De Ovi Mammalium et Hominis Genesi Epistolam ad Academiam Imperialem Scientiarum Petropolitanam dedit Carolus Ernestus a Baer.

Leipzig: Leopold Voss, 1827.

First edition, rare, especially in original boards as here, of von Baer’s landmark paper, in which he announced the discovery of the mammalian ovum. The idea that all animals begin as eggs had been current at least since the seventeenth century, when William Harvey, in his De Generatione Animalium (1651), defended it against the false notions of spontaneous generation and the “preformation” of the foetus. Harvey’s theory was strengthened in 1672, when Reinier de Graaf published his observations of the Graafian vesicle (which contains the ovum) and the process of ovulation; and in 1825, when Johann Evangelista Purkinje announced his discovery of the germinal vesicle in the embryo. However, the mammalian ovum itself remained unobserved until von Baer, in his experiments with dogs and other mammals, “plot[ted] the course of ovulation and fertilization from its later stages back to the ovary and there ... identif[ied] the minute cell which was the ovum” (PMM). In von Baer’s own words, “when I observed the ovary . . . I discovered a small yellow spot in a little sac, then I saw these same spots in several others, and indeed in most of them—always in just one little spot. How strange, I thought, what could it be? I opened one of these little sacs, lifting it carefully with a knife onto a watchglass filled with water, and put it under the microscope. I shrank back as if struck by lightening, for I clearly saw a minuscule and well developed yellow sphere of yolk” (quoted in Baer, ‘On the Genesis of the Ovum of Mammals and Man,’ tr. O’Malley, Isis 47 (1956), p. 120). Von Baer concluded that every sexually reproducing animal – including man – develops originally from an egg cell, “a unifying doctrine whose importance cannot be overemphasized” (DSB). For this concept and for his further researches in embryology, contained in his monumental Entwickelungsgeschichte der Thiere (1828--1837), Garrison and Morton have named von Baer “the father of modern embryology.” ABPC/RBH list only two copes in original boards in the last 35 years (Sotheby’s, June 8, 2011, lot 65, £15,000 (rebacked); Sotheby’s NY, November 16, 2001, lot 7, $30,650 (Friedman copy)).

“Earlier researchers had used microscopes to look at eggs and to try to explain early development. Mid-17th century scientists, such as Marcello Malpighi and Nicolas Steno, both in Italy, claimed that living beings developed from a corpuscular element called the ovum, which in Latin means egg, as its function corresponded to the birds' eggs … In 1651, the physician William Harvey had employed the Latin word ovum to refer to the beginning of animal life in his Exercitationes de generatione animalium (Exercises on Animal Generation). Harvey provided no evidence for such a claim. From the 17th to the 19th century, other scholars in Europe, such as Regner de Graaf, William Cruikshank, Jean-Luis Prévost, and Jean-Baptiste André Dumas had observed the ovum in mammals. However, their contributions were imprecise about the place in which the ovum was likely generated …

“The pamphlet has an introduction and six chapters. In the introduction, von Baer first praises the Imperial Academy of Sciences in Saint Petersburg, Russia, and the works of its scholars. Second, he outlines the conceptual background of his discovery, in particular the debate about the relationship between Graafian follicles and the ovum. Scholars involved in that debate either argued that a Graafian follicle was actually the ovum, as had de Graff in 1672, or that it did not correspond to the ovum, as had Cruikshank argued in 1797 and Prévost and Dumas in 1824. Third, von Baer states that the goal of his research is to resolve that debate by assessing the relationship between a Graafian follicle and the ovum. After introducing the historical context, von Baer writes that the main organism he used for his research was the dog.

“In Chapters One and Two, von Baer describes the first stages of development in the dog embryo, and he names its different parts. He writes about the first stages of development, and he describes the embryo’s shape, color, and position of the anatomical structures. Additionally, von Baer notes that in more advanced stages of development the ovum lies in the uterus, while in less advanced stages it lies in the oviducts. His observations, and the similarity of the ovum between the early and later stages, enabled von Baer to infer that the ovum passes through the oviducts before reaching the uterus.

“In Chapter Three, von Baer writes about the dog's ovum as he found it in the ovary. Von Baer claims that the ovum is not exactly the same as the Graafian follicle, as some scholars had thought, and that it lies inside the follicle. In Chapter Four, von Baer describes the formation of the Graafian follicle by comparing how that phenomenon occurs in different mammals. Such a comparison demonstrated that in all of those mammals the ovum is formed in the same way. In Chapter Five and Six, von Baer describes the development of mammals in general, and he summarizes the course of the ovum from the ovary to the oviducts to the uterus. Additionally, he compares the ovum of mammals with the ovum of other animals, such as birds. Von Baer concludes that all animals develop from an ovum. Von Baer's statement that reproduction begins with a corpuscular element rather than with liquid matter influenced debates concerning generation, because it disproved a claim of Albrecht von Haller's, who worked in Switzerland, that development starts from fluids …

“Although von Baer was skeptical of common ancestry and natural selection, Charles Darwin's portrayal of development in The Origin of Species was the same as von Baer's: branching and epigenetic. Darwin also provided the same critiques of recapitulation as had von Baer; Darwin said that adult forms of one animal do not show themselves in other animal's development, and that only the embryos look similar to one another. Darwin also wrote that embryology provided the strongest class of facts in support of his theory of evolution …

“Karl Ernst von Baer was born on 28 February 1792 in Piep, Estonia, to first cousins Juliane Louise von Baer and Magnus Johann von Baer. As one of ten children, von Baer spent his childhood in Coburg with his father’s brother Karl and his wife, Baroness Ernestine von Canne. Although his uncle and father encouraged military life, von Baer chose to attend the University of Dorpat, where he began medical studies in August 1810. At Dorpat, von Baer studied botany, physics, and physiology, and was influenced by professor of physiology Karl Friedrich Burdach. After completing his MD degree in September 1814, von Baer traveled to Berlin and Vienna to continue his education. In 1815 he proceeded to Würzburg to further his medical studies and there he met physiologist and anatomist Ignaz Döllinger as a result of his interest in botany. From 1815-1816 von Baer studied comparative anatomy with Döllinger, who encouraged him to research the development of the chick. However, von Baer was unwilling or unable to spend the time and money necessary to pursue this area of study and instead returned to Berlin during the winter of 1816-1817 to train in practical anatomy.

“In August 1817 von Baer became a prosector in anatomy in Königsberg at the invitation of Karl Friedrich Burdach. In 1819 he became Extraordinary Professor of Anatomy and in 1826 Ordinary Professor of Zoology. During his time in Königsberg, von Baer taught zoology, anatomy, and anthropology, founded a zoological museum, acted as director of the botanical gardens, and served as dean of the medical faculty and as rector of the university.

“Most of von Baer’s contributions to embryology were from 1819-1834 while at Königsberg. During this time, he returned to the study of embryology and made considerable advances in the understanding of extraembryonic membrane development and function in the chick and in mammals. In this work he built on the results of research he had carried out collaboratively in Würzburg with Christian Heinrich Pander, as well as on Pander’s own work on chick embryology. Karl Ernst von Baer also introduced the term “spermatozoa”, for what had previously been referred to as “animalcules” in the seminal fluid, which he believed to be parasites. In 1826 von Baer discovered mammalian eggs in the ovary of Burdach’s dog, completing a search that began centuries before … He encapsulated his thinking into four statements that are now known as ‘von Baer’s Laws’ [described in Entwickelungsgeschichte der Thiere]. The first law says that the general features of a large group of animals appear earlier in the embryo than the special features. The second law says that less general characters are developed from the most general, and so forth, until finally the most specialized appear. The third law is that instead of passing through the stages of other animals, each embryo of a given species departs more and more from them. Finally, the fourth law concludes from the previous three that the embryo of a higher animal is never like the adult of a lower animal, but only like its embryo.

“After the death of his brother Louis, von Baer returned with his family to St. Petersburg to retain the family estate. He then entered the Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg as a Full Member in Zoology in December 1834 after refusing previous offers while in Königsberg. After working at the academy as a librarian, academician, and professor of anatomy and physiology, von Baer retired from active membership in 1862 but continued to work as an honorary member until 1867. After returning to Dorpat, von Baer died on 28 November 1876” (The Embryo Project Encyclopedia,

In 1828, von Baer provided a commentary to his work, titled Commentar zu der Schrift: De Ovi Mammalium et Hominis Genesi (Commentary on the Work: De Ovi Mammalium et Hominis Genesi). The first translation of De ovi mammalium et hominis genesi appeared in French in 1829 as a book edited by Gilbert Breschet. Benno Ottow translated von Baer’s article into German in 1927. Charles Donald O'Malley translated von Baer's article into English and published it in 1956.

Dibner 196; Garrison-Morton 477; Horblit, One Hundred Books Famous in Science 9b; Lilly Library Notable Medical Books 181; PMM 288a.

4to, pp. [viii], 40, [2, corrigenda], coloured engraved plate. Original grey boards with ornamental border pasted to the front cover (spine and corners worn, previous owner’s signature on front board), cloth folding case.

Item #4787

Price: $36,000.00

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