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Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 46.1 (2003) 156-158
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Embryos in Wax: Models from the Ziegler Studio. By Nick Hopwood. Cambridge and Bern: Whipple Museum of the History of Science, Univ. of Cambridge, and Institute of the History of Medicine, Univ. of Bern, 2002. Pp. 216 (32 pages color; 100 halftones). £13.50 (paper).
Nick Hopwood's Embryos in Wax is a beautiful extended footnote to his larger work on the embryologist Wilhelm His. While it not a major study, it has its own pleasures for those who enjoy the interactions of art and science. Most of us who have studied or taught embryology have used plaster or plastic models. Some of us have even made our students sculpt embryos out of colored modeling clay. (Indeed, such modeling is perhaps the surest way to understand amphibian gastrulation.) This modeling has its history, and Hopwood has put together a thoughtful and illustrated volume about the paragons of embryonic modeling: Friedrich Ziegler and his father Adolf. Working at the end of the 19th century in Freiburg, Germany, these artist-scientists handcrafted wax models of embryos that were not only scientifically accurate and aesthetically designed, but also durable—some are still used today for university teaching.
The Zieglers thought of themselves as publishers rather than toolmakers, and they worked closely with their respective scientific investigators. The letters between scientist-researcher and scientist-modeler would refer to "proofs" and "authors," evidence of the Zieglers' role in "publishing" the investigators' studies. Their models proudly announced that they were the products of collaboration: the series of amphioxus embryos were advertised as being "nach Hatschek," while the beautiful and best-selling series of human embryos were "nach His." At a time when embryology was descriptive, and print publication was the major means of illustrating one's findings, the wax representations had a full- dimension advantage over the journals. The product of all this effort was a series of wax representations of the various embryos and embryonic organs, [End Page 156] which scientists could use both for their research and for their teaching. These works were enormous magnifications of the embryo in both senses of that word.
The resulting wax models were indeed large, but they also exalted the embryo as an important entity. These models were the first depictions of animal and human embryos made available for public display, and their arrangements for the public gaze resembles the triptychs of medieval altars. And they certainly were public. In addition to their use at universities and medical schools, the Ziegler embryo models—trout, sea urchin, beetle, frog, amphioxus, electric ray, chick, and even human—were prominently displayed at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. There, they won for their maker, Friedrich Ziegler, the Fair's highest prize, and it is easy to see why they attracted so much attention. These wax models provided the public a view of themselves unborn, the history of the species, and a spectacular panorama of progress (evolutionarily and developmentally), that was, after all, the theme of the Exposition. Moreover, the individual models were works of art. One of the figures (enlarged in this beautifully designed book) is of a 15-somite stage chick embryo (nach His) seen from the ventral side, focusing on the veins and blood islands. It is obviously the scientific work of Wilhelm His, but its form and intricate casting from Ziegler also presages the filigrees and lost-wax glass art of René Lalique.
The book is, however, more than a catalog, and Hopwood is well tuned to the embryological controversies of the late 19th century (such as that between His and Haeckel), and how the Zieglers managed to work with and sell to both groups. Like today's world of scientific publishing, wax modeling was at the intersection between science, pedagogy, and entertainment. There were competitors and a discerning clientele who bought the models.
While the desire for wax models waned in the early part of the 20th century, as embryology became less descriptive and more experimental, the need for...