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Icons of Life

A Cultural History of Human Embryos

Lynn Morgan (Author)

Available worldwide

Paperback, 328 pages
ISBN: 9780520260443
September 2009
$34.95, £28.00
Other Formats Available:
Icons of Life tells the engrossing and provocative story of an early twentieth-century undertaking, the Carnegie Institution of Washington's project to collect thousands of embryos for scientific study. Lynn M. Morgan blends social analysis, sleuthing, and humor to trace the history of specimen collecting. In the process, she illuminates how a hundred-year-old scientific endeavor continues to be felt in today's fraught arena of maternal and fetal politics. Until the embryo collecting project-which she follows from the Johns Hopkins anatomy department, through Baltimore foundling homes, and all the way to China-most people had no idea what human embryos looked like. But by the 1950s, modern citizens saw in embryos an image of “ourselves unborn,” and embryology had developed a biologically based story about how we came to be. Morgan explains how dead specimens paradoxically became icons of life, how embryos were generated as social artifacts separate from pregnant women, and how a fetus thwarted Gertrude Stein's medical career. By resurrecting a nearly forgotten scientific project, Morgan sheds light on the roots of a modern origin story and raises the still controversial issue of how we decide what embryos mean.
List of Illustrations

1 . A Skeleton in the Closet and Fetuses in the Basement
2 . Embryo Visions
3 . Building a Collection
4 . Inside the Embryo Production Factory
5 . Traffic in “Embryo Babies”
6 . Embryo Tales
7 . From Dead Embryos to Icons of Life
8 . The Demise of the Mount Holyoke Collection

Lynn M. Morgan is Mary E. Woolley Professor of Anthropology at Mount Holyoke College and is coeditor (with Meredith W. Michaels) of Fetal Subjects, Feminist Positions.
“Powerfully argued, theoretically and methodologically innovative, and impressively researched. . . . A model of clear and engaging scholarly writing that is deeply informed by the most serious high-level discussions in contemporary social theory but at the same time remains very accessible. . . . Icons of Life is a remarkable work that seems destined to have a significant impact both within and well beyond anthropology.”—Janelle S. Taylor, University of Washington American Anthropologist
“Fascinating and rigorously documented. . . . Recommended.”—Choice
“Morgan’s book is important. Icons of Life provides a crucial resource for historians of medicine, anatomy, science and reproduction.”—Isis
“Morgan has done a masterful and truly respectful job discerning what it is that embryos might tell us about the shifting organization and logic of collective life.”—Bulletin Of The History Of Medicine
"Fascinating! Icons of Life is an account of how we have come to know ourselves as ourselves, both a compelling human origin story and an engaging tale of intellectual curiosity, biological specimens, reproductive politics, and science. Morgan draws skillfully on her ethnographic toolkit to reveal the social context of embryology alongside the cultural and scientific work of crafting objective 'facts of life' from unremarkable flesh."—Monica J. Casper, author of The Making of the Unborn Patient

"How do scientists convert people into things? Lynn Morgan's book takes the reader on a wonderfully eerie tour through the cultural history of a macabre science, that of collecting human embryos. Not only is it an immensely valuable contribution to the anthropology of science, but it represents at the same time an extended hand across the field of anthropology, where the remains of human beings are still commonly passed around tables of undergraduate students—inviting us to reconsider the nature of our own scientific specimens."—Jonathan Marks, author of Why I Am Not A Scientist

The Rachel Carson, Society of Social Studies of Science

Rachel Carson, Society of Social Studies of Science

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