A Biological Birthday.

The 12th of February is an important anniversary in the history of biology. Today is the birthday of a man who helped to revolutionise the discipline in his time. I am of course speaking of Jan Swammerdam (12.02.1637 – 15.02.1680). Swammerdam was one of a group of anatomists from working in The Netherlands, including Niels Steno, Johannes van Horne, Theoror Kerckring and Reinier De Graaf, who, in the 17th century, laid the foundation to the scientific understanding of biological reproduction.

Swammerdam’s major contribution was his work on the generation of insects Historia Insectorum Generalis. He was also renowned for his techniques of preparing anatomical specimens for demonstration and teaching purposes. Here he developed methods of injecting coloured wax into the veins, arteries and other channels in the body to make them visible to the observer, a 17th century version of plastination.

The later part of Swammerdam’s life was blighted by a bitter priority dispute with De Graaf, a former friend and colleague, as to who deserved the credit for the discovery of the eggs in the ovaries. De Graaf claimed this honour for himself, whereas Swammerdam was of the opinion that this honour belonged to himself and his teacher van Horne. Such priority disputes were unfortunately the lifeblood of 17th century science. As was often the case the dispute was referred to the Royal Society in London, who are celebrating their 350th anniversary this year, for adjudication. The committee appointed to examine the facts came to the, for all parties, surprising conclusion that the honours should go to Steno!

For a very detailed description of this unhappy affair and a very good general description of the unravelling of the complexities of biological reproduction between the 17th and 19th centuries, a necessary preliminary to the theory of evolution, I heartily recommend Matthew Cobb’s The Egg and Sperm Race: The Seventeenth-Century Scientists Who Unravelled the Secrets of Sex, Life and Growth. Or a quick visit to his Swammerdam website.


Filed under History of science

19 responses to “A Biological Birthday.

  1. Quick note: Steno was Danish not Dutch. But he was good friends with these Dutchmen, and his brief note suggesting that testes muliebres (female testicles) might be analgous to the ovaries of birds inspired both De Graaf and Swammerdam.

    Steno, whose research stretched from fossils to the geometry of muscle anatomy and movement to Catholicism (which eventually turned him away from natural philosophy) also gave us one my favorite illustrations from that era, of this shark: http://palaeo.gly.bris.ac.uk/Palaeofiles/History/steno1.JPG.

    I love that shark.

    • thonyc

      I am of course well aware of the fact that Steno is Danish and did not intend to imply that he was Dutch. I have modified the text slightly and hope I have thereby removed the implication. Steno studied together with Swammerdam and de Graaf and carried out most of his important anatomical studies in The Netherlands and that is why I call him an anatomist from working in The Netherlands.

      Yes! His shark is truly wonderful.

    • jeb

      p.s i noticed what you have been reading. I put some historical fool nose seriously out of joint on this topic.

      Ive no idea if this ones a bit of a toothless historical shark I don’t take much interest in plague but I linked to an intresting source it discusses in a diffrent thread. I like to read widly as you pick up all manner of intreasting things on the way.

      Viator Medieval and Renessiance studies
      The Earlier Plague in the British Isles
      by J.C. Russel


      • jeb

        Thony rehre popped up at the time when I decided to reslve some issues in my own eduction at a more political level. Brought back some very unpleasant memories.

        Anyone interested in the relationship of fear and faith would be well served to glance at that somewhat older article.

        Happy birthday to biology. I subject, which has much to contribute to our knowledge and understanding of the world in many ways.

      • Rahere is still around, he simply agreed that the previous discussion was pointless, which was what he said from the start. Stop crowing about some kind of mindless victory, please, or he will start writing privately to our host.
        If you have issues with your knowledge, please check your postings before starting, as Rahere does when in doubt.

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  3. jeb

    I just hope my slight suspicion concerning the methods used by modern resesearchers are entirly misplaced and wrong. I left I comment in the previous thread I would be gratefull if you could give me a reply.

    I understand the royal society was set up in part so desputes between gentlemen would not get out of hand and were intended to be conducted in a fair and open manner.

    • thonyc

      Jeb, I think that the Royal Society, like all the other learned societies set up in this period, came into existence in order that people with mutual ‘scientific’ interests could discuss them together. The function of such societies as arbitrators came about naturally when such discussion developed into priority arguments or the like; then they functioned as a jury of pierspeers in the true meaning of the phrase.

      • jeb

        In may be a deficency in my understanding or reading poor secondary materials when I first started looking into this subject. But I certainly remeber reading that part of it’s function was to regulate debate between gentlemen.

        As a dispute in this period between gentlemen could be resolved in the bloody fashion of dueling.

        I must confess I am not sure if I buy the argument. I can’t rember who wrote it but I am unaware of any such matters leading to such drama. The nearst I can think of is John Aubrey who certainly seemed to think his life was under threat but that was in relation to a dispute over property rather than his literary output or thoughts on certain subjects.

        With regard to peer review I hope you would excuse me for making a few points of clarification in the other thread.

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  5. jeb

    Well this birthday would seem to have produced a baby!

    A difficult but inspired birth. The therapeutic powers of a sunday afternoon spent with an old 6th century text and a bowl of ice cream should never be underestimated.

    Hope no one minds the somewhat familiar title. Seemed most apt for a disscusion concerning barnacle geese and other assorted wild things and wonders.

    I may even proof and use a spell check.


  6. Sezgin

    We still call ovarian follicles Graafian follicles. It would seem de Graaf won the dispute.

  7. jeb

    Perhaps the only thing it sort of has in common with religion then?

    Such is life.

  8. jebmcleish

    Their is a fundamental rule in the history of religion
    all laws, discoveries inventions etc. are always named after one person.

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