Wombs with a View: Illustrations of the Gravid Uterus from the Renaissance through the Nineteenth Century

Lawrence D. Longo and Lawrence P. Reynolds. Springer, 2016

ISBN 978-3-319-23566-0

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The more conservative reader might recoil from the title, in which case he or she would miss a treat. This unusual, but valuable book came about from a chance discussion between the two authors, both preeminent in the field of reproductive biology. The aim of the book is to highlight seminal contributions that have enlarged our appreciation of reproductive issues over the four centuries covered. In the words of the authors, it is “a history of technology and artistry”, “a documentation of our efforts to understand and document the complex and for most of the period, poorly understood, processes of human reproduction”.  In this they have been well served by Springer, with an attractive balance of text and figures, along with well-chosen references.

There are familiar names, of course – da Vinci, Vesalius (the first edition of his Atlas published when he was only 29); de Graaf (dead at 32), along with Smellie and the Hunter brothers. People less well-known now also appear – a 1685 figure from Govert Bidloo clearly shows a hypercoiled umbilical cord. We get a new insight on what we thought we knew: Harvey’s work on embryology, with its frontspiece of Jove and the legend “ex ovo omnia” recurs throughout the book as an exemplar. It is described as “more deserving of the veneration of posterity” than his more celebrated work on the circulation.

There is local interest, as well: Evory Kennedy and Fielding Ould, the latter writing “the first textbook of importance [on midwifery] in the English language”. It comes as no surprise to find that Dr Longo wrote the introduction for a re-print of Ould’s 1742 text in 1990. The conflict between midwives and “man-midwives” is covered, with texts by female writers in the area included.

Anyone with an interest in obstetrics or history will find something to delight them in this book. The plates are works of art, drawn from many different collections, and the dissections that enabled them are a reminder of how the study devoted to the area has made modern obstetrics as safe as it is.

Dr Eoghan Mooney FRCPath