The surprising origins of developmental embryology.
We’ve long been fascinated by the mysteries of reproduction. But, says historian and Science History Institute fellow, Sara Ray, that curiosity is piqued most intensely when something unexpected happens. The study of such “monstrous births,” as scientists once called them, propelled forward our understanding of how embryos and fetuses develop. And the key to unlocking this knowledge was found gathering dust in the basement of the Russian Academy of Sciences, in a macabre collection assembled by Czar Peter the Great.
Image credit: Tableau of injected vessels and infant skeletons by Frederick Ruysch. Wellcome Images.
Alexis: Prologue: A Giant in Disguise.
Lisa: Russia, late 17th Century.
Peter the Great Documentary, The History Channel: Peter the Great’s new Russian capital, St. Petersburg, was thought of as the Venice of the north. Today elegant bridges cross quiet canals, plazas are decorated with marble fountains. But in the late 17th century, when Peter came to power as a teenager, the Russia that he inherited was both primitive and poor. But Peter saw potential just to the west. His goal was to turn Russia into a country as wealthy, civilized, and powerful as the great nation states of Europe.
Alexis: In 1697, Peter the Great, tsar of Russia, decides to go on what he calls a grand embassy, aka, a tour of a bunch of European states.
Lisa: His goal to learn from all the “great men of science” and take that knowledge back to Russia.
Sara Ray: Peter had the perception of the Russia that he had inherited being scientifically backwards. And he really wanted to bring it up into the modern day. So he was particularly interested in the Netherlands because they were a naval power. They were super rich. A lot of the really prominent men of science at that time were Dutch. So he spent a lot of time in Amsterdam.
Lisa: Sara Ray is a research fellow at the Science History Institute and a sixth year PhD student in the History and Sociology of Science department at the University of Pennsylvania. She studies how the histories of obstetrics, anatomical collecting, embryology, comparative anatomy, and disability all weave together. And all of this is going to be relevant to our story in just a minute.
Alexis: So Peter the Great is touring the Netherlands with his grand ambassadors, looking for these “great men of science” and he’s doing it incognito. He’s even using a fake name: Peter Mikhailov.
Lisa: Which is funny, because nothing about Peter the Great is very incognito at all. He’s literally a giant. At six foot, eight inches tall he’s one of the tallest men in all of Europe.
Alexis: So he goes to Amsterdam and covertly works in the dockyards yards and learns how to build ships. He has Naval aspirations and you know, he’s a real hands on guy, But while he’s in Amsterdam, something happens that changes his trajectory. He meets a guy named Frederick Ruysch who has an amazing anatomical collection--as in a collection of bodies and body parts. He has a whole museum. And Peter the Great is amazed because Russia doesn’t have this sort of thing.
Sara Ray: It was very forbidden in Russia to dissect bodies. So unlike most of Europe, which had sort of like figured out how to navigate the sort of theological qualms around dissecting bodies, Russia was still really not all about it. So Peter basically walked into Ruysch’s museum and was like, “Oh my god, like, what is going on?” Like not only is this, like, “I’ve never seen someone dissecting a body, but like you’re preserving it.” Like it just seemed impossibly magic.
Lisa: Not only was all of this brand new to Peter the Great, but he’s actually stumbled upon the most skillful preserver of dead bodies in jars around. There’s something truly exceptional about these preservations.
Sara Ray: At the time, people described them as being magical. Like this was sorcery. This was witchcraft. His rivals would denounce him in those terms, as using some sort of dark art to create these because they were so impossibly beautiful.
Alexis: Peter the Great is captivated by Ruysch’s preservations. They’re scientific, but also something more, they’re works of art.
Sara Ray: The people that first got into him as historians were actually art historians who were really taken by the sort of artistic quality of these specimens. He is in fact usually referred to as a “kunstenaar,” or an artist, in contemporary literature. So he would create these wild little tableaus, which are just little dioramas, basically like fetal skeletons holding a rake and preparing for the harvest. And he put in shells and would just create these weird little scenes and so they were treated as artistic objects, but he also wanted them to be useful in the classroom. So these were actively used specimens. People were meant to be handling them and touching them. And, in fact, a very well-known anecdote is Peter the Great, but also someone else did the same thing, came to the collection and, this is actually quite gross, but seeing the head of a child preserved and being so taken by it that they kiss it.
Lisa: Peter the Great is so smitten with Ruysch’s creations that he becomes his student and learns the trade, and then he does something kind of wild. Something that Sara says is one of the more bizarre moments in her dissertation.
Sara Ray: Peter goes back to Russia and he issues a royal decree, ordering midwives and priests and everyone, you are now forbidden from burying or killing the infants born as monsters. Instead send their bodies to Moscow, to the apothecary and they would be then preserved and kept in Peter’s private museum.
Alexis: I know this sounds like the beginning of a horror movie, but it’s actually a story about the surprising origins of embryology, the branch of biology that studies the development of embryos and fetuses. In other words, this is the story about how people started investigating that perennial question: how is “babby” formed? I’m Alexis Petrick.
Lisa: And I’m Lisa Berry Drago. And this is Distillations.
Lisa: If you Google the history of embryology, you’ll turn up a few names, mostly German and French ones, as well as dates from the 18th century. But Sara Ray says there’s a lot more to the story.
Sara Ray: Germany and France do loom very, very large in the history of embryology, but when approached from this perspective of collecting, of material artifacts, what we find is that the history of embryology actually has this really interesting earlier root in Russia, through the Netherlands. That’s less familiar, sort of in this period that predates when Germany and France really come to dominance in the science.
Alexis: The geography is surprising, but so are the other ingredients in this story, the confluence of art and science, 17th century Dutch social policy, trends in museum collecting, and the idiosyncratic personality of a Russian ruler.
Lisa: A story that begins with one Russians tsar’s quirks opens up a tale that reveals so much more: the history of anatomical collecting, early modern mourning customs and cultures and the science of preserving human bodies after death.
Alexis: It also raises some big questions, like how do bodies we see as abnormal inform and define what we see as normal? And how does this influence how we think about disability today?
Lisa: Before we dive in, we have to go back to the beginning, before Peter the Great ever shows up on Dutch shores with a shoddy disguise and a fake name. We have to go back to the man whose collection starts at all, Frederick Ruysch.
Chapter One: Who is Frederick Ruysch and Where Does he Get the Bodies?
Alexis: The short answer to the first part of that question is that Ruysch is the guy who figures out how to preserve anatomical specimens, aka bodies and body parts, and do it well.
Sara Ray: People had kind of figured out by that point that you can throw a body part in a vat of booze, basically, and it’ll keep. But Ruysch is the first person to really figure out how to make that into an artistic and scientifically useful object that could last for a long period of time.
Alexis: This is the longer answer to who Ruysch is: the son of a government official, he studies anatomy at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands. He’s quickly recognized as a skilled dissector of biological specimens like organs, but he realizes that dissecting corpses is expensive and cadavers are pretty scarce. So he begins experimenting with alternative methods of preserving specimens.
Sara Ray: By the time we get to 1697, he’s very well established. He’s not only one of Amsterdam’s most preeminent anatomists, but really like one of the main scientific names in Europe. Everybody knows who he is, and he’s loaded. He’s rich as hell because of this collection. It’s super valuable.
Alexis: The collection being his incredible anatomical collection, the one that Peter the Great falls in love with. It has over 2,000 specimens. Things like animals, pieces of plants, fungi, human tissue, organs, and most relevant to this story, somewhere around 400 fetuses in jars.
Lisa: This might sound strange, even horrific, but you have to remember that Ruysch is living and working in the latter half of the 17th century. At that time, people are trying very hard to figure out how the human body works. And, of course, there’s no way to see inside it without, well, slicing it open. Hence the popularity and the allure of dissection. Collecting as a practice is also at its height because cataloging things, be it, plants, animals, observations is one way of making sense of the world. Museums also don’t look anything like they do today. They’re what are known as cabinets of curiosity, floor to ceiling shelves of objects covering every surface, the occasional box with labels, all organized by different philosophies and observations. Remember, there’s no Dewey Decimal System. There are no museum databases. Everyone’s organizational schema is completely different. The concept of a museum itself is still in its infancy, and there’s also no idea that museums are for the public. They exist to satisfy the tastes of a single collector, or maybe the collector’s close circle.
Alexis: All of that is to say that in 1697 Ruysch’s well-established collection of specimens make sense. But where does Ruysch get all of these bodies in his collection? Especially those fetuses? Well, it turns out Ruysch has a lot of connections. Besides being a botanist and an anatomist Ruysch has a whole laundry list of official titles.
Sara Ray: So he was also the forensic pathologist for Amsterdam. So he would be called to cases of violent crimes to determine what had gone on. He was the head of the surgeon’s guild, so he was doing the public dissections for the city. So he sort of had these arrangements with hospitals to get certain bodies--so he’s not really preserving whole adult bodies you know, if a third of his collection was fetal bodies, the other two thirds are pieces of the body.
Alexis: In 1668 Ruysch becomes chief instructor of Amsterdam’s midwives. The birthing system in the Netherlands is unique. Each municipality provided a midwife to every woman, free of charge, all to combat high mortality rates among their poor citizens.
Sara Ray: You had what were called “stad vroedvrouw,” the city midwives and these were basically autonomous practitioners, except for in cases of a suspected stillbirth, where the mother’s life was in danger, or instrumental intervention, or just generally complicated deliveries that like might either need instrumental intervention or have the threat of mortality.
Lisa: So Ruysch helps set up the system in Amsterdam, and then he becomes the head male midwife, the guy they call in when things aren’t going well,
Sara Ray: So basically, the midwives would call him in the case of difficult delivery, or if the child was suspected to be dead. That’s how he obtained the fetal bodies.
Chapter Two: We Become the Objects
Lisa: The whole idea of the human body as an object, something to be put in a jar and collected, is hard to get a handle on, especially when you factor in that it’s part of why Ruysch ends up being so rich.
Sara Ray: He figured out how to make the human body itself into something that you could collect. Which is just, I mean, it’s such a bizarre concept to think about. Like, it’s not just, oh, I found this cool shell on the beach, or, you know, I brought back some interesting plants from, an exploration to who knows where, but it’s like, oh, no, I found an interesting heart or like the human heart can now be possessed as like an object, in a way that just never had been done before.
Lisa: You’re probably thinking, of course it’s never been done before! What parent would want their child to be bottled and displayed alongside some wacko’s shell collection? But the surprising answer is, a lot of them wanted it.
Sara Ray: People kind of look at the babies and bottles and tend to think of this narrative wherein some doctor just sort of swoops in and takes it and leaves grieving parents crying because the child’s body has been stolen from them. And I’ve found basically no evidence that that has been the case. And I’m sure that, you know, this is not for everywhere and everything, but Ruysch’s works do give us insight into the sort of negotiations that would take place.And I found them in a bunch of different sources. This moment of interaction between the parents and the anatomist who wants to put that child’s body in a jar, basically. Which to us, I think is kind of culturally illegible. Like why on Earth would a parent be like, yeah, sure, like, throw this thing in, you know, a vat of alcohol and put it on a shelf for a bunch of people to see.
Alexis: Why on Earth? Put simply, because things are different in the 17th century. Infant mortality is a constant part of life, and so grief, mourning, death, it’s all a big part of the culture.
Sara Ray: We see him really pitch it to parents as a means of basically creating a secular relic to remember their child by. So he has this great example of twins that were delivered to a woman. They were stillborn, and he says directly in his works, you know, I have them embalmed in my house under the agreement that the parents are free whenever they want to visit with their friends, to see the bodies of their children. If I die before the parents, the preparation will go back to them. But if they die before me, it goes to me.
Sara Ray: We tend to project like a certain emotional experience of miscarriage and pregnancy loss into the historical record that doesn’t actually exist there. That doesn’t mean that people didn’t care. You know? It’s not like people were like, oh, you know, my kid died. Who cares? Like, take it, you know, put it on my museum. Instead you find that this was for these parents it was just a part of their lives. They were emotionally attached to the kids. They did perceive this as like the loss of a child. Ruysch says at one point that he is very glad that he gets called to miscarriages because he finds that the parents are typically very upset. So he sees these preparations as a way of offering them something.
Chapter Three: The Science of the Times
Alexis: We’ve talked about how Ruysch’s preserved fetuses fit right into the culture of his time. Collecting things is all the rage, and having a memento to help mourn a miscarriage or a stillborn child is appealing to many people.
Lisa: But his specimens also fit into Dutch scientific culture in the 17th century. Science at this time is booming. And there are a few factors that explain why. One is that scientific collecting is rocket-fueled by exploration and colonization. Every time the Dutch colonize new lands, they bring back new plants, animal bones, specimens, et cetera, shells, feathers. They have a ton of money flowing in from their colonies, but they also have a ton of stuff. And studying stuff equals more science.
Alexis: The second is that there’s religious freedom in the Netherlands, which is not the case in many other parts of the world. You can be Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, no one cares. And it turns out you can get a lot done when you’re not in the middle of an inquisition.
Lisa: And because of that freedom Amsterdam becomes a literal and intellectual crossroads alive with different cultures and ideas. So it feeds itself. People are drawn in from other less tolerant parts of Europe.
Alexis: One of those guys is Rene Descartes, famous French philosopher and scientist. He comes to the Netherlands from France because of the intellectual and social freedom it offers. his homeland has just expelled its Jews. And in 1624 they passed a law banning criticism of Aristotle.
Sara Ray: Descartes introduces this idea of the animal machine, right? Which is basically the idea that all we are is just a complicated organic machine, that the human body can be understood as just a series of pulleys and valves like the way that any machine can. So that introduces a couple of very interesting projects into the medical curriculum. The big one being like, well, if the body is just a machine, then let’s try and figure out how the machine works.
Alexis: And what better way to figure out how the machine works than dissection?
Sara Ray: If you just dissect and if you look into the body then you can understand it better as a machine, right? Like you’re gaining a reverence for God as a designer, as a machine maker basically.
Alexis: Ruysch sees his fetuses and anatomy in general as a window into God’s perfect design.
Lisa: In the mid-to-late 17th century there’s a big emphasis on looking at barely visible structures, like capillaries or the famous looking at fleas through a microscope. They wanted to see what was tiny and what was barely visible. In fact, creating preparations of invisible structures for the body is part of what Ruysch becomes known for.
Alexis: The other thing is the seemingly magical recipe that preserves his creations so beautifully. Everyone wants to know the secret behind the preparation, but no one gets it. No one that is until Peter the Great. In 1717 Peter returns to the Netherlands and buys Ruysch’s entire collection, secret magical recipe included, for the modern day equivalent of nearly half a million dollars.
Chapter Four: Peter the Great Accidentally Invents the Science of Teratology. Sort Of.
Lisa: If you search the word teratology, you’ll get two definitions: one, the study of congenital abnormalities, and two: mythology related to fantastic creatures and monsters.
Alexis: Monsters. When Peter the Great first goes back to Russia after his 1697 tour of Europe, he issues that royal decree forbidding people from burying or killing the infants born as monsters. Calling babies monsters sounds pretty bad, but monster doesn’t have the meaning that it has today. And “monstrous births” is actually a scientific term.
Sara Ray: So it’s used in scientific literature and in like, you know, more casual ways to refer to infants that are born with abnormal bodies. But you also find things like monstrous comets or earthquakes describing those terms. So it’s, I hesitate to say it’s not pejorative, because, I feel like, you know, it is. But we have a very particular association with that term but at the time it was a scientific term to mean, we don’t really know what the cause of this is.
Lisa: The fetuses Ruysch collects are overwhelmingly normal. Remember, he sees them as windows into God’s perfect design. They’re the results of miscarriage and stillbirth. But most of these are babies with normal bodies. The occasional “monstrous birth” does come his way via the midwives, and he preserves these and writes about them. But it’s all mainly in the context of obstetrical practice, like the difficulties of delivering conjoined twins, rather than trying to figure out what’s caused them in the first place. When Peter the Great goes back to Russia, he starts adding his own specimens to the collection, but Peter exclusively collects abnormal specimens. aka the infants born as monsters. And we can only imagine that part of the reason why is that he himself would have been categorized at the time as one of those monsters.
Sara Ray: So the guy was huge, right? So he’s six foot eight, he’s a foot and a half taller than the average man of Europe at the time. So, you know he’s Tsar of Russia. So obviously, you know, he can’t really characterize himself as monstrous, but it is sort of tempting, I think, to look back at him historically and wonder, you know, how his own height, kind of informed his interest, in not only abnormal bodies, but specifically growth abnormalities.
Lisa: Peter doesn’t try to hide his size. In fact, he plays it up.
Sara Ray: He travels with a retinue of dwarves everywhere he goes. So, you know, when he’s on his royal sleigh, there’s this retinue of dwarves on horseback. When he goes to Amsterdam for the first time, I think there’s six people with dwarfism in his court.
Alexis: Peter the Great accentuates his gigantism and is fascinated by growth abnormalities in general. He collects monstrous fetuses, travels around with dwarves, and then he takes it a step further.
Sara Ray: The real big asterix point that I always want to put into this conversation, because it’s then just such a side conversation, is that he’s looking for, “don’t kill or bury the infants born as monsters,” but he’s also looking for live people.
Lisa: In 1717, at a party in France, Peter the Great makes what would become his most well-known living human acquisition.
Sara Ray: He looks over and sees a guy that’s taller than him and says, I’ve gotta have that guy. He goes over and says like, “what’s your deal?” He talks to the guy, finds out that this man with gigantism, his mother is a dwarf and so goes to her and says, “I’m going to pay you a ton of money, and your son now belongs to me, but like, here’s money for the rest of your life because I’m just taking away your source of income.”
Alexis: That man lives in Peter’s court for the rest of his life. And they make an agreement that his body will be dissected after his death. In fact, his organs are still on display in the Kunstkamera, the museum, Peter, the great goes on to build in St. Petersburg.
Sara Ray: So he gives a price list: “Oh, you know, if you have, you know, a conjoined twin kitten, then I’ll give you five rubles. If you have a live conjoined twin kitten I’ll give you 10 rubles. If you send me your conjoined twin human fetus that’s dead I’ll give you 50 rubles, but if you send me your living conjoined twin kid, I’ll give you a hundred.
Lisa: People respond and Peter the Great winds up with a collection of people with various bodily abnormalities, they work in the museum as living exhibits.
Sara Ray: They live there and they’re not really free to leave, although like, you know, they are quote unquote “free to leave.” You know, they’re working in the museum as blacksmiths or cleaners, but they’re also very much like exhibits. And they are meant to sort of be on call for Peter to call in to show to guests and to sort of have people, you know, with various abnormalities, just like walking around this cabinet of curiosities, which I just think is mind-blowing.
Alexis: Our minds are definitely blown. And we don’t want to say that there isn’t dark uncomfortable stuff going on here. He encourages giants to marry because he has this idea that if they breed they can make super tall super soldiers. But behind the bonkers-ness of it is what seems like an actual worthwhile goal: to understand abnormal bodies and where they come from. Peter the Great sums it up himself in another royal order. Because, you know, that’s what tsars do.
Sara Ray: He kind of clarifies his earlier call for abnormal bodies and he explains, “only ignoramuses believe that such things, these monstrous births, are caused by the actions of the devil, but in fact, we know that they’re caused basically, and then he lists off just like, you know, accidents to the mother, or like all of these sort of things within the realm of nature. And so his stated project is that he wants to collect monsters, or these abnormal bodies, from all over the place, bring them to a central location, and that by preserving them and putting them all next to one another researchers at the Russian Academy of Sciences, which is now housed in that museum, willl be able to prove that these are not supernatural phenomena at all. They’re just a poorly understood and rare phenomena of nature. So that’s his big idea.
Lisa: Peter the Great’s collection marks the first time someone decides that abnormal fetal bodies should be collected as their own specific object type, that we can learn something unique from them. This collection is as much about proving a theory and separating out this new area of study, as it is about just having a bunch of interesting specimens.
Sara Ray: So Peter was certainly not the first person at all to be interested in abnormal births, nor was he the first person to be interested in them from a scientific perspective, they’ve been a part of surgical treatises, at this point for, for about 200 years. What Peter does that’s unique is sort of combining this interest in them with the actual physical collection of the bodies, right? And like this idea that if you study the physical body itself, it will reveal to us something about the causes of the abnormality. So this doesn’t necessarily sound that groundbreaking to us. But what Peter does is sort of accidentally invent what would become a major method of the science of teratology about a hundred years later.
Alexis: Another hundred years. Why so long? Because Peter the Great goes and does the one thing that freezes the momentum on any project that people think is bizarre and a little bit crazy. He dies.
Sara Ray: So Peter has great enthusiasm for this program but he dies in 1725. And the project goes to the Russian Academy of Sciences who continue with this project in the spirit of Peter’s ukase, but don’t necessarily buy into it as much. I think that they think it’s a little,I don’t know, they may be skeptical that it’s going to actually produce anything of value. So there’s a fire that damages the Kunstkamera and basically forces the collection into storage in 1747. And the Russian Academy of Science is basically like, well, you know, it can stay in storage. We’re not really invested in bringing it out and continuing to do research. So the project of collecting abnormal fetuses really kind of hit a pause at that point.
Chapter Five: Embryology. Or, How is Babby formed?
Lisa: Peter’s monsters spend the next few decades in the basement of the Russian Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg. Thankfully the blacksmiths and cleaners doubling as museum objects were all released.
Alexis: And the monsters probably would have stayed in that basement indefinitely, if not for a German physiologist named Caspar Friedrich Wolff.
Lisa: Wolff comes to Russia because no one will give him a job in Europe, because he also has some ideas that people think are very bizarre.
Alexis: At this point, most people believe in a theory of human development called preformationism. That means we grow from a pre-existing miniature form of ourselves, like a tiny LEGO person being enlarged. And, well, that’s pretty much it, no assembly of parts. We start out very small and then we get very big.
Lisa: Some people are not sold on this theory, including Caspar Friedrich Wolff. Wolff is in favor of another view. It’s called epigenesis. This theory posits that organisms develop from a seed or a spore or an egg. And then they grow through a sequence of steps. In other words, our organs develop and form. They don’t just magically appear in our bodies, completely made, yet super tiny. Wolff helps refine the idea and ultimately founds developmental embryology.
Sara Ray: So Wolff is really where we get the modern science of developmental embryology. So he introduces into the 18th century this notion of rhythm and development into the process of gestation itself. He wrote his dissertation in 1759 around this idea, it’s called epigenesis, which is a very ancient idea, but he really resurrects it and brings it into this modern embryological context. But it was super controversial. He basically wrote it as a refutation of one of the most prominent naturalists at the time, and it was not warmly received as a result of that.
Alexis: Which is why Wolff isn’t able to find a job in Europe. He does finally get one in Russia as the chair of the anatomy department at the Russian Academy of Science in st. Petersburg, where Peter’s monsters live.
Sara Ray: So Wolf arrives it, the Russian Academy of Sciences in 1768 and soon thereafter, he basically walks into the storage of the museum and finds Peter’s collection of monsters. And is just like, “what on Earth is this?” He immediately sort of understands its value to substantiating his theory of developmental embryology, which of course like Peter had no idea about. Peter was not thinking about developmental embryology back, you know, 50 years before, but Wolff sees this and goes, “oh my gosh, this is actually like, really, really useful for substantiating this theory that like right now is so controversial.” So he uses Peter’s collection of monsters and the plants of the Academy of Sciences gardens to look at how variation happens throughout nature. And his whole thing was, if you compare fetal development, and especially abnormal fetal development, with plant variation, then what you get is this really beautiful, elegant, synthetic account of how nature produces variation.
Alexis: The collision between Wolff and Peter’s collection strengthens the epigenetic theory of embryology, which up until this point is struggling to explain how such complex organisms can come from such simple parts.
Lisa: It’s pretty wild that it took so many years and some very strange circumstances to get to a conclusion that we now consider to be so basic.
Sara Ray: I love this story. And the reason I love it is because, you know, Peter was saying this way back at the beginning of the 18th century, you know, way back in 1717, if we collect these particular bodies and if we look at them, we will learn something about what causes them. And that didn’t necessarily have a lot of purchase amongst, you know, at the time people were just sort of like, Oh, this is this quite, you know, an idiosyncratic guy with these bizarre interests, doing, a bizarre thing, which, you know, he was known for doing, but he turns out to have collected exactly the right type of object for proving a developmental theory of embryology, even if he had sort of no sense that that is the purpose that, you know, that it would ultimately go
Alexis: It doesn’t end there for Sara. In fact, this story highlights something we brought up in the beginning: using people we see as abnormal to help us define what counts as normal. The legacy of Ruysch, Peter, teratology, monstrous births, it’s not just that we get developmental embryology, it’s integral to how, even in this modern age, we talk about disability.
Chapter Five: The Medical Model of Disability
Lisa: So just to recap, Ruysch starts investigating fetal bodies as a way to understand the human body full stop. It’s all about getting a window into God’s amazing design. Then along comes Peter the Great, who’s specifically interested in atypical bodies, partly because he wants to do bizarre things like breed super soldiers, partly because he wants to understand variation and difference in nature, and maybe partly because he sees himself as one of those variations. His collections in the end are what makes it possible for Caspar Wolff to really grasp the intricacies of human development.
Sara Ray: The minute that you start looking at the material, the physical material he’s working with, the history of embryology as a subject is fundamentally about that distinction between normal and abnormal, and bodies into monstrous types versus the non-monstrous. And so I’m trying to make a case for the fact that disability is a foundational analytic for the life sciences at this point.
Lisa: Even though there’s no category for disability in the 18th century, fear, assumptions, and curiosity about it are what drive people to learn how people form to begin with.
Sara Ray: There’s always, even prior to developmental embryology, you see people faced with a child that looks different from normal and it always gets related back to questions of, well, how do people become? Where do people come from?
Alexis: We’re used to thinking about the history of disability as the story of how people became different from the established norm. It’s something that happens to you, a diagnosis that you received from a doctor, and therefore it becomes a thing that needs to be fixed. This is called the medical model of disability.
Sara Ray: People in disability studies and disability activists point to the way in which that’s harmful, right? Like, if you understand disability to be a fact of the body then it makes medicine this gatekeeper between the disabled person and the society that they live in.
Lisa: This idea is based on a belief of an objective normal body type, which makes everything else by default abnormal.
Sara Ray: So it’s not just because, you know, these are inherent types within nature that, you know, have just given themselves to the objective eye of scientists, but these are diagnostic choices, right? This is looking at an array of bodies and making decisions about how to classify them and how to quantify them. And so these diagnostic categories have ramifications for then how people are integrated within society and treated within society. So people in disability studies have advocated for what is called a social model of disability, which frames disability, essentially as blooming at the intersection of someone’s experience of their own body and the infrastructural limitations built by society itself.
Alexis: In other words, we choose to define what’s normal and what’s not normal. It’s a flexible definition based on our choices.
Sara Ray: Basically the ways that institutionally and infrastructurally especially society is designed means that certain bodies aren’t able to participate in it fully, and we just call that disability. So it’s not a fact that’s baked into your body. It’s a description of the ways in which you’re able to fully participate in society. And in that frame, disability isn’t something that you have done. It’s essentially something that has been done to you through the design of social structures.
Alexis: Which all sort of makes you wonder that if we’re the ones who define the ways you can or cannot participate in society, then don’t we have the ability to change those definitions, to make society a place that’s more welcoming and inclusive?
Lisa: If you’re fishing around for an answer there, it’s yes. Yes we can. Remember our ideas about what defines a normal or abnormal body, as we’ve been saying, originate in the human menagerie of an incredibly tall Russian czar, These ideas can be changed. We can change them.
Thanks for listening to this episode of Distillations.
Alexis: Remember, Distillations is more than a podcast. It’s also a multimedia magazine.
Lisa: You can find our videos, stories, and every single podcast episode at distillations.org. And you’ll also find podcast transcripts and show notes there.
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Lisa: This episode was produced by Mariel Carr and Rigo Hernandez.
Alexis: And it was mixed by James Morrison.
Lisa: The Science History Institute remains committed to revealing the role of science in our world. Please support our efforts at sciencehistory.org/givenow.
Alexis: For Distillations, I’m Alexis Pedrick.
Lisa: And I’m Lisa Berry Drago.
Host: Thanks for listening.