This text tells a story that spans three centuries and crosses many national boundaries - a story of scientific discovery that fundamentally changed the way we understand the basis of life. Henry Harris here provides an account of how scientists came to understand that the bodies of all living things are composed of microscopic units thta we now call cells. Harris turns to the primary literature - the original texts, scientific papers, and correspondance of medical researchers involved in the formulation of the cell doctrine - to reconstruct the events that enabled researchers to comprehend the nature and purpose of cells. Translating many of these documents into English for the first time, Harris uncovers a version of events quite different from that described in conventional science textbooks. Focusing on the scientific history of the genesis of the cell doctrine, the author also considers contemporary social and political contexts and shows how these influenced what experiments were undertaken and how the results were represented. He describes the intellectual struggles of pioneers across Europe, including Czech, Polish, and Russian scientists whose contibutors have been largely overlooked, and explores their false starts, blind alleys, and detours as well as triumphant verifiable discoveries. The book includes a collection of photographs that portrays those involved in the scientific quest and their observations.
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Sir Henry Harris is regius professor of medicine emeritus, University of Oxford.From The New England Journal of Medicine:
The Birth of the Cell is a thorough, scholarly, and informative book on the development and establishment of the theory of cellular structure in plants and animals. It covers the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries and parallels the development of the light microscope and techniques of preparing biologic tissues for microscopical examination.
Harris was dissatisfied with many of the standard accounts of the origin of the cell doctrine that appear in textbooks and writings on the history of medicine. Matthias Schleiden, Theodor Schwann, and Rudolf Virchow are names that dominate historical accounts of the cell doctrine, but many others made important contributions and can claim credit for elucidating the theory.
The book reflects the interests that have engaged Harris for more than 50 years. He has read and studied the original writings of the main contributors to the field, and in his book he lists the original references in their languages of publication. The author presents notable statements about the cell doctrine in the original language and translates them into English. The book is filled with important information, and because of its detail, it is somewhat slower reading than most referenced historical accounts in this field. Getting through the detailed content is well worth the effort, however; after reading the book, I felt much better informed about the development of cell doctrine, the contributors to this theory, and the scientific and cultural environment that shaped its historical background.
The Royal Society played an important part in initiating scientific interest in the cell doctrine during the 17th and 18th centuries. The works of Robert Hooke, Nehemiah Grew, and Marcello Malpighi in this field were fostered and published by the society. Plant tissues and animal tissues were seen to have similar histologic characteristics. As the resolving power of the light microscope improved, these similarities in the structure of living matter became obvious. Antoni van Leeuwenhoek's studies on microbes and animal cells stimulated further interest in microscopy through the Royal Society in the 18th century.
Nationalism contributed to the recognition that investigators received for advancing the cell doctrine as it evolved over 300 years. The English dominated its early years, the French the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and the Germans most of the 19th century. Many investigators from countries other than these three European nations were inadequately recognized for their contributions. Their findings were quickly attributed to persons who held prominent positions in institutions in the dominant countries. Throughout the book, Harris documents these tendencies to suppress the recognition of many original investigators, thereby adding to the understanding and appreciation of the true history of the biologic sciences during this era.
Between 1835 and 1855, scientific development of the cell doctrine was very active. Harris states that "before 1838 the scientific community had no inkling of the ubiquity of cells in living forms. It was generally agreed that plants were largely composed of cells, and cells had indeed been seen in several animal tissues, but no one had suggested in print that plants and animal cells were homogenous." By 1900, Harris states,||it was agreed that both animal and plant tissues were essentially composed of cells; that cells multiplied by binary fission; that they consisted of protoplasm which was bounded by a membrane and contained a nucleus; that the nucleus was the repository of chromosomes which became visible and split along their length when the cell divided; that the chromosomes were the vectors of heritable characters and that each chromosome had a specific morphology and a specific function. These facts, amalgamated with the theory of natural selection forms the bedrock of all modern life sciences.
This book will be valuable to anatomists, botanists, cell biologists, and medical and scientific historians. It captures the progress and spirit of an exciting scientific era. It is well referenced and superbly illustrated with images of the main figures who contributed to the scientific development of the cell doctrine. It will also be an excellent textbook for graduate students in the life sciences. It recounts an exciting past and may reflect some aspects of investigative science today.
Reviewed by Charles E. Slonecker, D.D.S., Ph.D.
Copyright © 1999 Massachusetts Medical Society. All rights reserved. The New England Journal of Medicine is a registered trademark of the MMS.
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Book Description Yale University Press, 1998. Hardcover. Book Condition: New. book. Bookseller Inventory # M0300073844