"When I Saw It, I Began to Scream": Discovery and Loss in the Visual History of Human Embryology

This abstract has open access
Abstract Summary
“When I saw it, I began to scream.” Thus Miriam Menkin recalled her reaction, at the Free Hospital for Women in Brookline, Massachusetts in 1944, on observing what she believed was the first human egg ever fertilized in vitro. “Shaking like a leaf,” she “felt like—who was the first man to look at the Pacific—Balboa?” Such a precious specimen as this “beautiful two-celled egg” called for an elaborate preservation procedure—but in the process, Menkin lost the embryo for ever. She and her boss John Rock “came to think of it as the first miscarriage in vitro.” The talk will place this distinctively gendered account of discovery and loss alongside others from the history of human embryology since the eighteenth century. It will analyse researchers’ emotional relations to visual objects they valorized as among the greatest treasures a scientist could own, and stored in vaults and safes. I shall suggest that, while discovery accounts of human origins tended to invoke tropes of the sublime, tales of loss stress the difficulty of working with tiny, fragile materials and the worth of what was saved. That could be either drawings or photomicrographs of the mislaid object or replacement preparations. Yet specimens were lost not only physically, but also through their reclassification as abnormal or artefactual—many later specialists’ opinion of Menkin’s. Knowledge of further analysis and future recognition has selected and coloured those stories of visual encounters in which the apparently spontaneous expression of emotion serves as a marker of authenticity.
Abstract ID :
Submission Type
Organized Session
Abstract Topic
Thematic Approaches to the Study of Science
Chronological Classification :
20th century, early
Self-Designated Keywords :
Images, emotions, observation, discovery, loss, human embryology, in vitro fertilization