Supply networks of embryos. How these functioned after Soemmerring may be seen from some 1843 correspondence between the curator of the Agricultural society museum in Vienna, Johann Hölbling, the medical faculty and local anatomists. Hölbling offered the faculty ‘early births’ preserved in spirits that he had purchased from a village surgeon’s widow. The faculty asked the anatomist Karl Patruban’s advice. He replied that ‘of the … human embryos, 4 in number (of the 8th and 14th week, of the 4th and 5th month), only two are well preserved and suitable for preparation … Since our institution can very easily obtain human fruits from 4 months onwards from the local lying-in hospital, only the two younger ones (less well preserved) have some value and the institute could pay around 4 florins [the currency of the Habsburg Monarchy] for these 4 pieces’.

Collecting embryos

To produce a series, Soemmerring needed embryos that, hidden in women’s bodies, were hard to obtain.

The main source was abortions, spontaneous or induced. Very occasionally anatomists carried out post-mortems of women who turned out to have been in early pregnancy. Some had committed suicide precisely because they feared a child. Soemmerring found a rich embryo collection already established in Kassel. Further specimens came through personal medical networks. The foundling house and the lying-in hospital there furnished the anatomical theatre with human material: corpses, still-births and abortions. Advertisements in a local newspaper brought in malformed animals.

Soemmering innovatively directed increased attention to the age of the specimens and the circumstances during gestation and around abortion or birth. Objects that had previously often been interpreted as children to come or as waste were dramatically reframed as a series of developing forms. But for a long time this transformation hardly affected nonmedical views of pregnancy.

Soemmerring’s anatomical theatre after its move from Kassel to Marburg, early 1800s


A drawing of one of Soemmerring’s specimens, early 1800s