Romanoff, Romanoff – How books find their homes (2011.10.1[Sat.])


I’m writing this on the ICE line from Göttingen to Frankfurt Airport. I stopped by to see a former boss on my way back from the EMBO meeting in Barcelona. I worked in his lab in Houston in the early 1990s, and he had invited me to give a talk after the meeting. It had been more than a decade since we last met and he seemed not have aged a day, leaving me to reflect wincingly on what the years had done for me. But neither of us has really changed, and after ten minutes’ chatting in his living room, it was if we were picking up a conversation from the old days.

   As we talked, my eyes inevitably scanned his bookcases and came to rest on a copy of Alexis Romanoff’s “The  Avian Embryo: Structural and Functional Development” (Macmillan and Company, NY, 1960); it’s a big book, and hard to miss. I remarked, “I see you’ve got a Romanoff – that’s quite a find!”

   To my surprise, he said offhandedly, “You should take it. I never look at it anymore; it should go to someone who could put it to good use."

   “Are you sure?” I asked, embarrassed even as the words came out of my mouth, “because you know I won’t give it back if you change your mind!”

And so I ended up taking away this valuable tome after bringing him only a little souvenir for my visit. This isn’t just any book, after all. His wife also said, “Those can definitely be a bit hard to find.”

  As if she needed to tell me! I’d spent who knows how much time searching for a copy – if I hadn’t, after all, why would I be so overjoyed when I finally laid hand on one? Even as I was replied, I couldn’t help but start thumbing through the pages. I was considering skipping the seminar altogether.

   For someone like my ex-boss who worked exclusively on chick, F. R. Lillie’s “The Development of the Chick: An Introduction to Embryology” (1919) is a much handier companion than Romanoff’s massive opus. Its newer edition also includes the famous Hamburger and Hamilton stage series from 1951, which is a real gem. Of course, I have this book as well.

    The H-H stage series of chick development is one of the most highly cited papers in the history of the field (indeed, chick embryologists of all stripes ought to be citing it almost as a default), and the volume of the Journal of Morphology in which it was published has mysteriously gone missing or had the relevant pages removed, such is its importance and irresistible lure. I’m sure there are still a few villains out there who’ve squirreled that volume away for themselves – beneath contempt! That said, as a survivor of the Xerox Age, I can’t help by think that today’s generation with online access just a mouse click away has any really appreciation for what it meant to go on a reference-hunting expedition back then. What you had to go through just to get a copy... And on top of that, papers of the H&H sort are all about the figures, which means that it’s no surprise that people would want to keep them close at hand for extended periods. When I was in a Zoology Department, one of the faculty members, Prof. T, told me, “Literature searches are a major part of the researcher’s job.” I have to say, I have certainly taken that advice to heart.

  Anyway, given the above, in 1992 Developmental Dynamics decided to take the unprecedented step of republishing the 1951 Hamburger and Hamilton series  (Dev. Dyn. 195, 231-272). In the same issue, Joshua Sanes gave a nice summary of the H-H series’ importance to the field, and what led to the decision to reprint. My own copy of Lillie (Lillie, F. R. 1919. The Development of the Chick: An introduction to embryology 2nd Rev. ed. Henry Holt & Co., New York) is close to the original printing, as you might have guessed from the edition date. It’s definitely consistent with my interests, and like my recent Romanoff acquisition, came to me as something of a windfall as well.

   I was in the later half of my Ph. D., and I was up late making an illustration of either a whole-mount stained cranium or a tissue sample (I don't remember which) of an Asian house shrew embryo, when my stomach grumbled. I decided to heat up some fried potatoes from the freezer, but the oil, salt and pepper, ketchup, and frying pan I needed were in an ecology lab down the hall. I suppose this tells you all you need to know about the lackadaisical Zoology Department at Kyoto University at the time, and some of its lackadaisical students, hanging around all hours of the night.

    Sated after my midnight junk food run, I noticed that there on the Ecology Department’s old wooden bookshelves was a musty copy of Lillie. When I looked inside, I saw that it was from the library of Denzaburoo Miyadi, a former ecologist, whose name card I found on the inside cover. I wondered what such a book was doing in an ecology lab as I was flipping through the pages, when one of the older students (I forget his name), who had been drinking, said to me, “Oh, that? You’d know what do with that better than us. You should keep it.”

“Uh, OK,” I said, “If you don’t think it’ll be a problem if I take it.”

    So there you have it – I’ve gotten two of the essential works in chick embryology just handed to me out of the blue. Thankfully, I seemed to have escaped the curse of Professor Miyadi so far. And I think I have used it well, and cited it many times in my work, so I don’t feel at all bad for the way I got it. It’s followed me all the way from Kyoto to Okinawa to Houston to here. Sometimes I think that books are a bit like animals, who will rush into the arms of someone they sense will be a caring owner. I know that doesn’t make any rational sense, still.... Then again, maybe I have that backwards. Maybe it has been the books all along that instilled a passion for research in me.

Hamburger, V. and Hamilton, H. (1951) A series of normal stages in the development of the chick embryo. J. Morphol. 88, 49-67.
Sanes, J. A. (1992) On the republication of the Hamburger-Hamilton stage series. Dev. Dyn. 195, 229-230.