16 - Fertile soil or no man's land: cooperation and conflict in the placental bed  pp. 165-173

Fertile soil or no man's land: cooperation and conflict in the placental bed

By David Haig

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In 1910, Gräfenberg wrote that ideas about relations between the human ovum and ovum bed [Eibett] had undergone a dramatic change during the previous decade. The ovum was no longer viewed as a passive object around which maternal tissues spread a protective cover. Far from being a helpless germ in need of protection, the ovum was a cheeky intruder [ein frecher Eindringling] that eats its way deep into the uterine mucosa. A popular comparison had been of the villi sinking into the endometrium as the roots of a tree sink into the earth, but Gräfenberg saw a hint of antagonism between the roots of the ovum and the surrounding soil. In his opinion, various structural and enzymatic features of the decidua were defensive reactions against the destructive ovum [1]. (I have translated the German Ei (egg) as ovum, the term used in the contemporary English literature. We would now call the ‘ovum’ an embryo.)

Grosser took a contrary view. Gräfenberg should not have taken Roux's ‘struggle of parts within the organism’ quite so literally. The primary function of the decidua was obvious; to act as a fertile soil [Nährboden] for supporting growth of the ovum. Toward this end, trophoblast and decidua formed an effective mutually coordinated, or better preservational, system in which one partner could not attack the other, nor the other defend itself, in opposition to what was imperative for the survival of the species [2: 289–290]. (Nährboden can be translated as fertile soil or as culture medium.

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