Bruce Scott

A dozen favourite books related to microscopy

When a young boy I always wanted to know how things worked and why. Like many other boys I was forever taking things apart, but unlike some other boys I was able to put them back together in a working condition. I remember my mother’s reaction when at the age of eight I reduced her typewriter to its component pieces! I had been given a microscope when I was five but, of course, received no proper instruction on the preparation of material. My basic technique was to swat whatever bug took my attention and view the remains through the microscope!

How well Headstrom’s book [1] could have helped me through those early years. Nowadays I turn to this simple book when instructing my grandchildren. It cost very little, helps one look at a wide range of simple things in 59 “adventures”, and has a few words of microscope history to begin with, before a helpful section on things you’ll need to have to hand for the work. I must say I don’t use all of them by any means. One matter which is poor is that his diagram of a compound microscope on page xv hasn’t got the objective in line with either eyepiece or centre of the mirror – and how often one sees just so stupid an artist’s sketch!

However my number one choice from all the books I have on microscopy is that by Werner Nachtigall [2]. It is easy to read and is full of excellent photographs and drawings in black and white and colour. It begins with starting microscopy and the equipment needed, and goes on through a simple account of the optics, into lighting, drawing, and measuring. Further sections study the world of plants, the animal kingdom, inorganic structures, and aquatic micro-organisms. This book is a must for me, with clear and easy to read text, and so different from other books at this level.

I turn to the RMS’s Dictionary [3] for explanations of the many specialist terms used in microscopy. This was compiled by some very distinguished names in the RMS, but their definitions are easily understood, and a great help. If you were a member of the RMS in 1989 – the 150th anniversary of the foundation of that famous Society – you were given a copy, as the book was issued as part of the celebrations. It contains the fruits of several years of hard work by the four authors, with full recognition of international standards. Appendices include English, French, and German equivalents of the terms, and some really helpful diagrams and tables – ray paths, quantities, and dimensions among them – to make this book one of the unsung heroes of cooperation!

Having prepared a slide and obtained a good image of it, I need to record it to get a hard copy, and I turn time and again to Kodak’s Photography through the Microscope [4]. This covers setting up the instrument to start with, in ample detail for anyone not an expert already. This is an excellent section on understanding the microscope, which should be read by anyone using it, quite apart from making photographs. A short section on making preparations is also included, but is too short to be useful, and isn’t actually what one expects to find in such a book. However, the chapter on illumination is really clear and most useful, and worth having the book for by itself. Types of cameras and their use are well covered, and their use in monochrome and colour photography, are gone into full detail. Determining exposure is given a chapter to itself, and faults in photomicrographs are discussed, before another chapter deals with contrast enhancement, and photographing by reflected light, and recording motion. This is a superbly-illustrated book, with all kinds of information apart from what is to do with photography – it is really excellent, and cheap, if copies are still available.

When I want to go further into the mathematics and physics of optical systems I turn to Oldfield [5], for it takes me step by step through the theory. The writing is really very clear, resulting as it does from some years of student courses in light microscopy at Macquarie University in Sydney. This is the manual of the course, and is intended to be a substitute for lectures for off-campus students. It sets a series of practical exercises after each section, intended for an under-funded laboratory – just like my own! The first chapter on resolving power and the microscope gets right to the nub of the matter in what I think is one of the clearest accounts of this topic anywhere. These 21 pages should be read by all who use a microscope. Other chapters on condensers and lighting, on the Abbe theory of image formation, and on lens testing are just as good, clear, and valuable. The book does discuss most of what any normal user will ever need – measurement, drawing, darkground, phase, polar, and photomicrography, and I never turn to it for help without getting an answer.

Having failed at a young age to grasp the preparation of a slide I found books on methods of staining very misleading and complicated. I suspect that as formulae have been copied over the years mistakes have been compounded! The one book I turn to for help in preparation is that by Eric Marson [6]. He deals with the sequence of tasks in preservation, preparation, staining and mounting of many kinds, and is most helpful for anyone working in many areas of natural history. The only tiny criticism I have is that where Eric uses the word “dissection” for a particular kind of mount, the word should be “disarticulation”.

My principal interest in microscopy is in fruit flies, and the only book in my collection that is falling apart from use is that by Bryan Shorrocks [7]. This book starts with the general biology of the fruit fly, goes on to laboratory and field ecology, then genetics, chromosomes, behaviour and identification, and finishes with chapters on study techniques and areas of investigation a student might want to explore. There are eight colour plates, an excellent appendix on mutations, and a comprehensive bibliography. If fruit flies are your thing this is a good book to have!

The fruit fly has been used as an experimental animal for almost a century now, from when Thomas Morgan, working at Colombia University, first used it in 1909. The fly has contributed an enormous amount of information and knowledge in the field of biology, and in genetics in particular, although it has had to suffer many indignities in the process – including getting high from crack cocaine, and being trained by a punishment and reward process. For a slightly irreverent scientific history of all this Martin Brooks’s book [8] is a most enjoyable read. Fruit flies rule OK!

For a greater in depth study of the microscope I read and re-read Gilbert Hartley [9]. This book is a revised edition of his earlier [1962] work on microscopy in the Teach Yourself series. In his inimitable language he covers all aspects of the light microscope and its ancillary equipment, and offers a truly vast amount of information in a book which makes good bedside reading – and there are not too many books on any aspect of the microscope about which that could be said! He conveys his great depth of knowledge and practical experience in a most entertaining way, and everyone working with the microscope will benefit from having this book and returning to it time after time.

For further reading into modern advances I return to the book edited by Alan Lacey [10]. This contains nine sections, each by an expert. Although I don’t need to know more about immunohistochemistry, or much more about fluorescence work for that matter, the rest of the book is great. The principles of the microscope are very clearly described, as is the control of contrast in the image, both by Lacey himself. Dr Evennett discusses image recording, while micrometry was written by Savile Bradbury, as further examples of the authority of the contributors. The book can be understood by me without difficulty, and fills a gap which would otherwise exist.

There are hundreds of books covering the very wide profile of microscopy, and the above are a few from my own collection that I get much enjoyment and satisfaction from, but my list is not complete I still have two books to make my dozen. These must be on the history of what has become the foremost scientific instrument in the world. I therefore often turn to Gerard Turner’s collection of essays [11]. These twelve essays, reprinted from a variety of learned journals, discuss the study of the history of the microscope, and the history of optical instruments in general, before considering specific topics such as Powell & Lealand, Friedrich Adolph Nobert and his ruling engine, and Mordecai Cubitt Cooke’s microscope, among others. The sheer breadth of the essays is impressive, and their authority is guaranteed by the eminence of their author, but they are readable into the bargain!

Last but far from least, I must include Brian Bracegirdle’s book dealing with the evolution of the microtome an instrument at the forefront of tissue preparation [12]. He has written the full authoritative work on his subject, and I marvel at it for the depth of research that went into its presentation. After an earlier edition published in 1978, by when he was running the Wellcome Museum [medical history] at the Science Museum, my edition is the second of 1986 – extended with an extra chapter and now containing some fine colour plates. He has the lot – literature, substances, machines, slides, you name it in the history of how slides are prepared, and it’s there! I don’t ever expect to need the many hundreds of references he includes, but others will, and the work has been done once and for all. This book is a must.

I could also have mentioned other of my books, such as Carpenter’s The Microscope, or Half hours with the Microscope by Edwin Lankester, but I truly think these twelve would be my desert island dozen.


1. Headstrom, R. – Adventures with a microscope New York: Dover, 1977 reprint of 1941 original. Paperback, 232 pages.

2. Nachtigall, W. – Exploring with the microscope. New York: Sterling, 1995. Hardback, 160 pages, translated from the original German edition Mikroskopieren: Gerate, Objeckte, Praxis, published in 1994.

3. Bradbury, S. et al – Dictionary of light microscopy. Oxford: University Press, 1989. Paperback, 139 pages.

4. Delly, J. G. Photography through the microscope. Rochester: Eastman Kodak, 9ed 1988. Paperback, 104 pages.

5. Oldfield, R. – Light microscopy an illustrated guide. London: Wolfe, 1994. Paperback, 160 large pages.

6. Marson, J. E. – Practical microscopy. Ipswich: Northern Biological Supplies, 1983. Paperback, 17 booklets bound as one.

7. Shorrocks, B. – Drosophila. London: Ginn, 1972. Hardback, 144 pages.

8. Brookes, M. – Fly: an experimental life. London: Orion, 2001. Hardback, 215 pages.

9. Hartley, W. G. – Hartley’s microscopy. Oxford: Senecio, 1979. Paperback, 220 pages.

10. Lacey, A. J. [ed] – Light microscopy in biology – a practical approach. Oxford: IRL Press, 1989. Softback, 329 pages.

11. Turner, G. L – Essays on the history of the microscope. Oxford: Senecio, 1980. Softback, 245 pages.

12. Bracegirdle, B. – A history of microtechnique. The evolution of the microtome and the development of tissue preparation. Chicago: Science Heritage, 2ed 1986. Hardback, 393 pages.

237 Petts Hill
Mddx UB5 4NR

Quekett Journal of Microscopy, 2002, 39, 427–429

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