A German modelling project. Though the Carnegie Department dominated human embryology in the mid-twentieth century, scientists elsewhere pursued related research. The next most important project was by the Göttingen anatomist Erich Blechschmidt (1904–92), who independently developed new methods of reconstruction. Blechschmidt saw himself as following His in seeking through descriptive work to construct a ‘physics of the germ’. He also opposed Haeckel’s legacy. Yet Blechschmidt not only used embryology against abortion-law reform, by rejecting evolution he placed himself outside the biological mainstream. Many scientists nevertheless admired his reconstructions.

The Carnegie Department of Embryology

The new institution collected more human embryos in one place than ever before, made sophisticated 3-D reconstructions and set up an authoritative staging system.

The early twentieth century brought a bustle of institutional innovation in human and comparative vertebrate embryology. Building on Franz Keibel’s normal-plate project an International Institute of Embryology was established in 1911 to facilitate collection of embryos from rare colonial mammals. Human embryology also gained a major research institute of its own. Franklin P. Mall, His’s former student and the first professor of anatomy at the Johns Hopkins University, founded the Carnegie Department in 1914.

Embryo collecting expanded dramatically. ‘Twenty-five years ago it took 10 years to collect our first hundred specimens’, Mall wrote in 1917, but ‘since [the collection] has been taken over by the Carnegie Institution of Washington, 400 specimens have been collected each year’. He and his successors used their position in a prestigious medical school to build a network of embryo-suppliers among gynæcologists. The collection, over 8,000 by the early 1940s, was stored in a fireproof vault. Developing His’s techniques, it was analyzed by a team of scientists, technicians, artists and photographers.

The Carnegie collection with staff, early 1960s


The modeller Osborne O. Heard, c.1956