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Visions of Cell Biology

Reflections Inspired by Cowdry’s "General Cytology"

Although modern cell biology is often considered to have arisen following World War II in tandem with certain technological and methodological advances—in particular, the electron microscope and cell fractionation—its origins actually date to the 1830s and the development of cytology, the scientific study of cells. By 1924, with the publication of Edmund Vincent Cowdry’s General Cytology, the discipline had stretched beyond the bounds of purely microscopic observation to include the chemical, physical, and genetic analysis of cells. Inspired by Cowdry’s classic, watershed work, this book collects contributions from cell biologists, historians, and philosophers of science to explore the history and current status of cell biology.

Despite extraordinary advances in describing both the structure and function of cells, cell biology tends to be overshadowed by molecular biology, a field that developed contemporaneously. This book remedies that unjust disparity through an investigation of cell biology’s evolution and its role in pushing forward the boundaries of biological understanding. Contributors show that modern concepts of cell organization, mechanistic explanations, epigenetics, molecular thinking, and even computational approaches all can be placed on the continuum of cell studies from cytology to cell biology and beyond. The first book in the series Convening Science: Discovery at the Marine Biological Laboratory, Visions of Cell Biology sheds new light on a century of cellular discovery.

400 pages | 28 halftones, 28 line drawings, 2 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2017

Convening Science: Discovery at the Marine Biological Laboratory

Biological Sciences: Biochemistry, Biology--Systematics, Evolutionary Biology

History of Science


"Visions of Cell Biology is a rich history of cell biology, and its many intellectual contributions are highly accessible"


“Individual chapter authors . . . consider changes that could not be predicted in 1924. . . . What makes these chapters so valuable is the effort they make to show how these changes occurred and were brought into the field of cytology. Gone were vague ideas about protoplasm, specific fields laid down in fertilized eggs, or analogies of the ‘ground substance’ of protoplasm as a colloidal system like soap. . . . Scholars in the philosophy and history of science will be rewarded by encountering so much of what has been overlooked or forgotten in how fields progress.”

Quarterly Review of Biology

“Includes rich material on the technologies used to visualize cells and their dialectical relationship with the epistemology of the emerging distinct discipline of cell biology. . . . Visions of Cell Biology contains many fascinating explorations.”

British Journal for the History of Science

“This volume owes much to Edmund Cowdry's General Cytology, both in its content and design. Both texts emerged from conversations and meetings that originated at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) in Woods Hole, Massachusetts—a research center where scientists have gathered since the nineteenth century to exchange ideas. In the 1920s, MBL helped facilitate Cowdry's research in the then-emerging field of cytology. Now, Matlin, Maienschein, and Laubichler present a series of essays—also originating at the MBL—that reflect on the history of cell biology, from its roots in the 1800s through the present day and the future. The essays consider the technological developments that enabled scientists to see cells and their contents (the electron microscope, for example) and shed particular light on the development of General Cytology, which helped establish the scope and significance of cell biology as a modern discipline. All is well researched and annotated. This is an excellent work and well worth reading. Recommended.”


“Cell biology is a young science with a vibrant history. Unfortunately, the highlights of this history are not well known. This very readable, wonderfully researched, and thought-provoking book provides a rich historical context for the birth of modern cell biology. As it eloquently illuminates, Cowdry’s General Cytology grew out of gatherings at Woods Hole of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century luminaries in the nascent field of cell biology, pioneers who recognized the need to assemble and curate the current state of cellular knowledge. While it seems somewhat paradoxical to suggest that a book about a ninety-year-old book is timely, it is nonetheless quite accurate. It is extremely useful in the midst of today’s breathtakingly fast-paced molecular dissections of myriad cellular processes to take a moment to understand from whence came the paradigms that motivated the field and to appreciate how and why those paradigms have evolved. A delightful synthesis of cell biology and history and philosophy of science, Visions of Cell Biology is clearly much greater than the sum of its parts. It is an outstanding contribution to an important field.”

Michael J. Caplan, Yale School of Medicine

Table of Contents

1. Introduction
Karl S. Matlin, Jane Maienschein, and Manfred D. Laubichler

2. Changing Ideas about Cells as Complex Systems
Jane Maienschein

3. In Search of Cell Architecture: General Cytology and Early Twentieth-Century Conceptions of Cell Organization
Andrew Reynolds

4. Methodological Reflections in General Cytology in Historical Perspective
Jutta Schickore

5. Cellular Pathogenesis: Virus Inclusions and Histochemistry
William C. Summers

6. The Age of a Cell: Cell Aging in Cowdry’s Problems of Ageing and Beyond
Lijing Jiang

7. Visualizing the Cell: Pictorial Styles and Their Epistemic Goals in General Cytology
Beatrice Steinert and Kate MacCord

8. Thomas Hunt Morgan and the Role of Chromosomes in Heredity
Garland E. Allen

9. Epigenetics and Beyond
Jan Sapp

10. Heads and Tails: Molecular Imagination and the Lipid Bilayer, 1917–1941
Daniel Liu

11. Pictures and Parts: Representation of Form and the Epistemic Strategy of Cell Biology
Karl S. Matlin

12. Observing the Living Cell: Shinya Inoué and the Reemergence of Light Microscopy
Rudolf Oldenbourg

13. Enriching the Strategies for Creating Mechanistic Explanations in Biology
William Bechtel

14. Updating Cowdry’s Theories: The Role of Models in Contemporary Experimental and Computational Cell Biology
Fridolin Gross

List of Contributors

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