An Amazing 10 Years: The Discovery of Egg and Sperm in the 17th Century


Author’s address (for correspondence): M Cobb, Faculty of Life Sciences, University of Manchester, Oxford Road, Manchester M13 9PT, UK. E-mail:


The scientific identification of the key components of sexual reproduction – eggs and sperm – took place during an amazing decade of discovery in the 1660s and 1670s. The names of many of the people involved are now forgotten, and yet their work, and the difficulties they faced and the conflicts they endured, resonate strongly to the present day. Despite this period of innovation, the respective roles of egg and sperm remained unclear for another 170 years. Why did this take so long? And what did people think before these discoveries? By tracing the contours of this major milestone in human knowledge, we can also gain insight into our current knowledge, and the boundaries we may be unwittingly trapped by.