28 June – 5 July 2009

From Generation to Reproduction: Knowledge and Techniques from the Renaissance to the Present Day

Introduction to the theme

Since World War II ‘artificial insemination’, ‘the pill’, ‘replication’, ‘in vitro fertilization’, ‘embryo transfer’ and ‘cloning’ have made news and become household words across the globe. Reproductive biology continues to produce profound innovation and face intense public debate. This summer school goes behind the headlines to take a longer and broader view. Within a pluralistic framework that highlights key historiographical resources and questions, rather than particular answers, we focus on knowledge and techniques from the Renaissance to the present day.

8-cell embryo light micrograph

Phase-contrast light micrograph of a Grade-1 eight cell human embryo. Image by Kate Hardy via Wellcome Images.

Here we can draw on approaches from the history, philosophy, sociology and anthropology of biology, medicine and technology. There are also lively debates over intellectual resources, from the various feminisms to the work of Michel Foucault. Medicine has been one of the most important fields of action for reproductive biology, and critiques of ‘medicalization’ offer influential starting points. Historians are now beginning to take agriculture and animal breeding seriously too, and there is a long tradition of research into the reproduction of simple organisms, from marine invertebrates to microorganisms. A major aim is to bring together fields of study that are too often kept apart.

The role of expertise in studies of fertility has been deeply transformed since the Renaissance. In early-modern Europe having children for most people had nothing to do with philosophy or even medicine; lay knowledge guided their practice. But generation was already a key issue for physicians and natural philosophers. They debated the role of male and female ‘seeds’, and of ‘seeds of disease’, pronounced on the power of the imagination to produce monsters, acted as witnesses in trials that turned on a man’s potency or a pregnancy’s duration, and advised on how to ‘unlock the cabinet of Venus’ and promote the birth of an heir. ‘Generation’ was an all-encompassing process by which new creatures came into being and in which the human acquisition of a rational soul was the crucial event.

In the age of revolutions around 1800 the more narrowly framed ‘reproduction’ was made an object of scientific knowledge. Within the new framework, living entities were not ‘generated’ but could only ‘reproduce’ a pre-existing organization or a ‘template’ thereof. Reproduction became a target of medical and agricultural intervention, and a project for pressure-groups and states seeking to improve the quantity and quality of populations.

Traite Microscope

'De conceptu et generatione hominis', f.32, Jost Amman woodcut. Image courtesy of Cambridge UL.

New disciplines, notably man-midwifery, gynæcology, embryology and experimental physiology, located reproductive processes in organs, cells and hormones, and sought to manipulate them. The rise of microscopy transformed understanding of the reproduction and metamorphoses of insects and marine organisms, and many investigations into life cycles were carried out. Refuting the theory of spontaneous generation was crucial to explaining and controlling disease-causing microorganisms, but in the great age of evolutionary theory this left unexplained the origin of life on earth unexplained.

Following the West’s demographic transition in the decades around 1900, and especially after 1945, ‘population control’ frequently targeted the developing world. This deserves investigation in relation to the rise of population thinking in biology. As childbirth entered the hospitals of increasingly universal healthcare systems, and the replication of macromolecules was made a key explanation of life and disease, so a new biomedicine offered hormonal contraceptives, prenatal diagnostics and technologies of assisted conception to complete the detachment of sex from reproduction. The summer school will place these hi-tech methods in the longer history of technology’s involvement in reproduction. From obstetric forceps to intracytoplasmic sperm injection, grafting to embryonic stem cells, claims to control fertility have been mediated by techniques that intervene increasingly powerfully in the lives of individuals and populations. A cloned sheep was among the late twentieth century’s most high-profile media events. Yet these innovations remain hotly contested and are frequently challenged by public responses. Their histories raise fascinating questions about how society has shaped technology and vice versa.

Faculty and programme

The director introduced the theme and lead discussions. Each faculty member gave a talk of up to 30 minutes, with equal time for discussion, and organized a one-hour seminar discussion. Outside of that, there were plenty of opportunities for interaction and participation, like student presentations and general discussions and discussions over lunch; some open, others focused on particular questions.

The following talks and seminars were given:

  • Helen King (University of Reading, UK)
    • Lecture: ‘How the parts of generation in men and women do differ’: Using the classical heritageSome discussion...
    • Seminar: What things are required for the procreation of children? Recipes and techniques in early modern Europe
  • Mary Fissell (Johns Hopkins University, USA)
    • Lecture: Something borrowed, something blue: Aristotle’s Masterpiece and reproduction
    • Seminar: Cheap print and vernacular sexuality: Problems and methods
  • Renato Mazzolini (University of Trento, Italy)
    • Lecture: The perception of albinism in the eighteenth century
    • Seminar: Las castas: Interracial crossing and social structure
  • Jürgen Schlumbohm (Göttingen, Germany)
    • Seminar: Expert and lay knowledge of pregnancy: A man-midwife and his patients around 1800
    • Lecture: Nature and art in the rise of man-midwifery
  • Staffan Müller-Wille (University of Exeter, UK)
    • Lecture: Yeast, barley, beans: Wilhelm Johannsen and the origin of genetics
    • Seminar: Reproducing purity around 1900
  • Jean-Paul Gaudillière (CERMES, Paris, France)
    • Lecture: From preparation to risk management: The trajectory of sex hormones in the twentieth century
    • Seminar: Writing the history of sex hormones: From laboratory practices to gender and business or vice versa?
  • Susan Lindee (University of Pennsylvania, USA)
    • Lecture: 1,500 deletions, and counting: Cystic fibrosis, genetic testing and the technology of uncertainty
    • Seminar: Moments of truth in genetic medicine
  • Christina Brandt (Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin, Germany)
    • Lecture: Reproduction, replication and reprogramming: Cloning in twentieth-century life sciences
    • Seminar: On the history of the ‘clone’: Concepts and practices in twentieth-century life sciences and culture
    More discussions...
  • Martin Johnson (University of Cambridge, UK)
    • Lecture: Research into IVF: Funding and controversy in the UK
    • Seminar: UK legislation to regulate IVF, 1974 to 2009

In addition, there was a welcoming reception and other social events. On a day trip to the main Zoological Station in Naples, its historical collections (a great specialist library for history of biology and important archive), laboratories and famous aquarium were visited, and presentations were given by Adrianna Ianora (The relevance of marine chemical ecology to plankton and ecosystem function: An emerging field), Paolo Sordino (Merging developmental and population biology in an invertebrate chordate: Toward a new "ecoevodevo" model), and Elisabetta Tosti (The fertilization process: From gamete to embryo).

This Summer School was funded by grants from the Wellcome Trust, the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, and the Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn.