These Gorgeous 19th-Century Drawings Of Microbes Are Science And Art

A new monograph reveals Ernst Haeckel’s marvelous work in all its incredible detail.

Not all contributions to science come in the form of numbers. For instance, the German biologist Ernst Haeckel’s incredibly detailed drawings, made during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, shed light on the microscopic organisms that populate our world.

[Image: Taschen]

A new book from Taschen reprints Haeckel’s work, from his studies of the tiny marine organism Radiolaria to his atlas of calcareous sponges. Called The Art and Science of Ernst Haeckel, the book documents how the scientist popularized the writings of Charles Darwin through his work and discovered many different kinds of microbes—many of which he named after his beloved wife after she died.

But the true highlight of the monograph is Haeckel’s drawings of microscopic critters. Each organism Haeckel drew has an almost abstract form, as if it’s a whimsical fantasy he dreamed up rather than a real creature he examined under a microscope. His drawings of sponges reveal their intensely geometric structure—they look architectural, like feats of engineering. His drawing of the porpita porpita jellyfish, from one of his treatises, reveals dynamic waving tendrils that give the creature the look of a flower. That is indeed how Haeckel described them: “Try to imagine the graceful, slim stalk of a flower, its leaves and colorful blossoms as transparent as glass . . . and then you will have an idea of these wonderful, beautiful, and delicate animal colonies.” His drawings and observations on the creatures won a prize from the Royal Academy of Arts and Sciences in Amsterdam, illustrating how visual depictions of these organisms were revolutionary within the scientific community.

In 1899, Haeckel published a book entitled Art Forms in Nature, hammering home his point about the connection between art and science. As Rainer Willmann, a professor of zoology at Gottingen University and the director of its Zoological Museum, writes in The Art and Science of Ernst Haeckel: “With such a title he sought to secure the attention of those with an interest in the beauties of nature, and to emphasize, through this rare instance of the interplay of science and aesthetics, the proximity of these two realms.” He hoped that both artists and scientists would find inspiration in his pages.

Haeckel’s drawings are a reminder of the intricacies of the world around us, and how nature is the ultimate designer.

About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor at Co.Design based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture.