October 24, 2022, by Brigitte Nerlich

What’s in a name? On embryology, developmental biology and discipline naming

Last week Philip Ball asked an interesting question on Twitter which provoked a lot of responses and comments: “when did ‘embryology’ start to become ‘developmental biology’? I bet Philip will post an excellent answer to that question soon. I am not Philip and I am not a historian of biology; I am just a magpie. So, in my magpie fashion, I gleaned a few responses to this tweet, sorted them and supplemented them with a few other titbits found elsewhere. It just seemed a good activity for a rainy day. Other bigger and cleverer birds might use these titbits to make a better nest. The whole thing made me think a bit more about the history of scientific disciplines and how and why they change their names or not.

The mid-20th century

One outline of an answer, echoed by a few others, was provided by Andrew Reynolds, historian and philosopher of biology, who said: “Michel Morange in The Black Box of Biology devotes an entire chapter (22) to this: ‘From the early 1970s, the term ’embryology’ was gradually replaced by ‘developmental biology’ (263), attributing the shift to the influence of mol. biol.” People interested in finding answers to Philip’s question should read the excellent translation by Matthew Cobb of Morange’s history of molecular biology.

Quite a few commenters homed in on the mid-20th century and the influence of genetics/molecular biology, and suggested more reading material. John Wallingford, an embryologist, wrote that this shift in name occurred “[m]id-20th century as a backlash against the many embryologists who did not embrace genetics as a relevant tool. For more look to papers by Nick Hopwood, Scott Gilbert, or Jane Maienschein”.

Following up on this, I read in an article by Hopwood that the field of ‘developmental biology’ was founded after WWII. He explains how developmental biology “has been different from the comparative, human and even experimental embryologies that preceded it, as well as the embryology that was institutionalized in reproductive biology and medicine around the same time”. You can follow this article up with Hopwood’s entry on “Embryology” in The Cambridge History of Science, recommended by historian of science, Tatjana Buklijas. And, of course, you can also read the various editions of Gilbert F. Scott’s textbook on developmental biology and dip into Jane Maienschein‘s historical explorations of developmental biology and the The Embryo Project Encyclopedia that she directs, as recommended by Reynolds.

So, now we have a solid basis for saying that things shifted from embryology to developmental biology in the middle of the 20th century. We have also seen that embryology itself split into two branches, with one becoming part of medicine and reproductive biology – something also noted in other comments based on first-hand experience, to which I’ll get in a moment.

Some more evidence for the mid-century shift emerged in the comments. Bradley Sherman pointed out that “_Abstracts of Human Developmental Biology_ began in 1961”. This accords with my intuition that Hal Waddington is the nexus.” Conrad Hal Waddington was, according to Wikipedia, a “British developmental biologist, paleontologist, geneticist, embryologist and philosopher who laid the foundations for systems biologyepigenetics, and evolutionary developmental biology”. It would certainly be worth digging a bit deeper into his work to find indications of whether and how he stimulated the transition from embryology to developmental biology.

The name-change from embryology to developmental biology may also be, in part, the result of more prosaic interventions. The historian and philosopher of science Daniel Nicholson said: “My understanding is that this happened in the middle of the 20th C as part of a PR rebranding exercise to make a field widely perceived as antiquated seem exciting for the new, molecular biology generation. But there might be more to it than this.”

It might be a good idea to check whether and when universities started to advertise courses in developmental biology alongside or instead of embryology. As the health scientists Paul MacDougall stressed: “I took ‘embryology’ in 1980 at Acadia University from Merritt Gibson who also taught histology. He was a terrific prof and drew everything on the board. It was an excellent course. All microscope based labs.” Ah, histology, I thought, so what’s that called nowadays. I’ll come back to that question.

The science writer Oliver Morton reminisced about his own experiences and tweeted: “I remember this being discussed at a meeting on the history of contemporary science in Denmark in the late 1980s that dear Jeff Hughes organised. Feeling was that it was part of a general post-molecular-biology disciplinary rebranding.” Jeff Hughes was an historian of science based at the University of Manchester.

This general hunch that developmental biology replaced, to some extent, embryology in the mid-20th century seems to be confirmed when one looks at the publication of books as recorded on Google’s Ngram viewer. JFDerry tweeted the following graph

Digging a bit deeper

After reading all these tweets, I wondered what the Oxford English Dictionary had to say about all this. How did it define ‘developmental biology’ and who used the term first?

I was a bit surprised by what I found. The OED defines developmental biology as: ”The physiological, anatomical, and (in later use) genetic and molecular processes involved in the ontogenesis of an organism; the branch of biology dealing with this” (hinting at a change in usage mid-20th century), while ‘embryology’ is defined as “The branch of science concerned with the study of the formation and development of the human, animal, or plant embryo (or fetus), and (in later use) with the practical application of this, esp. in assisted reproductive technology and biotechnology.”

Embryology was first used as a term in 1781 (although the etymological roots seem to go back to the 1730s), while ‘developmental biology’ was first used a century later in 1877 in the Transactions of the American Dental Association by one William Fishbough: “A tabulation of physiological developmental processes..which he [sc. William Fishbough] names ‘Pantagram of Developmental Biology’.”

The phrase seems to have lain relatively fallow for quite a while, until there is an attestation in The Times from 1969 which indicates that developmental biology is now taught and appreciated at universities. “Preference will be given to candidates with graduate experience in cell physiology and/or developmental biology.”

In addition, one should mention that Collins Dictionary, which focuses on modern English, notes under ‘word origin’: “This word is first recorded in the period 1970–75. Other words that entered English at around the same time include: New Age, cornrow, good old boy, postmodernism, salsa“. The 1970s have a lot to answer for!

So, we have, sort of, traced the development of the phrase ‘developmental biology’ from its early uses to its post-molecular and even postmodern ones. However, comments on Philip’s tweet had a surprise in store, at least for me, which made me think a bit more about discipline names.

Naming and renaming disciplines

Bradley Sherman pointed out that: “Sidney Brenner quipped that ‘biochemistry’ disappeared along with the Soviet Union….To be replaced by ‘Molecular Biology’. And of course, ‘Physiology’ was replaced by ‘Systems Biology’ along with the turn of the millennium.” (Sidney Brenner was one of the pioneers of molecular biology one of the first to view James Watson and Francis Crick’s double helix model of DNA in April 1953 in Cambridge)

What?! I exclaimed. I had just begun to think about how ‘molecular biology’ became perhaps the linguistic pattern for many post-molecular sciences in postmodern times, when that bombshell landed in my Twitter stream – hadn’t I only quite recently given a seminar on responsible innovation in a ‘biochemistry’ building, I thought. Be this as it may, after the ‘disappearance’ of biochemistry, we got molecular biology, then developmental biology, then systems biology, synthetic biology and so on. What other things changed? [As an aside, the first attestation of ‘molecular biology’ in the OED is a bit later than that for ‘developmental biology’, namely 1884; go figure]

After reading Philip’s question, the evolutionary cell biologist Thibaut Brunet wondered whether what happened to embryology and developmental biology also happened to cytology which became cell biology. He also said: “Weirdly, both ‘cytology’ and ‘embryology’ mostly survive in the medical literature now”, which agrees with what we read in Hopwood above. Alice Roberts, of anatomy and public engagement fame, pointed out that she still teaches ‘embryology’ on the medical course at the University of Birmingham.

Julian Hitchcock, who specialises in life science law, said that: “As a medical student, I was taught ’embryology’, which was frustratingly narrow. Searching only yesterday for textbooks, most ‘emb’ hits were human and clinically focused (Langman still going strong). ‘DevBio’ provides the missing breadth and theory.” “Jan Langman was a Professor in the Department of Anatomy at McGill from 1957 to 1964. His textbook Medical Embryology […] was first published in 1963 and has become the standard in the field.”

After the question about cytology, Anne Beswick asked: “When did botany become plant science?” And I wondered: what about ‘histology’ (which, by the way, studies the microscopic anatomy of biological tissues)….? It all got very confusing.

Which biological fields changed names or developed quasi- synonyms and which didn’t, when, how and why? Which changed into ‘xy biology’ (as in developmental biology, systems biology, cell biology) and which just emerged fully formed as ‘xy biology’ (as in synthetic biology, computational biology etc.), and which ones became ‘xy science’ (as in ‘botany’ becoming ‘plant science’ – there is probably more to that); but ‘zoology’ did not really become ‘animal science’, did it? And we still have anatomy, histology, virology etc.? And then there are bio-chemistry, bio-physics, bio-technology etc. and a whole crop of -omics.

All these compound names and name changes are probably indicative of changes in science and society and would deserve further scrutiny, as they might tell us something about the relationship between the two.

And wait… a metaphor!

Dear readers, you might have thought you got away without metaphor in this blog post. But don’t hold your breath. I found one! I was quite surprised. When rummaging around Gilbert’s work on developmental biology, I found that in 2017 he had written an article on, wait for it, developmental biology as ‘the stem cell of biological disciplines’. I’ll just leave that with you. He writes:

“Developmental biology (including embryology) is proposed as “the stem cell of biological disciplines.” Genetics, cell biology, oncology, immunology, evolutionary mechanisms, neurobiology, and systems biology each has its ancestry in developmental biology. Moreover, developmental biology continues to roll on, budding off more disciplines, while retaining its own identity. While its descendant disciplines differentiate into sciences with a restricted set of paradigms, examples, and techniques, developmental biology remains vigorous, pluripotent, and relatively undifferentiated. In many disciplines, especially in evolutionary biology and oncology, the developmental perspective is being reasserted as an important research program.”


Image: Hector Lazo, abstract blood cells



Posted in history of scienceLanguage