Curves that refuse to be copied : The visual delights of embryology  (2005.12.1[Thu])


The Carnegies Institute is know as the Mecca of human embryology. The collection of normal human embryos established by Franklin P. Mall in 1887, which was to become famous as "the Carnegie Collection," has, over the years, provided fertile ground from which many important embryological discoveries would bloom. In today's column, I'd like to take a closer look at Contributions to Embryology , the Carnegie's famously collectible journal.

 With only a fraction of the print run enjoyed by other scientific journals, the Contributions has earned its reputation for rarity and only a handful of medical libraries in Japan can boast a full collection. And on opening the cover of any issu e, the impression is more like looking into a collection of artwork than a scientific journal; indeed, even the page size is closer to th at of a book of prints or paintings th an of the standard for journals of the day.

 In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, treatises on morphology and anatomy were illustrated with truly beautiful figures. Edward P. Allis, a neuroanatomist active in the United States during the early part of the 20th century, hired a Japanese illustrator to detail his observations of piscine anatomy with breathtaking attention to color, work that graced his publication the inaugural issue of the Journal of Morphology. These beautifully rendered figures showing the peripheral nerves in the fish head in minute detail, represent an extraordinarily successful fusion of Japanese and Western graphic technique. But even they must bow before the beauty of the figures in the Contributions to Embryology folios. To be sure, many have gone on to be cited or serve as the basis for diagrams and illustrations in textbooks, but to be fully appreciated, they truly must be seen firsthand. The question remains - Why did these researchers into vascular development invest so much in the visual portrayal of their studies? Whatever the reason, these works of fundamentally sound science serve to dispel any denigrating notions of the "limits the naked eye" that haunted the scientific establishment in the 19th century.

 Japan also enjoys a proud tradition of vasculogenesis research, with a number of monographs in this field published in early issues of Acta anatomica nipponica. Early in my career, I had even planned to create a collection of comparative development by compiling copies of articles from the library's journal stacks. But even using the best photocopiers available at the time, I found that they weren't able to do justice to the almost microscopic hand-rendered detail of many of the prints. Science has produced its share of inspired and irreproducible works of art. I can't help but wonder, in an age when we all browse the journals online, whether something irreplaceable hasn't been sacrificed at the altar of technology...

 This is beginning to sound like an essay in art criticism, but the Contributions to Embryology should be remembered equally for the many important papers it published, including Arey's explication of the developmental fate of the first somite in chick (1938)* 1, the work by Bartelemez on the early development of the human neural plate (1954) * 2 and the first observation of direct development in a frog by Lynn (1942) * 3. And, if memory serves, the first prospective fate map of the stage 5 chick compiled by autoradiography * 4 was in there somewhere, too... if only I could track it down.

Reference : ”Contributions to embryology”

* 1. Arey, Leslie B. (1938) "The History of the First Somite in Human Embryos." Vol.27 pp.233-269
* 2. Bartelemez, G. W. with the collaboration of Blount P. Mary (1954) "The Formation of Neural Crest from the Primary Optic Vesicle in Man." Vol.35 pp.55-71
* 3. Lynn, W. G. (1942) "The embryology of Eleutherodactylus nubicola, an anuran which has no tadpole stage." Vol.30 pp.27-62
* 4. Rosenquist Glenn C. (1966) "A radioautographic study of labeled grafts in the chick blastoderm. Development from primitive-streak stages to stage 12." Vol.38 pp.71-110