The first days with my parents were my happiest. Every morning my mother would plant three kisses on my forehead before taking me in her arms. “She's got your mouth dear,” she'd say to my father as she carried me over to him. “Wait, she's moving!” She'd take my father's hand and place it on her belly to feel the muted kicks of the one who would soon depose me.
That was 31 years ago. I live in an attic now, and spend most time researching into my ancestry. So far, I've traced my forebears back to 1852, when the German-born embryologist Adolf Ziegler (1820-1889) carved frogs journeying from fertilised egg to swimming tadpole. Then, as microtomes became all the rage in the 1860s, the Swiss anatomist Wilhelm His, Sr (1831-1904) began slicing his way through embryos. He advocated a mechanical view of development, with tissues bending and folding through differential growth. Based on his drawings, Ziegler sculpted the chick's voyage, with cutaways showing colour-coded vessels and organs as they formed.
Things took a slightly ghoulish turn in the 1870s when Wilhelm His fed his microtomes with humans, garnered from abortions, miscarriages, post-mortems and anatomical museums. Adolf Ziegler's health was failing, so it was his son, Friedrich, who carved the colour atlas, marching from a few weeks post-conception towards foetal glory.
Then, Gustav Jacob Born (1851-1900) entered the scene. Whereas Wilhelm His had relied on freehand drawings, Born – a German histologist – traced outlines of serial sections and stacked them up to reconstruct the whole. The two methods came head-to-head at the first meeting of German Anatomical Society in Leipzig in 1887. Born won.
The heyday of my forebears had arrived. As cubism, relativity, quantum mechanics and genetics stepped onto the world stage, Friedrich Ziegler's studio shaped, replicated and disseminated its creations. The waxen forms permeated embryological research, anatomical institutes, gynaecological clinics, public museums.
But as experimental embryology came into fashion, interest in models and mechanics waned. By the 1960s, most of my ancestors had been either been melted down, or relegated to glass cases, exhumed only for the edification of medical students. With the surge in developmental genetics in the 1980s, oblivion seemed assured.
Yet the abandoned dust-tracks of one generation can become fashionable avenues for the next. As cells and gene products started to be visualised, first in sections, then in volumes and finally through live imaging, Born's serial reconstruction methods resurfaced to produce movies of rotating fluorescent bodies and 3D prints. Developmental mechanics returned in a computational guise to explain shape changes through the action of physical forces based on cellular dynamics.
It was around then that my parents saw the advert: “Get to know your baby ahead of time. Hold her in your hands, see who she looks like. Gold-plating available.” Within two days of the ultrasound scan, I was in my mother's arms.
I was as excited as my parents to welcome my template home. As I watched her wriggle, grasp and suckle, she seemed my avatar, expressing through bodily movements what I could only wish for. The next morning, I waited in vain for morning kisses, only to see them being showered on the new arrival. Didn't take long before I was relegated to a box in the attic, like my ancestors dispatched to their glass tombs.
Yet, though the cause of my banishment, she is still my nearest relative. What does she look like now? What career did she follow? Will she one day lift the lid to rediscover her earliest snapshot? Hush, I think I hear footsteps.