THE BIRTH OF THE CELL by Henry Harris

THE BIRTH OF THE CELL

By
Email this review

KIRKUS REVIEW

Not quite an emperor's-new-clothes retelling, but Harris (Regius Professor of Medicine Emeritus, Oxford) aims to set the record straight on who should really get the credit for discoveries and insights into the nature of cells. The ""emperors"" of cell theory, well-nigh universally touted, are Hooke and Leeuwenhoek in the 17th century and Schwann, Schleiden, and Virchow in the 19th. These men weren't frauds; they made genuine contributions yet too often dismissed or belittled the work of contemporaries and predecessors. And why? Harris points to the intensity of national rivalries. German scientists wouldn't cite the French (and vice versa) and gave the English and other Europeans short shrift, as well. So with a scholar's dedication, Harris describes the seminal accomplishments of some of their supposed inferiors, either now unknown or best known for work in other aspects of biology. We learn, for example, that the 17th-century Italian Malpighi was the first to glimpse capillaries under the microscope. He also described plant cells as filled with liquid rather than empty, contradicting a then-commonplace assumption. Two centuries later, the Frenchman Raspail more or less invented cell chemistry, regarding the role of cells as one engaged in a constant exchange with the environment, and developing methods and reagents to identify cell components. The Czech Purkyne emphasized the parallel between (large) plant cells and (much smaller) animal cells, noting that each possessed a nucleus. And so on. Only in the 20th century did Americans begin to figure in cell theory, with work that took off from the notion that the rods (chromosomes) in a cell's nucleus were the bearers of hereditary traits. While clearly a work of revisionist medical history, this will also give the general reader a useful appreciation of science as the real-world product of politics, personalities, and unfettered imagination. For, after all, those who look through microscopes often see what they want to.

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0300082959
Page count: 288pp
Publisher: Yale Univ.