Familiar letters on embryology. By using the ends of very hard blocks, wood-engravings gave much finer detail than the old woodcuts, but could similarly be printed with text in vastly more copies than either copper-engravings or lithographs. This profoundly shaped the visual world of nineteenth-century science. For embryology it was exploited importantly by the embryologist, materialist and liberal politician Carl Vogt, one of the most prominent writers on science in the years around the revolution of 1848. He wrote zoological and physiological letters for ‘the educated of all estates’ on the model of his mentor Justus von Liebig’s Familiar Letters on Chemistry. Vogt explained that he had hesitated before deciding to discuss reproduction. He went ahead in view of the success of advice books ‘in duodecimo or even smaller format’. Though accessible, Vogt’s long works were probably read as much within the universities as beyond.

Embryos on show

Schools did not teach embryology, but non-medics had some access in museums and ever cheaper illustrated books.

The general public could visit some state collections. For example, in Vienna, the Florentine waxes were open to the public every Saturday from 1822. The mid-1800s also saw the rise of private anatomical museums. Their entrepreneurial owners claimed, democratically, to target ‘the humble artisan’. The admission charge—1 shilling for Joseph Kahn’s London museum—was probably too high, but these were among the few attractions to admit unaccompanied women, if often at different times from men.

Association with sex limited distribution of pictures and models of embryos. They appeared in the popular museums in the titillating context of naked and dissected bodies and genitals ravaged by venereal disease. Embryology was not as prominent as geology and chemistry in the first great wave of popular science. But interest in human origins was great and wood-engraving made printing cheaper. So even before Darwinism middle-class people did not have too much trouble finding images of development, if they knew where to look.

Handbill for an anatomical museum, 1853


Kahn’s vivid atlas based on models, 1852