Making model embryos

Images of human embryos

Images of human embryos are everywhere. We see them in newspapers, clinics, classrooms, laboratories, family albums and on the internet. Debates about abortion, assisted conception, cloning and Darwinism have sometimes made these images hugely controversial, but they are also routine. We tend to take them for granted today. Yet 250 years ago human development was still nowhere to be seen.

Developing embryos were first drawn in the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. Modern medicine and biology exploited technical innovations as pictures and models communicated new attitudes to childbirth, evolution and reproduction. The German universities dominated research in the nineteenth century, the United States in the twentieth. After World War II embryo images became the dominant representations of pregnancy and prominent symbols of hope and fear. Wherever we stand in today's debates, it should enrich and may challenge our understandings to explore how these icons have been made.


Eight sections are arranged in roughly chronological order. Each focuses on an era and an issue. By contextualizing images that have become iconic or were especially widely distributed in their own time, the exhibition aims to illuminate key questions and concerns. By depicting imaging technologies and people engaged in image production, it emphasizes the work of making visible embryos.

Each page consists of a main section and a ‘box’ on the right, highlighting an important issue, person or object. Click on a thumbnail for a larger image and the full caption. The ‘Resources’ buttons offer suggestions for exploring further.