As an approach that required extremely careful observation of both form and movement of cells in the early embryo, the success of cell-lineage studies relied heavily on recording those observations through meticulous drawings and sketches (Maienschein 1991). The process of creating these drawings and the drawings themselves served both as tools for observation and the production of knowledge about individual cells as well as for circulating and communicating that knowledge. As there was a lot riding on these images, Wilson and his contemporaries invested a huge amount of time and resources in them. The majority of their day-to-day activities from sketching to fixing and staining specimens were inextricably wrapped up in the production of images.
The central role images played in the research process and in publications was something that Wilson thought deeply and carefully about. In An Introduction to General Biology, co-written by William T. Sedgwick and Wilson in 1895, emphasis is placed on the importance of drawing and keeping a detailed lab notebook when observing specimens under the microscope: “Pencil-drawing should begin as soon as the first specimen is in focus, and sketches should be made, from the very first exercise onward, of everything really studied” (Sedgwick and Wilson 1895). It is clear that Wilson regarded drawing and sketches as essential for the study of biology, both for careful observation and learning as well as for creating accurate representations. Although none of his sketches or original drawings for his published figures have survived today, it is highly probable that they were an important part of his process.
Although much of the technology for creating them has changed, images still play a hugely important role in developmental biology. While photography has largely taken the place of drawing as the primary means of collecting data and producing figures for publication, many of the same concerns still remain with regards to how images are produced and what they depict. Questions related to which and how many specimens to depict, how images are interpreted, and to what extent they can be modified from their “original” form were of primary concern to Wilson and still are essential for developmental biologists today.