Icons of Life

Icons of Life: A Cultural History of Human Embryos

Lynn M. Morgan
Copyright Date: 2009
Edition: 1
Pages: 328
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt1ppxx8
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  • Book Info
    Icons of Life
    Book Description:

    Icons of Lifetells the engrossing and provocative story of an early twentieth-century undertaking, the Carnegie Institution of Washington's project to collect thousands of embryos for scientific study. Lynn M. Morgan blends social analysis, sleuthing, and humor to trace the history of specimen collecting. In the process, she illuminates how a hundred-year-old scientific endeavor continues to be felt in today's fraught arena of maternal and fetal politics. Until the embryo collecting project-which she follows from the Johns Hopkins anatomy department, through Baltimore foundling homes, and all the way to China-most people had no idea what human embryos looked like. But by the 1950s, modern citizens saw in embryos an image of "ourselves unborn," and embryology had developed a biologically based story about how we came to be. Morgan explains how dead specimens paradoxically became icons of life, how embryos were generated as social artifacts separate from pregnant women, and how a fetus thwarted Gertrude Stein's medical career. By resurrecting a nearly forgotten scientific project, Morgan sheds light on the roots of a modern origin story and raises the still controversial issue of how we decide what embryos mean.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94472-5
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. PREFACE
    (pp. xi-xviii)
  5. ONE A Skeleton in the Closet and Fetuses in the Basement
    (pp. 1-37)

    AS I WALKED INTO THE BIOLOGY BUILDING on a glorious June day, the temperature in the basement was cool enough to cause a little shiver, and the piercing smell of formaldehyde in the storeroom gave the eerie impression of entering a morgue. One light bulb was burned out, yet in the gloom I could make out dozens of grimy jars of human fetuses packed three or four deep on industrial metal shelves. Judging by the dust, the collection had been untouched for decades. The formaldehyde had completely evaporated from some of the jars, leaving the contents to rot into sodden...

  6. TWO Embryo Visions
    (pp. 38-57)

    IN 1874, CORNELIA CLAPP WANTED TO PURCHASE an incubator to use in the zoology course she was teaching at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, but the administration did not grant her the funds. Determined to teach the embryological development of the chick to her students, Clapp rented a broody hen from a local farmer. (People who buy their eggs in supermarkets may not know that a hen is called “broody” when she has laid a clutch of eggs and cannot be dissuaded from sitting on them until they hatch.) Every day for twenty-one days, Clapp placed a freshly laid egg underneath...

  7. THREE Building a Collection
    (pp. 58-95)

    MOST OF THE FETAL SPECIMENS I FOUND in the basement at Mount Holyoke College were donated by alumnae who had graduated in the 1930s and 1940s and gone on to become doctors and nurses. Their clinical work gave them access to embryo and fetal remains, as I learned from a 1943 graduate who remembered studying fetal specimens in an advanced embryology class. “I believe these were specimens sent in by MHC graduates,” she wrote, “who had gone into medicine and passed on the results of spontaneous abortion and miscarriage among their patients to the college” (Wine 1999). She explained that...

  8. FOUR Inside the Embryo Production Factory
    (pp. 96-123)

    I SHOULD HAVE GONE TO BED EARLY, since I was planning to visit the Carnegie Human Embryo Collection the next morning. I stayed up until one A.M., however, to finish Bobbie Ann Mason’s 1993 novel,Feather Crowns.Mason tells the story of Christianna Wheeler, a hardworking farm wife in rural Kentucky who gave birth to quintuplets in the year 1900. As word got out about the unusual event, hundreds of strangers descended on the homestead to gawk at the five tiny babies. One by one the babies died, victim to fever, insufficient milk, opium-laced soothing syrup, and being “handled too...

  9. FIVE Traffic in “Embryo Babies”
    (pp. 124-158)

    HUMAN EMBRYONIC AND FETAL SPECIMENS were once so abundant that the Carnegie collectors could gather hundreds in any given year. As evidence of the unlimited supply and educational value of such “material,” fetal specimens filled the shelves of anatomy, zoology, physiology, and embryology departments around the country from the second decade of the twentieth century to at least 1950. Today, by contrast, human embryonic tissue is a scarce and tightly regulated commodity. These fluctuating fortunes of supply and demand might seem counterintuitive; fertility rates are lower now, although the clinics that provide abortion and fertility services presumably generate a fair...

  10. SIX Embryo Tales
    (pp. 159-188)

    If Mall were still alive, he would be startled to see embryos and fetuses popping up in so many unexpected places. Picking up his mail in June 2003, he could find an image of a fetus gracing the cover ofNewsweekmagazine, illustrating a story about stem cell treatments.¹ Turning on the television in 2007, he could see an advertisement for Ford’s flexible fuel car (“for the next generation”), featuring the animated silicon models of dolphin, polar bear, and elephant fetuses. At his local video rental shop, he could check outLook Who’s Talkingto watch a fetus speaking from...

  11. SEVEN From Dead Embryos to Icons of Life
    (pp. 189-223)

    I am not above picking up the supermarket tabloids for a particularly juicy story. One day, next to a headline that read, “Migraine headaches caused by evil demons inside your head,” I saw a story called “SICK! Artist makes earrings from human fetuses” (Bowie 1994). I shook my head. Disgusting. But the headline also struck me as another ingenious version in a long line of stories sowing disinformation about offensive acts involving fetal tissue. Curious to know whether the story contained even a small kernel of truth, I bought a copy and took it home, where I looked up the...

  12. EIGHT The Demise of the Mount Holyoke Collection
    (pp. 224-246)

    It was a cold gray afternoon in February 2005 when the phone rang in my office. A reporter from the local paper was looking for someone to comment on the discovery of four fetuses found buried in a backyard in nearby Springfield. I hadn’t heard anything about it. He explained that the police had arrested a man on unrelated charges, and one of the man’s employees told police that the man had ordered him to bury some fetuses. The cops started digging at the site, the neighbors got curious, and someone called the newspaper. When the police unearthed four jars...

  13. NOTES
    (pp. 247-256)
  14. REFERENCES
    (pp. 257-298)
  15. INDEX
    (pp. 299-310)