The Carnegie Institution of Washington. Founded in 1902, the Carnegie Institution of Washington, D.C. was a major result of steel magnate Andrew Carnegie’s philosophy of philanthropy as an obligation of wealth. Dedicated to scientific discovery at a time when federal science funding was still very limited, the organization promoted new fields by building departments around individuals it saw as exceptional. It says much about ‘descriptive’ human embryology, until recently ignored by historians oriented towards experimental biology, that it achieved this recognition.


Staff of the Carnegie Department, 1935

In the twentieth century the reformed human embryology was institutionalized in a ‘bureau of standards’ for the science.

Franklin Paine Mall, a student of Wilhelm His, created the central institute his teacher had advocated but never achieved. The United States was taking over from Germany as the international powerhouse of science, in part thanks to support from big private foundations. Mall persuaded the Carnegie Institution of Washington to fund a Department of Embryology at the most German of American universities, Johns Hopkins in Baltimore.

Opened in 1914, the Carnegie Department amassed thousands of embryos and set up the staging system by which human development is still classified today. Carnegie embryos continue to shape our view of development as textbook images and, more recently, digital animations.