books which give a wonderful orientation and an articulate survey of vast tracts: of these Clifford Allbutt’s Greek Medicine in Rome, with its mass of refer- ences, is among the most valuable. And Miall’s Earbv Naturalist: must not be omitted, far, apart from the peculiar charm of style which marks it, it contains some singularly helpful bibliographical data.‘ But the study of the original sources, so far as that is possible, is a duty which cannot be avoided, and in what follows I have been careful to copy down no statement from a previous review when it was possible to read the actual words of the writer himself. This practice of going to the originals is made peculiarly necessary in a case such as the present one, when the history of a subject is regarded from a rather new angle.

The arrangement of my chapters I adopted in the first edition, and now preserve, only on the ground that it is suitable enough in the pres~ ent state of historical knowledge. Little was then said about eml>ry~ ology in China beuxusc at that time I could find out little about it, but it will be thoroughly treated in the eighth volume of my work on the

‘ A fine beginning has been made on the bibliographies of seventeenth-century mm of science by Keyna and Fulton.

history-of science in general in that great culture, Scimte and Ciril- "“"""_ W C{'1"0- Nor am I content with the short section on embry- ology In India, but here there are special difficulties owing to thc absmce of an established chronology for ancient and mediaeval Indian texts and an adequate account of it must be left for others to give. No per: manent framework for historical facts is proposed in what follows; I only attempt to bring them together, and to reveal some of the relation. ships between them. If the traditional pattern turns out to be badly distorted-—and there are many signs that it may—the facts can be rearranged.

But in whatever way this may tum out to be desirable, one neeasity rnust constantly be kept before the mind's eye, namely the knowledge of the relations between scientific thought and technical practice at any given period. For embryology this knowledge is diflicult to acquire, since up to the time of the Renaissance obstetrics remained a part of primitive folk-medicine rather than of serious medical science. We see, however, in the publication of the Hellenistic gynaecological treatises in the sixteenth century (Bauhin, Spach; see p. 109) the satisfaction of a new demand, even though it took the typiml Renaissance form of what might be mlled palaeolatry. It was part of that movement to rationalise obstetric: which included Harvey’s De Gmnatione and Malpighi's De Formatione Pulli and culminated in the celebrated man-midwives of the eighteenth century.‘ Again, the relation of the early systematists— Belon, Rondelet, Aldrovandus, Ray-—to the beginnings of mermntile expansion is fairly clear, for the mediaeval bstiary could not cope with the influx of new animals and plants from hitherto unknown regions, any one of which might prove to be an exploitable commodity.

The Hellenistic divorce between scientific thought and empirical technique is an important case in point. Greek life was divided strictly ima amela and ngdftg. The latter was not thought fitting [or a man of good birth. "Antiquity," says Diels. “was entirely aristocratic in attitude. Even prominent artists. Such 35 P5555335. W619 0135355 33 fifti- sans, and were incapable of bursting through the barrier separating the workers and pmsants from the upper clam. A second muse of the slight technical progress in antiquitywas its slave-holding system, which led to a lack of any impulse to develop the machine as a substitute for manual labour.” Xenophon in the Oemnomicus held the industries in poor repute.‘ "Men engaged in the mechanical arts,” he says, “must ever be

‘!3.g. the Chnmberlenx. Palfyn (see Stein), Mluricuu, _VVfl.ltarn Srnellrz, John Burton of York ("Dr Slop"), and Joseph Needhnm or Dewnzes; see the Imeles or Rosemhnl and Mengert. The dissertation ofCaspar Base (1729) is I typuml attack on the midwives ufllll time.

‘ See Creeotti. ' xv. 3; VI. lJ'l5-

both bad friends and feeble defenders of their country." He troubled himself little with those skilful in carpentry, metallurgy, painting and sculpture, but was always anxious to meet. a “gentleman" (ualzig rs miyafldg). The results of this were inevitable. Classical surgery and obstetrics benefited practically nothing from the speculations of the biologists from Alcmaeon to Herophilus (see pp. 29 Surgeons and midwives remained members of the painter-cobbler-builder group, the group of base-bom "rnechanicks”, entirely distinct from the astronomer- mathematician-xnetaphysician-biologist group, the group familiar with courts and tyrants.

Only the greatest broke away from this tradition: Aristotle, when he conversed with fishermen, Archimedes perhaps, when he constnicted his mechanical devices. For the rest, it was too strong. Down to the end of the Roman period the artillery in use remained precisely what it had been six hundred years before, although the Empire was crumbling under barbarian pressure, and would have given anything, one would imagine, for an improved artillery capable of withstanding the Gothic armies. It is strange, as has been acutely said, that the Rornans never invented anything so much in the Roman taste as a railway. So far as Hellenistic empirical industrial chemistry was concerned, the Demo- critcan and Epicurean atoms might never have existed. And in medicine, the only effect of the brilliant Greek atomic speculations was to give rise to the Methodic school of Roman physicians, described by Allbutt, whose influence was never strong, and who contributed relatively little to the main stream of therapeutics originating with Hippocrates.

In sum, we must not dissociate scientific advances from the technical needs and processes of the time, and the economic structure in which all are embedded. We shall never understand the failure of Greek science if we consider it in abstraction from the environment which sterilised its speculation. The history of science is not a mere succession of in- explicable geniuses, direct Promethean ambassadors to man from heaven. Whether a given fact would have got itself discovered by some other person than the historical discoverer had he not lived, it is certainly profitless and probably meaningless to enquire. But scientific men do not live in a vacuum; on the contrary, the directions of their interest are ever conditioned by the structure of the world they live in. Further historical research will enable us to take into account the social and economic status of the invatigator himself (cf. Chambers for the Hellenistic artist, and Yearsley for the sixteenth-century physician).

It would thus be of the greatest interest to lmow accurately the sources of the emoluments of embryologists at different times.‘ From Om-

‘ On this, cf. Cumston and Dittrielr.

steinjstadmirzible book on the scientific societies of the Renaissance, the suspicion arises that their royal patronage was dictated not only by

1 purely disinterested passion {or abstract truth, but by a desire to profit as much as possible by the new techniques which the decay of the gnfi- usury doctrines, the Willingness of the rising mercantile class m mkc mdusmfil "ffimlllts." and um f”'1'3“8i"8 thought of the scientific men were combining to produce. In England's Royal Society, indeed, me preoccupation of the early Fellows with the Uirnprovexnent of u-ad; and husbandry” is patent to anyone acquainted with its early history (cf. Thomas Spint’s account of it)! Thus Dr Jasper Needham, clccled in 1663, read only one paper before the Society—not, as might haw; been expected from his profession, on the transfusion of blood or the anatomy of the brain; but on the value and use of “China Varnish". However, it is probable that for the most part the emhryologists whose work we shall have to discuss were physicians, free or relatively free from the ancient tnidition, and conscious that to understand the mystery of generation would be to advance the science and art of medicine.

In this connection it is of interest that the Church in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries provided a certain source of demand for em- bryological research. Of this Swaminerdarn and Malehranche (see p. x69) provide interesting examples, and the conviction, then widely held, that research into the nature of generation would throw light an orthodox theological doctrines, such as that of original sin, led to an economic situation of value for biological development. Finally, it would he rash to minimise the factor of pure curiosity in seventeenth- century science. The recreational quality of Lecuwenhoek's investiga- tions is, as Baas-Becking says, too obvious to be overlooked.‘

The history of single forms of scientific knowledge is in way hap- pier because containing more of continuity than that of civilisation as a whole. The assiduity with which men of diflerent periods in the rise and decline of a culture pursue the diflerent forms of human experience may, as Spengler has shown, vary much, but those forms remain funda- mentally the same, even if their manifestations are profoundly changed.

scphy, the mechanic, and husbandry, according to the principles of our new philoso- phical college, that Values no knowledge, but as it hath a tendency in use.And therefore I shall make K on: of my xuiu to you, that you would take the pains to enquire lllILl€ more thoroughly inro the way: of husbandry etc. practised in your pan}: ‘rid when you intend for England, to bring along with you what good receipt: or choice books of my of those subjects you can procure; which will make you extremely welcome to our

‘ ‘b I , hichlhad d ' edt ‘ oulil 'ti of.”Fultonre- imzmmi of nuieiiifé but wisgiapy taaliie leave to think

it was not to inadequate as um-rywould suppose. _ . - The run loop: of Leeuwenhoek‘: discoveries Is now appearing, drum to the labour: of van Runberlc and his mllabontvfi.

That science, at any rate, does maintain some sort of continuity what- ever gaps there may be between the phases of its progress, is a belief agreeable with all the available facts, and one which no criticism will easily shake.

It only remains to record my indebtedness to those who have assisted me in the preparation of this work. Primarily I am grateful to Dr Charles Singer, who annotated my typescript with valuable comments and lent me many papers and pictures, and to Professor R. C. Punnett, who placed unreservedly at my disposal his knowledge of the history of generation and his library of old and rare biological books. To Dr Arthur Peck I am indebted for the correction of my Greek, and it was Professor A. B. Cook who introduced me to the embryology of the ancients. For guidance on Talmudic and Jewish matters I thank Dr Walter Pagel, the late Dr Louis Rapkine and Dr H. Loewe. Without the assiduous backing of Mr Powell, the Librarian of the Royal Society of Medicine, and his assistants, and of Mr H. Zeitlinger, I should have dealt much more inadequately than I have with papers and books which cannot be consulted in Cambridge. And in addition to those mentioned above, the following friends kindly read through and criticised the proofs: Pro- fessor Reuben Levy, the late Professor F. M. Cornford, the late Sir William Dampier, Mr Gregory Bateson, Professor Roy Pascal and the Rev. W. L. Elmslie.

To the Master of Gonville and Caius College I am indebted for permission to reproduce the portrait of William Harvey (attributed to Rembrandt) which hangs in our Senior Combination Room. Although the authenticity of this is not accepted by Keynes in his recent study of the portraits of Harvey, it has been in the possession of the College since r798, when it came to us from the Earl of Leicester. After com- parison with other portraits of Harvey, many feel unable to concur in its rejection.


(A) Egyptian peasant incubator (from Cadman) (B) Chinese peasant incubator (from King)

Heteromorphosis in a guardian deity (lokapfila) depicted in a fresco on the wall of one of the m‘vc~tempIes at Ch’ien-F0-Tung, Tunlnmng, Kansu province, China

The oldest known drawing of the uterus. From a ninth- century MS. (the Brussels Mosdlion Codex) of Soranus’ work on gynaecology

An illustration from the Liber Sn'1:z'as (LAD. 1150) of St Hildegard of Bingen (Wicsbaden Codex B), showing the descent of the soul into the embryo (after Singer)

A page from Leonardo da Vinci’s anatomical notebooks (guaderni d’Anazmm'a), c. AD. 1490

Portrait of Volcher Coiter, act. 41 (painted in r 575 byan unknown master)

Portrait of Sir Kenelm Digby (from the painting by Oomelius Jansen, ca. 1650)

Portrait of Sir Thomas Browne and his wife, Dorothy (ca. x650)

IX Zeus liberating living beings from an egg (the frontispieoe

of William Harvey’s book on the Generation of Animal:, 1 6 51) ‘

X Illustrations from “falter Needl1am’s De Fonnatn Foetu of 1667


Illustrations from Maipighfs 1): 01:0 Incubate of 167: shgwmg the early stages of the development of the °h“'-k facing page 166

Illustrations from 77:: auiou: and accurate ab.mvan'an: 0/ Mr Stephen Lorene-t'm' of Florence on the Dirxrrtioru qf

the Cramp-Fish ,9, Metamorphosis in Buddhist iconography; statues in the

Sleeping Buddha Temple at Suchaw (Chin-dffian),

Kansu province. China ,7; Portrait at‘ Antan van Leeuwmhoek by Job.

Vex-kalje (1686) :7: Portrait of Robert Boyle (a. 1690) 176 A tel-atoms with well-formed teeth and hair (from Robert

Plat‘: Natural Hi:-tmy afS!ufl'ord:h:'r:, 1686) 178 Illustrations from Antoine Maine-Jan‘: Obaematiovu

mr Infmnahbn du pcmlet (1722) 186 De Réaumux-‘I Incubators (from De (‘art de faire (chm

In paulm, 1749) 204

Note - The use of the Ihonened and (&) indium eollzbcmion between two or more author

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