Here’s the finished result, Mother and Child (responses to the Boyd Collection) hung on the studio wall just to see how it looks. I’ve enjoyed doing this work. Getting the transvers to bond and melt into the canvas without breaking up was initially a bit of a problem, and was oddly similar to problems I initially had when I learnt to make slides from frozen endometrial biopsies. Getting slivers of tissue to lie flat and whole on the glass surface of the slide took a bit of patience, practice and frustration!
Each image, apart from the first, is of the part of the slide where the maternal uterine wall is in close proximity with the placental tissue of the child. The first image is of uterine glands, these produce substances that nourish the very early implanting embryo before the placenta is fully established.
There are multiple images because the source is a collection, and the images are enclosed in circles or microscope fields mainly because that felt right, but also circles have a completeness, the field of vision is concentrated and the baby is enclosed within a circular structure as it develops.
Then a little bit of synchronicity, I’d no sooner pinned the canvasses up on the cellar wall and grandson number three arrived. Here he is. Hello Joshua.
Well I have actually made an object related to the collection, well two and I am planning a series.
Here is my thinking.
To see details of the tissue requires use of a microscope, which means that field of view will always be a circle. There is also something graphically satisfying about a circle, it’s completion I suppose. It’s also a fundamental shape, found naturally all over the place, from planets to bacteria.
An interpretation of gloopy yellow endometrial glands are on the above canvas, the image below focuses on the intertwining of maternal and embryonic tissue as the placenta forms. This embryo was conceived about 12 weeks ago and measures 55mm from the top of it’s head to the base of it’s spine. This measurement is labelled Crown to Rump, CR for short.
This prebirth connection between mother and baby, this is what I am especially interested in. My experience is that it is both physical and psychological. That is as soon as you know that you are pregnant you almost automatically build up a projected idea of the child and of your relationship with the child, even when that child is no more than a few millimeters long. It’s one of the reasons why miscarriage is so devastating.
On the scientific side, we still do not fully understand how the mother tolerates the presence of the baby. According to traditional theory the mothers immune system should detect the baby as ‘foreign’ and initiate a process of rejection. Fortunately for us , it doesn’t.
Boxes and boxes of slides, all collected by Professor JD Boyd during the 1950’s and 60’s. The size of the glass slides are in proportion to the size of the histological specimen displayed. Some are inches wide, the largest I have ever seen. The staining is predominantly haematoxylin and eosin (H & E) which stains nuclei blue, and cells red.
Glass microscope slides have a precious quality about them, I find that it’s instinctive to handle them with fingertips. The tissue sections on these slides are especially precious being of human embryonic, placental and uterine tissue. They are a collection of their time and still of scientific value. We live in a different era, it would be almost impossible to put a collection like this together now.
I’ve decided to develop one of the drawings I made on my visit to the collection. This process usually goes well instantly or I spend a day struggling, on this occasion it was unfortunately the later. I’ve spent years looking down the lenses of a microscope, but it was only recently I realised this is probably the reason that I keep producing pictures that lie within a circle!
Here is my sketchbook, the drawing is of endometrial glands, it’s not a scientific drawing. I’m more concerned about the aesthetics, I like the colour of the gland contents which is a buttery yellow. As far as I know it’s due to the way the tissue section is stained and not the actual colour, but it looks sort of nutritious and that is in line with it’s function. The contents are discharged from the surface of the womb and are believed to support the growth of the implanting embryo.
I photograph the drawing, import it into my computer and work on it further. Alternating between traditional and computer aided methods.
This looks ok here, so far I’m not satisfied with it when printed.
This sketch was made during a visit to the Boyd Collection. The Boyd Collection is composed of sections of human embryonic, placental and uterine tissue mounted on glass slides and is stored in The Centre for Trophoblast Research, Cambridge University.
But how I came to have access to the collection begins with a specific group of blood cells called natural killer or NK cells. Blood cells are not only found in the blood, for as major components of the immune system they also infiltrate other organs of the body. There are various subgroups of white blood cell. Apart from shape, and size, some white blood cells that perform specific functions can be further subdivided by markers on their outer cell surfaces. For example some blood cells have specialised roles such as remembering past infectious agents. The overall function of the system as a whole is to identify and support cells that should be present and to identify and set in motion the elimination of cells that should not be there.
Many types of white blood cells are found in the lining of the womb, technically called the endometrium. At the time that an embryo implants and during early pregnancy a cell originally described as a large granular lymphocyte and now known as an endometrial natural killer or NK cell, is present in large numbers. Current thinking is that endometrial NK cells help human embryos to successfully implant in their mothers womb but exactly how they do that is not certain and has become controversial.
This is the area in which I used to work and publish, I haven’t lost interest in the function of NK cells just because I am no longer in the lab. So every so often, thanks to the internet, I have a look at the results of the most recent research.
In 2015 I came across an impressive paper First Do No Harm that addressed many of the problems associated with NK cell analysis and assisted reproduction. I sent a card of congratulations to one of it’s authors, Ashley Moffett, who very kindly suggested that I might like to have a look at the Boyd Collection.
My visit was brilliantly arranged by Elizabeth Harrington. In October 2015 I met Graham Burton Director of the Centre for Trophoblast Research who introduced me to the work of Professor JD Boyd, in the form of a magnificent atlas of human embryo development and of course the slides. I spent a very happy day with the slides, a microscope, camera, paper and a pencil.
In these posts I hope to chart the course of this piece of work, and to use the process of writing to explore and clarify ideas.