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Yale J Biol Med. 2010 June; 83(2): 110–111.
Published online 2010 June.
PMCID: PMC2892774

Icons of Life: A cultural history of human embryos

Reviewed by Saheli Sadanand

Lynn M. Morgan 
Icons of Life: A cultural history of human embryos.
2009. University of California Press: Berkeley, CA. ISBN: (Paperback) 978-0520260443. US $21.95 310 p

When we think of museums and collections, the first things that come to mind are stuffed animals and skeletons. But early in the last century, some researchers started to collect more unusual, controversial items: human embryos. Lynn M. Morgan, a professor of anthropology at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, visits one of these collections and uses it as a starting point for her fascinating and well-written book entitled Icons of Life: A cultural history of human embryos. In it, she tackles the heady questions of whether an embryo is a person, how pregnancy loss has been viewed, and why embryos provoke such heated reactions when the term itself was unfamiliar to most people a hundred years ago. This is not a book about the history of stem cell research or the abortion debate, nor is it a developmental biology textbook, but rather it is a story of how meanings and causes have been imprinted on embryos by various cultures and groups over time.

Morgan’s own interest in embryos appears to stem in part from coming of age during the Roe vs. Wade decision and from provocative discussions she had with subjects in Ecuador while doing field research. In Ecuador, she found that while women had varying views on the status of a dead or lost fetus, the fetus was not immediately linked with abortion in their minds, unlike for many Americans. This suggested that in spite of a single biological definition, there was substantial cultural variation in what an embryo is and how it should be viewed. Morgan decided that exploring embryo collections would be a good way to evaluate the cultural history of embryos in the United States. After laying out her motivations, Morgan introduces one human embryo collector, Franklin Mall, whose work helped legitimize the field of anatomy and contributed enormously to our understanding of human development. She then discusses the relationships that embryo collectors had with donors and their struggle to have a reliable, consistent source of embryos (which reflects upon the quality of prenatal care in the early 20th century as well as the causes for pregnancy loss). Perhaps the most moving and informative part of the book are the stories of individual embryos — how they were acquired, who studied them, and what they have taught us. The embryos are at once complex, sad, and edifying. Given the vast and diverse amount of material that Morgan covers, the book could have simply been a disjointed series of chapters. Instead, it succeeds in weaving together all of the above in a compelling way.

The book is thoroughly researched (with meticulous citations) and will be of interest to anthropologists, historians, and biologists. However, it also manages to be accessible to the more casual reader. By the end, Morgan presents a convincing argument that an embryo is much more than a biological term in a development chart. In light of the recent and popular traveling Bodies exhibits, it is worth noting that human development is not just a biological study but also a subjective topic that reveals just as much about the motivations of interest groups and the views of society as it does about the subjects.

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