The Man who Opened a Window on the Womb

Senior Education Officer, Liz Parsons, reflects on the life of Lennart Nilsson, whose amazing pictures of life in the womb are still popular today, decades after they were first published.

My 6 year old niece asked her mother the other day – ‘was I really in your tummy?’ To which her mother replied – ‘Yes you were. You were there for 9 months before I got to meet you, on the day you were born.’

‘What did I look like?’ was the next question; to which my sister replied ‘I’ll show you, we’ve got a photograph of you when you were growing.’

Other questions naturally followed, such as ‘did I have hair?’, ‘was I very small?’, ‘was I asleep or awake?’ This is not the first time that enquiries like this have arisen and I’m certain every parent, at some stage or other, has to field a barrage of questions about their children’s life inside the womb. Indeed our Life Matters officers field them every year in Life Before Birth talks given to thousands of children.

This preoccupation with what happens inside the womb is a natural curiosity and there are now many questions that we are able to satisfactorily answer, thanks to the ground breaking photography of Lennart Nilsson. Born in Sweden on Aug. 24, 1922 his incredible photographs of the development of embryos and fetuses inside the womb, afforded us the first real glimpses into these precious first stages of life. Inspired by his own natural curiosity, he once told the Sunday Times that it was his “dream” to make the “invisible visible” the results of which, the general public never tire. His first pictures of life inside the womb were aptly published in Life magazine in 1953 followed by the acclaimed photo essay Drama of Life Before Birth in 1965. The public’s interest was such that the whole edition, of eight million copies, sold out in a matter of days.

Nilsson’s curiosity was not limited to pregnancy, having photographed a wide variety of subjects throughout his distinguished career; including a polar bear hunt, a study of ants and a number of celebrities including Ingrid Bergman and Henri Matisse. It’s his study of the unborn baby however that will be his legacy; a life’s work that has helped parents to bond with the unborn children they’re carrying, a life’s work that has converted many a pro-lifer and a life’s work that has left no doubt as to the humanity of the unborn child. Lennart Nilsson once said ‘I want to educate people and also increase their reverence for life.’ ‘I want to reveal that which is close to us, that which is familiar, in a new way.’

Lennart Nilsson died on 28th January at the age of 94. Tomorrow, on the International Day for the Unborn Child, as we celebrate the awe and wonder of human life inside the womb, we say thank you to this amazing pioneer for opening up a window to the world inside the womb and for satisfying the curiosity we’ve had about this wondrous time of our lives since we were children.


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