Core historiography on 19th century cell theory

In May 2022 Karl Matlin invited a few of us — Hanna Worliczek, Andrew Reynolds, Gina Surita, Anna Guerrero, and Jane Maienschein — out to the MBL to discuss our ideas for the future of the historiography of cell biology. I made some slides and pedantic comments. I thought I’d share my slides on what I’d consider to be core the scholarship on cell theory in the 19th century. If you see stuff that’s missing, email me ( and I’ll add it. (You can try using the comments section below, but I can’t guarantee I’ll see it.)

I’d argue there are three clear categories in this scholarship:

Core historiography on the origins of cell theory up to and around 1839:

  • Marc Klein, Histoire des origines de la théorie cellulaire (1936)
  • Arthur Hughes, A History of Cytology (1959)
  • Russell C. Maulitz, “Schwann’s Way: Cells and Crystals,” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences (1971)
  • Works by L. S. Jacyna on German + British Romanticism and cell theory
    • “Immanence or Transcendence: Theories of Life and Organization in Britain, 1790-1835,” Isis 74, no. 3 (September 1983): 311–29.
    • “Romantic Thought and the Origins of Cell Biology,” in Romanticism and the Sciences, ed. Andrew Cunningham and Nicholas Jardine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 161–68.
    • “‘A Host of Experienced Microscopists’: The Establishment of Histology in Nineteenth-Century Edinburgh,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 75, no. 2 (2001): 225–53.
    • “Moral Fibre: The Negotiation of Microscopic Facts in Victorian Britain,” Journal of the History of Biology 36, no. 1 (2003): 39–85.
  • François Duchesneau Genèse de la théorie cellulaire (1987)
  • Willy Pelz, Zellenlehre: Der Einfluss Hugo von Mohls auf die Entwicklung der Zellenlehre, ed. Armin Geus and Irmgard Müller, Marburger Schriften zur Medizingeschichte 20 (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1987; based on 1944 dissertation).
  • Henry Harris, The Birth of the Cell (1999)
  • Ohad Parnes, “From Agents to Cells: Theodor Schwann’s Research Notes of the Years 1835-1838,” in Reworking the Bench: Notebooks in the History of Science, ed. F. L. Holmes, Jürgen Renn, and Hans-Jörg Rheinberger (Kluwer 2003), 119–39.
  • Daniel Liu, “The Cell and Protoplasm as Container, Object, and Substance, 1835–1861,” Journal of the History of Biology 50, no. 4 (November 2017): 889–925.
  • Florence Vienne, “Worlds Conflicting: The Cell Theories of François-Vincent Raspail and Theodor Schwann,” Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences 47, no. 5 (Nov, 2017): 629–52.

Core historiography of 19th c. cell theory vis-à-vis development, growth, heredity, regeneration, reproduction, etc.:

  • John R. Baker’s 5-part “The Cell-Theory: a Restatement, History, and Critique,” in Quarterly Journal of Microscopical Science,1948–1955
  • William Coleman, “Cell, Nucleus, and Inheritance” Proc. Am. Phil Soc 109, no. 3 (June 15, 1965): 124–58.
  • John Farley, Gametes and Spores (1982), on cell theory and theories of reproduction
  • Marsha Richmond on British unease with German cell theory:
    • “T. H. Huxley’s Criticism of German Cell Theory: An Epigenetic and Physiological Interpretation of Cell Structure,” Journal of the History of Biology 33, no. 2 (October 2000): 247–89.
    • “British Cell Theory on the Eve of Genetics,” Endeavour 25, no. 2 (June 2001): 55–60.
  • J. Andrew Mendelsohn, “Lives of the Cell,” Journal of the History of Biology 36 no. 1 (Apr 2003)
  • 8+ articles by Fred Churchill from 1968–2010 on August Weismann and the history of chromosomal heredity, including:
    • “August Weismann and a Break from Tradition,” JHB 1, no. 1 (1968): 91–112.
    • “Hertwig, Weismann, and the Meaning of Reduction Division circa 1890,” Isis 61, no. 4 (December 1970): 428–57.
    • “The History of Embryology as Intellectual History,” JHB 3, no. 1 (April 1970): 155–81.
    • “From Heredity Theory to Vererbung: The Transmission Problem, 1850-1915,” Isis 78, no. 3 (September 1987): 337–64.
  • Fred Churchill, August Weismann: Development, Heredity, and Evolution (2015), arguably the most important work in this whole post
  • Florence Vienne on the longue durée history of spermatozoa/sperm cells (ongoing; see her excellent chapter “Eggs and Sperm as Germ Cells,” in Reproduction: Antiquity to the Present Day, Nick Hopwood, Rebecca Flemming, and Lauren Kassell, eds. (Cambridge University Press, 2018.)

Articles and chapters by Ariane Dröscher on 19th c. cytology:

Ariane Dröscher’s important body of work is fairly orthogonal to the historiography of cell biology as a whole, and her work has been pushing us to consider this history in novel ways. I wanted to highlight how broad and diverse her scholarship has been, so she got her own slide in my presentation last month.

  • “Microscopic Truths: The Multiple Realities of the Golgi Apparatus,” in L’esperimento Della Storia: Saggi in Onore Di Renato G. Mazzolini, ed. Massimiano Bucchi, Luca Ciancio, and Ariane Dröscher (Fondazione Museo Storico Trentino, 2015), 101–10
  • “Gregor Mendel, Franz Unger, Carl Nägeli and the Magic of Numbers,” History of Science 53, no. 4 (Dec 2015): 492–508,
  • “Images of Cell Trees, Cell Lines, and Cell Fates: The Legacy of Ernst Haeckel and August Weismann in Stem Cell Research,” History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences 36, no. 2 (Oct 2014): 157–86, 
  • “Was ist eine Zelle? Edmund B. Wilsons Diagramm als graphische Antwort,” Verhandlungen zur Geschichte und Theorie der Biologie 14 (2008): 1–12
  • “Edmund B. Wilson’s ‘The Cell’ and Cell Theory between 1896 and 1925,” HPLS 24, no. 3/4 (Jan 2002): 357–89.
  • Die Zellbiologie in Italien im 19. Jahrhundert, Acta Historica Leopoldina 26 (1996).

Updated 27 June 2022 w/Marc Klein.

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