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The Female Body in History - A Guide to the Becker's Holdings: The Fetus in Utero

Gynecology and obstetrics is one of the key collection strengths in Archives and Rare Books. The Becker’s holdings on this topic cover a broad span of time, from the 16th to 20th centuries, and include atlases, texts, and dictionaries.

The Gravida Figure

The gravida figure in medieval medical illustrations depict an upright, living woman in a squatting position whose stomach is cut open to reveal the contents of her uterus. 

This illustration is one of the copperplate engravings done by the printmaker Odoardo Fialetti for anatomist Julius Casserius.  Although it is more sophisticated than the first image, the same premise of a living woman serving as a showcase for the contents of her uterus remains in effect.

Illustrating the Fetus

Most depictions of the fetus drawn between about 1500 and 1700 show a fully formed baby floating within a cavernous empty space.  Leonardo was the first to accurately draw the fetus curled up within the womb, but because his medical notebooks were never published, this drawing never influenced other anatomists of the time.


Illustration of the fetus in utero from Leonardo's notebooks.

The great illustrated works of William Hunter and William Smellie, both published in the 18th century, made great strides in accurately depicting the human fetus.  While the illustrations in both of these are not accurate depictions of the fetus - they resemble a newborn that has been placed into the uterus more than anything else - they nevertheless show the fetus curled up tightly, and the uterus is no longer a simplistic horned pear.

Illustration of the fetus in utero from William Hunter's Anatomica uteri gravidi.

Truly accurate illustration of the fetus has only come about in the 20th century with the advent of modern photographic techniques.  Some of the most famous images of the fetus come from the work of Swedish photographer Lennart Nilsson, whose cover story in 1965 for Life magazine along with his book A Child is Born feature striking photographs of the fetus as it develops.

Painting of an embryo at eight weeks.  Wellcome Images.

Fabricius and his Formato Foetu

Human fetus from De formato foetu.  Wellcome Images.


Hieronymous Fabricius ab Aquapendente studied under Fallopius at the University of Padua and later succeeed him to the chair of surgery and anatomy.  He is known for opening up the field of comparative embryology through his work De formato foetu, which first appeared in 1600.

Although his achievements in embryology have been recognized, Fabricius has still come under criticism for his depiction of the human fetus.  His main shortcoming is that he was still grealty influenced by earlier conceptions of what the uterus and fetus should look like; therefore, he shows a baby floating in a mostly cavernous empty space and a simplified shape for the uterus.