Brian Bracegirdle

A dozen favourite books related to microscopy

It has been said to me, when pestering others to write up their own favourites, that it is very difficult to choose just twelve titles, and so it has certainly proved. In my case this may be more acute than for some others, for my personal library on microscopy has been collected over fifty years [I started young on this, when stuff could still be got reasonably], and it is now quite extensive.

I have two further difficulties. The one is that I have a lot of runs of serials [journals], and the other is that I have written over twenty books of my own. The first is a difficulty because I may well look at various issues of various journals more than I look at any single book. I have everything published by the RMS from its beginning in 1844 [and the two other volumes which preceded that], to volume 100 of its Journal [1974]. I also bound the first 35 volumes of its Proceedings [1966–2000]. After both those cut-off dates I gave up, as both publications were getting too esoteric. I have a bound run of Zeitschrift für wissenschaftliche Mikroskopie und mikroskopischen Technik from its beginning in 1884 until 1969, with a few WW2 volumes missing. Both these runs of journals are of the greatest significance for historical work in modern microscopy, for they contain original papers of the first importance and also offer summaries of most other work published all over the world. On the other hand one does not read through them for fun! A different run of volumes to which I have frequent recourse is a reprint of the Royal Society’s Catalogue of Scientific Papers. It sets out to record in its 22 volumes every scientific paper published during the nineteenth century, and it very nearly succeeds! For my special interests in microscopy since about 1830 this is clearly another vital reference, but these four sets of books alone occupy well over thirty feet of shelf space, in spite of the Royal Society set taking up only a quarter of the space needed by the original!

Other serials are also often referred to – my full set of our own Journal of course, and the first 30 volumes of The Microscope [1937–82], together with the first 16 volumes of the Quarterly Journal of Microscopic Science [1853–1868]. I have quite a few other serials, but these are less frequently consulted. I do not deny that in one sense I am already far in excess of quoting only twelve books, but I am not considering any serial publication as falling into the [rather loose] definition of “favourite book” adopted for this series of articles!

As to my own books, of course I do consult these very frequently. There are three reasons for this. First, obviously, all were written because their topics interested me, and continue to do so. Second, once a book is published, all the data I had gathered together to write it is junked: I do not store sheets of data I can easily find elsewhere. And finally, I never know so much about a subject as when I am writing a book or paper, so my memory needs refreshing quite frequently after publication! However, I will not include any of my own titles in this list.

Some of my own books are in the RMS series of handbooks, and this series requires special mention as a group. Among them are covered all possible topics of interest in the practical use of the modern microscope, and I refer to many of them rather often. However, as I could use up my twelve titles from among this series alone, I will simply mention the series as a whole, and then sneakily say nothing about any in particular.

And so to my twelve titles, which I will take in date order of publication. In that case the first must be Robert Hooke’s Micrographia, first published in 1665, and often reprinted since. I have said quite often that one must see an actual original copy of this book to appreciate its quite marvellous plates: in the past I did have access to original copies at need, but nowadays this is no longer so. I now rely on the Science Heritage version, which is very well produced by photographing an original. It describes itself as a facsimile, but it is far from being so: it is not the original size and quality of text, and certainly not of plates, but it is very readable – and I read and re-read it for simple pleasure in its prose, as well as for more serious purposes. Its sense of sheer delight in revealing some of the world of the small is infectious, and its use of language an inspiration – remember that when Hooke wrote he was describing things no one had described before, and had to adapt the existing language and coin new words to write his book. I have written about Micrographia quite fully in other places, and will not repeat it all here, but this book could well be the one I would take to a desert island with me!

And then the older Adams. He wrote his Micrographia Illustrata in its first version in 1746, but my copy is of the fourth edition, 1771. I had it rebound in half-leather some years ago, and the paper remains in good condition in spite of frequent use: the crispness of the 71 plates [many of them fold-out] is excellent. It has 384 octavo pages, and a 14-page catalogue of instruments at the end. Microscopes figure only slightly in this, but the range of what is offered is quite striking. The first 59 pages of the book are separately numbered in roman figures, and describe in some detail the construction and use of the microscopes of the time. This is invaluable for those interested in eighteenth-century microscopy, and easy reading into the bargain! The other 325 pages then summarise a wide range of microscopical observations [of “natural history”] from a wide variety of sources. It ranges far and wide, and includes observations on snow and crystals. This is a most excellent summary of such work at that time, and still useful as a consequence. I prefer the treatment by Adams to that of Baker of quite similar date, for I get a distinct sense of more personal knowledge set down by the former. Be that as it may, this book is a good read, and I enjoy it whether for sheer pleasure or for actual need.

Third on my list must be John Quekett’s A practical treatise on the use of the microscope. I have all three editions, of 1848, 1852, and 1855, and the advertisements in the back of each change significantly, while the text also has been augmented between each. There is no doubt that Quekett’s book was the first recognisably modern work on the preparation of specimens for microscopical observation, and on observing them, and it remains a very useful book. What it does not do is provide details of injection techniques, which is surprising in view of Quekett’s experience and eminence in the field. However, he states in the preface that he was to write a separate book on such physiological techniques: unfortunately, he never did. The book, dedicated to J J Lister, begins with a 46-page survey of the history of the microscope, which remains of much interest as being through the eyes of an actual practitioner of the instrument [not all who have written on the subject were practically acquainted with using microscopes, which prevents full understanding of old and new instruments]. It then goes on to consider simple microscopes, then compound, and then accessories, followed by lamps. All with any interest in such matters should read this book, for much that it says is rediscovered from time to time! Succinct instructions on using the instrument are given, followed by means of cutting slides and covers [commercial supply of such was not too well established at the time the book was written] and then making mounts of all kinds. Cementing cells, fluid mounts, balsam mounts, sectioning and dissecting, and then advice on collecting, on classifying objects, and on test objects complete this outstanding text. It is a book which everyone knows of, but relatively few have ever read. A facsimile copy is still available, and I do urge you get your own!

My fourth choice is Beck’s work on the achromatic microscope. Richard Beck died soon after this was published in 1865, but I know that he had already started to think of a new edition. I know this because my own copy once belonged to him, and has been extensively written over with alterations in his own hand, with the illustrations from another copy cut up and pasted into different locations. The work is important because it gives full directions for using the microscopes and accessories made by Smith, Beck, & Beck, and thus an insight into the use of instruments made by others. The text is a model of clarity, but it is the plates which excel. The ones in my copy have had their outer margins cut out and numbered just like an indexed notebook, and all 28 of them are of the highest quality in engraving and printing. A few show the results of observations, included to show what was achieved by use of particular techniques: plate 14 shows darkground illumination of Polycystina from Barbados, and is unsurpassed for its stunning quality. Most show details of instruments, and are key for identifying the parts found in cases of accessories from the time. This is a super book, a pleasure to read and re-read for its clarity and even its beauty. Fortunately it has been reprinted, for originals are scarce and expensive.

Fifth in date order is Dallinger’s revision of Carpenter’s great work. This is a massive double volume, on the microscope and on its revelations. I have several editions, but the eighth and final one of 1901 is the most useful, with all its 1181 pages! It is in effect a summary of what was available and what was discovered in the golden days of the light microscope, at the end of its metamorphosis from gentleman’s must-have into a serious scientific instrument – in fact, into the serious scientific instrument. It contains a clear and full statement of Abbe’s definitive views on the mechanism of image formation in the microscope. It is remarkable that this was contributed anonymously by E M Nelson who was barely mentioned by Dallinger; it has been said that Nelson’s only thanks for his monumental contribution was a copy of the book! It is also significant that such a seminal book should have been written first by a man who was a university administrator, and revised after his death by a clerk in holy orders. It begins with the theory of the microscope, progresses onto a view of its history and development, and then considers its accessories before going on to details of its optical parts. Sections on manipulation and specimen mounting follow, all this taking the first 529 pages [or a first volume]. The rest is given over to accounts of the various natural groups of animals and plants, before shorter accounts of geological work and crystals. It is comprehensive, it is readable, it has 22 excellent plates and almost 900 wood engravings. It is a reference book which all serious workers with the microscope will have used, and which many will have bought as a copy became available – nowadays at a price, it must be said. I wouldn’t be without my editions.

Next, something quite different, and a leap in time to 1953, when Wilfred Garnett’s book on freshwater microscopy was first published. I have a soft spot for this, for more than one reason. I was a friend of the author, having come to know him and experience his great generosity in helping the young [and those older] in anything connected with the microscope. By the time it was published I had joined the RMS [I was too young to do so officially, but I didn’t know and no one asked]. I was also doing A-levels at a local technical college while working as a laboratory assistant in Manchester, and went on to take an external London degree in zoology in the same way. In all of this Wilfred was a strong supporter, and I am glad still to know his son John. The book owes much to the existence of excellent ponds in Cheshire, and I investigated these in my turn with this as my textbook. It is written in a perfectly straightforward way as to collecting, observing, mounting, and making sense of the results, and it is all done in such a way as to convey a sense of wonder at it all. What more could anyone ask?

Shortly after the first edition of Garnett’s book appeared, my seventh choice, a true modern classic of the microscope, came out – The practical use of the microscope by George Needham, published in 1958. He worked in California, and had much experience in using a range of instruments, both visually and photographically. A detailed and extensive account of microscopes is given, including all the types then recently introduced, in his 493 larger-format pages. This book is to mid-twentieth century stands what Dallinger was to those of fifty years before, and Beck was to those of almost a century before. I have very rarely looked up a topic in Needham without finding real enlightenment, and that is not always a result of consulting reference works. Some highlights discussed in his pages include ultra-violet stands, fluorescence work, phase contrast, and a note on the electron microscope – all of which were novelties to most in the 1950s. He discusses polarizing work, including a very clear account of determining the optical constants of minerals, and gives an excellent statement of microscope optics. He includes details on such as Rheinberg, micrometry, and mounting media of high refractive index, on drawing from the microscope and on photomicrography, and it’s all clear and readable. His section on illuminants is especially interesting, as it just predated the use of tungsten-halogen sources. All the nowadays hard-to-find details on oddments of accessories such as the Mikropolychromar are included, and I would not like to be without this book on my shelves.

Eighth is an unusual book, by Radivoj Krstić, who is a professor at the University of Lausanne. As one with a lifetime interest in histology, this work is a must for me, for it consists of a series of 3D drawn interpretations of histological structures, based on accompanying photomicrographs. In some ways it is a development of a somewhat similar book published in 1960 [H Elias & J E Pauly – Human microanatomy. Chicago: Da Vinci] but longer and with more pictures. Such a synthesis of data is a tour de force, the result not only of great insight but also of enormous labour. Some of the drawings have provided me with a much clearer understanding of the spatial relationships inside tissues than I had ever developed before, and I thought I knew about such things! To compare almost any photograph of almost any histological structure with the interpreted 3D drawing of it from this book is a revelation, and its 616 pages are readable with pleasure and instruction whenever I turn to them. This is a compelling book, but I do realise that it would not be everyone’s subject.

My ninth mention is a book by my friend and colleague of more than thirty years – Gilbert Hartley. His work on the use and development of the light microscope [1993] is a sheer delight. His special writing style, his mordant phrase and manifest deep knowledge and extensive experience, combine to make learning from this account very enjoyable. I turn to this book probably more than to any other individual title, not to learn from it every time, although I do just that, but for the simple pleasure of reading it. He discusses the development of the microscope in a particularly lucid manner, and then talks about using the various bits, older as well as more modern, again in a particularly lucid manner, coupled with turns of phrase which enchant my mind. All of this I fully expected of him as author when I finally got the book in my hands [after earlier advising its publisher on sources of illustrations]. Gilbert taught the RMS microscopy courses for 25 years, and when working with him on these, and on teaching about the microscope to school teachers together in my college in the early 1970s, I had come to have the highest regard for his knowledge and for his ability to put across sometimes difficult concepts: I was not disappointed. This book is still in print, and all who want to get more out of their working instruments, to be informed as well as entertained microscopically should read it: it is a gem.

On the home run now, a book which very unfortunately is not available except as a University of London PhD thesis, apart from 30 copies privately printed. I have mentioned before Jan Deiman’s work on microscope optics 1750–1850, and it is a book to which I have frequent recourse. Its 255 pages begin with an introduction to the study of scientific instruments, and when I remark that Gerard Turner was his PhD supervisor at Imperial College one will understand that these few pages will be most informative. He then describes his methodology in making the many detailed measurements of most of the significant lenses of his chosen, key, period. He discusses at length and on a fully established basis of actual accurate measurements, eighteenth century chromatic instruments: this account is unique, and no more such measurements need ever be done in future. Just the same applies to his account of the achromatic objective, the influence of J J Lister, and the commercial exploitation of Lister’s discoveries. It’s all there, once for all. When I was at the Science Museum I was able to provide Jan with unfettered access to all that he wanted from the microscopy collections there during his work from 1989 to 1992, and saw him in action both at Blythe House, and in the basement near to the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford, where he used their material and that of the RMS. Once and for all, as I have said, he showed conclusively that the defects in pre-Lister optics were the result of empty magnification – of lack of aperture – and not of chromatic or spherical aberration. In order to establish this he made available a host of accurate data on a wide range of microscopic lenses for the first time, and this unassuming book is one of the most valuable I own.

My penultimate choice is not entirely microscopical, but it touches on microscopy, being Sid Ray’s monumental book on scientific imaging, published in 1999. Here is all the modern background to perception, the nature of radiation, optical theory, illumination, image recording systems, and processing, before a masterly survey of major applications, beginning with close-up photography and photomacrography, and then photomicrography, and much more. It doesn’t show the results, but it certainly illuminates the techniques and the theory. I suppose I have seen Sid’s work as an author grow in stature since he was a member of my Royal Photographic Society panel in the 1970s, wherein we considered applications for ARPS and FRPS [it was before the licentiateship started]. We already had much in common in an interest in writing down what we had discovered, and we’ve certainly both developed it since then!

I have long had a practical and theoretical interest in photomicrography, and have put together a small collection of books on this topic. Many have been written in the past, but very few are worth reading nowadays. I have written my own books in this area, but my final choice is one on the subject which I wish I had written. This is Rost & Oldfield’s Photography with a microscope [2000]. Its 278 pages are well illustrated, clearly written indeed, and contain as much as anyone could wish for in a modern account of this topic. It has plenty of references for those who want even more, it has exercises for those who want them, it has appendices on care and maintenance of equipment, and on troubleshooting, and it is still in print. If you are into photography with the microscope, you need this book. I refer to it with interest and pleasure rather more often than I actually need, for I enjoy reading it.

Now that I have written about my dozen, I turn round from the machine and look along some of my shelves, and I am dismayed. I have not mentioned Beale, Bradbury, Frison, Michel, Petri, Pritchard, Robin, Spitta, Turner [except in passing]… I re-read what I have put down above, and I must be content that my idiosyncratic interests are fairly dealt with: I must now once more hound others to set out their own.

The twelve:

1. R Hooke – Micrographia: or some physiological description of minute bodies made by magnifying glasses with observations and inquiries thereupon. London: J Martyn & J Allestry, 1665. Many reprints have been issued, including genuine facsimiles. It may be worthwhile to see also B Bracegirdle [2002] – Seventeenth century microscopy, Quekett Journal of Microscopy, 39, 343–364.

2. G Adams – Micrographia illustrata: or the microscope explained… London, for the author, 4ed 1771. First edition 1746. See also J R Millburn – Adams of Fleet Street, instrument makers to King George III. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000.

3. J Quekett – A practical treatise on the use of the microscope… London: Baillière, 1848. [Other editions: 1852, 1855]. Reprinted Chicago: Science Heritage, 1986. See also B Bracegirdle [1988] Famous microscopists: John Thomas Quekett, 1815–1861, Proc. RMS, 23, 149–169.

4. R Beck – A treatise on the construction, proper use, and capabilities of Smith, Beck, and Beck’s achromatic microscopes. London: van Voorst, 1865. Reprinted Chicago: Science Heritage, 1986.

5. W B Carpenter – The microscope and its revelations. London: Churchill, 8ed 1901, revised by W H Dallinger. Other editions were issued in 1856, 1857, 1862, 1868, 1875, 1881, and 1891.

6. W J Garnett – Freshwater microscopy. London: Constable, 2ed 1965. The first edition was issued in 1953, and the second was reprinted in 1973. See also B Bracegirdle [1993] – Famous microscopists: Flatters & Garnett Ltd, 1901–1967, Proc. RMS, 28, 55–62.

7. G H Needham – The practical use of the microscope. Springfield: Thomas, 1958. The book was reprinted in 1977. This was an unchanged reprint, and not a second edition.

8. R V Krstić – Human microscopic anatomy. Berlin: Springer-Verlag, 1991.

9. W G Hartley – The light microscope, its use & development. Oxford: Senecio, 1993.

10. J C Deiman – Microscope optics and J J Lister’s influence on the development of the achromatic objective, 1750–1850. University of London PhD thesis, 1992. See also B Bracegirdle [1987] – Famous microscopists: Joseph Jackson Lister, 1786–1869. Proc. RMS, 22, 273–297.

11. S F Ray – Scientific photography and applied imaging. Oxford: Focal Press, 1999. See also B Bracegirdle [2001] – Essay review: photography for scientists, Quekett Journal of Microscopy, 39, 85–90.

12. F Rost & R Oldfield – Photography with a microscope. Cambridge: University Press, 2000.


Quekett Journal of Microscopy, 2004, 39, 655–659

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