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In the 1840s Dr. Auzoux began to produce models that illustrated embryo development. This was a very difficult area of study, especially for the early phases of development.

Studying embryos

Model of a foetus with detachable front covering removable organs.
Image 1 Model of a foetus, made by the Auzoux factory; 1914 (Wh.5797).

In the decades around 1800, many people were interested in understanding the way in which complex bodies develop from simple beginnings. Wax models from the La Specola museum in Florence, Italy, are based on the idea that the initial 'germ' was already fully formed, and only needed to grow during pregnancy. (This is known as the preformist concept of development.)

It was difficult to obtain specimens of embryos, especially for the early stages of development and museums and research institutes were proud of their embryo collections. Institutions attempted to safeguard these precious specimens by preserving them in spirits and also by making models as copies.

Embryos and evolution

In the 19th century, embryology became increasingly important, since the study of embryo development was seen as a way to investigate laws of organic development more generally. Interest in this subject was fuelled by Darwin's theory of evolution, published in 1859 in The Origin of Species. One of Darwin's followers, the German biologist Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919), even proposed that embryo development reflected evolutionary development.

Anna Maerker

Anna Maerker, 'Foetus models', Explore Whipple Collections, Whipple Museum of the History of Science, University of Cambridge, 2008.

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