In June of 2004, my wife and I traveled to Chicago for a short vacation. We intended to both see the sights of Chicago and to visit several locales from my early boyhood. I had left Chicago in 1948, at age 7, when my father was transferred to California, and I was curious to revisit my roots. One of the places on our sightseeing agenda was the famous Museum of Science and Industry, an experience which is highly recommended for visitors to Chicago. From the dim recesses of my childhood memory, I recalled a youthful visit there and delightful images of a gigantic Lionel electric train layout – the sort of exciting display that always made an impression on young boys in that era.
We arrived at the museum rather late one afternoon and had less than two hours before closing time. As I anticipated, all we could expect from such a short visit would be a cursory view of major exhibits with little time to contemplate and absorb things of interest. As a result, we steadily worked our way through an often confusing maze of rooms, corridors, and exhibits, arriving at the upper-level of the building only thirty minutes before closing time. In retrospect, we should have headed there earlier, for the upper-level was dedicated more to basic science, both the physical and natural sciences, than many of the other areas which focused on technology.
As my wife and I each worked our way around the room, I came to a large exhibit on human reproduction featuring a display of the human gestation process. A long line of specimen bottles mounted on the wall contained preserved examples of the human fetus at its various stages. The first bottles exhibited the very beginnings of life, fetuses little bigger than a small seed, then a pea, then a walnut. Some of the time increments between progressive stages were as short as a week or two.
I worked my way along the line of bottles, marveling at the miracle of the reproduction process, all the while reinforcing my firmly held belief that fact is always stranger than fiction. In each bottle down the line, the displayed fetus grew slightly larger and more recognizable as a human being. Near the end of the line, I came to a well-developed fetus of 27 weeks. I was impressed and amazed by the long line-up of miniature humans-in-the-making, yet I had seen it all before in other lesser, but similar exhibits – and in picture books. My reaction to all these little fetuses was heavily tinged with scientific interest; while these were all potential human beings, they reminded me of biological specimens in some natural science collection – much like beetles or butterflies – yet clearly more special.
I Was Not Prepared for This!
Then I arrived at the last bottle in the long display which contained a fetus at 39 weeks, and I was stunned. At that moment, any thoughts of the “interesting scientific nature” of the overall exhibit vanished immediately. Freely suspended in this large bottle was a full-term fetus, a baby boy, ready to be born. Its form, even more than the others, was an eerie, almost translucent, milky-white throughout, with delicate and perfectly formed features. I could see the gentle surface-relief produced by blood vessels in his temples. Ten perfect little toes and fingers were accompanied by formed male genitals and finely-delineated eyebrows and eyelids comprised of the most delicate hairs. His eyes were closed, and the hint of a worried frown hung across his brow – perhaps in the realization that he would never open his eyes to see and join the world beyond the glass prison which contained him. The worried brow was reminiscent of that familiar transitory expression which passes quickly over the faces of sleeping infants – so lifelike, yet frozen in time for this perpetual boy-to-be.
I have never seen so exquisite an example of a tiny human being. Newborns, for all their charm, fuss, cry, and howl, and their faces become contorted and splotchy red as the result of their unhappiness. This little boy looked as if he were sculpted in delicate, pure white marble, and, as I gazed at the perfect little face with its frown, it seemed possible that he might awake at any moment from his troubled sleep. Alas, this will never happen, and his preservative-filled bottle will remain his world, forever.
Of all we saw and did in Chicago, this singular experience stuck to my ribs and stayed with me. It remains with me still after all these years. While my wife and I were enjoying a wonderful Greek dinner that evening in downtown Chicago, I could not take my mind off the boy in the bottle. I will never forget him. My thoughts about him have been numerous. How did he come to his perpetual sleep before birth? Who were his parents? What were the circumstances of his conception? Who might he have become?
Nature’s mission is to evolve and preserve her species. Accordingly, the reproduction of species can too easily be taken for granted, regarded as a natural version of mass-production. With so many people and so many problems in the world, indifference and cynicism can take hold. The boy in the bottle reminded me in a powerful way that the human reproductive process is very personal, and that each new person is special and unique. Perhaps reproduction is not merely a mindless natural process, after all. It does appear that the hand of the Creator has imbued, in us human creatures, the ability to be and to recognize… something more.