The Monster Collectors: Anatomical Collecting and Abnormal Bodies in 18th-Century Embryology

Lunchtime Lectures
Tuesday, December 3, 2019
12:00 p.m.–1:00 p.m.
Science History Institute
315 Chestnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19106
United States

Join us for a talk by Sara Ray, Science History Institute Dissertation Fellow.

In the basement of the Russian Academy of Sciences there was, according to the 18th-century embryologist Caspar Wolff, a “rich storehouse of monsters.” Wolff was describing the hundreds of abnormal human fetuses that had been collected and preserved by Tsar Peter the Great a half-century earlier—a collection Peter had established in order to study the causes of monstrosity and the processes of generation. Wolff believed that Peter’s monsters would proffer evidence for his controversial model of developmental embryology; these abnormal bodies, Wolff claimed, would reveal nature’s hidden laws of heredity and variation. Ray’s talk uses Peter’s collection (and Wolff’s use of it) to examine the intertwined histories of anatomical preparation and early embryology.

About the Speaker

Sara Ray

Sara Ray

Sara Ray.

Sara Ray is a sixth-year doctoral candidate in the Department of History and Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research uses the collection of 19th-century Dutch anatomist Willem Vrolik to examine the intertwined histories of obstetrics, disability, embryology, and natural history over the long 18th century. She focuses on the collection and preservation of fetuses with congenital abnormalities, looking both at the history of these bodies—their births, their mothers, their collectors—and their use as scientific objects for those pursuing the mysteries of nature’s order. Sara’s work has been previously supported by a Fulbright Award, the Wolf Humanities Center, the Smithsonian Museum of American History, and the Descartes Centre at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands. She received her BA from George Washington University and a master’s in museum anthropology from Columbia University in 2014.

About the Series

Lunchtime Lectures are a series of (mostly) weekly, informal talks on the history of chemistry or related subjects, including the history and social studies of science, technology, and medicine. Based on original research (sometimes still in progress), these talks are given by local scholars for an audience of the Institute staff and fellows and interested members of the public.