Ernst Haeckel

Ernst Haeckel (1834–1919)

Ernst Haeckel (1834–1919)

Ernst Haeckel was an industrious German naturalist and advocate of Darwinism; he was so influenced by Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) that he switched from a career in medicine to focus on a career in zoology. By 1862, Haeckel had become a professor of comparative anatomy. In his work on embryology, he coined the phrase ‘ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny’, meaning that an animal’s embryonic stages followed an evolutionary pattern. Infamously, his book Anthropogenie (1874) depicted plates showing these stages, but were eventually deemed to be merely speculative, and his theory lost favour, tarnishing his reputation.

This lithographic plate from Ernst Haeckel’s Kunstformen der Natur (Artforms of Nature) (1899–1904) shows why this particular title influenced art and design in the early 20th century. Though an evolutionary biologist, and the first to use the phrase ‘ecology’, he was also a proficient artist and, from over 1,000 engravings, Haeckel chose 100 to illustrate his stylised Kunstformen. Plate 8 shows Discomedusae, the central figure being Desmonema annasethe (Cnidaria: Scyphozoa), which Haeckel named for his late wife Anna Sethe.