Philip Greaves

My dozen favourite books related to microscopy

Some years ago, John Delly writing in The Microscope, described ‘A Basic Microscopy Library’. In this, he identified a total of 144 entries, describing the process of decision as ‘a painful selection’. The author then ‘tortured’ himself further by selecting an ‘essential’ 39 works, again trimming these down to a ‘critical’ thirteen (assuming the hypothetical need to move to a studio flat) and a final three ‘desert island books’. Our Editor is indeed generous in allowing a total of twelve!

Unlike John Delly, who was proposing a balanced selection to cover a wide range of possibilities, my selected twelve reflect personal interests, personal abilities and those books which are most often off the shelf and either on the bench, or in my hand. The possibilities are tremendous. In 1993, Austin & Blankenhorn in the United States published a checklist of books relating to microscopes and microscopy [1], listing 1,333 books, excluding those relating to electron microscopy! And this was just the preliminary checklist.

In view of such a wide field to select from, my first book may seem a strange choice. However, The Microscope Made Easy, by Laurence Wells [2] was the book that I started out with and is the book that I still buy to encourage beginners. First published in 1957, with a second edition in 1969, probably followed by later editions, it is frequently available from the specialist book dealers or is often found while browsing general secondhand dealers’ stock. It should cost no more than a few pounds. There have been many books written at the beginner level in microscopy but many are too technical (does a beginner really need to understand diffraction theory?), too dull (a beginner needs inspiring) or focus too much on equipment that the beginner can probably neither afford nor justify. The Microscope Made Easy does not suffer any of these defects. In eleven chapters, the author takes us gently through an introduction to microscopy and rough mounting, through six chapters on easily available and easily prepared subjects for study, with three final chapters on making permanent mounts. The style is easy and instructive without being condescending. For example, when detailing changing objectives ‘Rack the tube up before unscrewing the objective – there is barely room for this when it is in focus – and replace the lens in its respective case, lest you knock it off the table’.

The advice on mounting also takes the beginner through simple dry mounts, glycerine jelly and Canada balsam, culminating in a rather ambitious fluid mount of cleared fish fry stained with Alizarin Red. Some 25 years after buying the book, I am still trying for success with that mount! One minor obstacle for using the book today is the lack of availability of some of the mounting agents described, due to onerous health and safety restrictions. A final attraction of the book, and one that inspired my early days in microscopy, are the plates, of which there are fifteen. Each consists of slightly stylised illustrations, in colour and black and white, of microscopic organisms (I was particularly fond of Rotifers and Infusoria, Plate XII and Freshwater Cladocera, Plate XIII), insect scales, algae and plants.

My second book has to be Peacock’s Elementary Microtechnique [3]. Various editions of this book have been through my ownership over the past few years, but it is the third edition which has stayed out on the bench most often. This is unashamedly a book of practical techniques and formulae; no glossy illustrations here, but a mine of information, rapidly accessible due to its clear layout. Personally, I do not find the first three chapters, 57 pages focussing on the microscope and ‘protoplasm’, of great value; better information is available elsewhere. The next two chapters provide clear instructions on ‘microtechnical processes’ and ‘technical methods’ and are of general use. However, there are books which provide greater clarity and a more depth understanding of the processes involved. Here, perhaps, this book’s ‘staining schedule’ approach is too brief except purely as a laboratory reference. However, where Peacock really comes into the ‘essential’ category is in the last two chapters which together make up more than half the book. Chapter 6 ‘Methods for specific material’ and Chapter 7 ‘Formulae and hints’ provide enough information for a lifetime’s interest in specimen preparation. The first of these chapters provides recommended schedules, in summary style, for processing a wide variety of material. Interested in growing pollen tubes (two methods), killing a slug (drowning) or sources for Taenia (four suggestions, all best avoided) – it is all here. Like The Microscope Made Easy, this chapter also contains a schedule for staining bone with Alizarin Red; needless to say, I have not perfected that version either. Chapter 7 provides formulae, with instructions for preparation, of a wide range of fixatives, stains, mountants and other reagents. The chapter also contains hints for the microscope laboratory; sharpening razors, cleaning glassware, hanging drop cultures to name a few. At the back of the book is a comprehensive table of refractive indexes (useful for dropping the RI of polyvinyl alcohol into conversation, but I suspect rarely used by most workers) and a general bibliography, not too detailed but adequate. Indeed, if our Editor was to force me into choosing only three books, I suspect that Peacock would be included.

The only challenger to Peacock’s position would be my next choice, The Microtomist’s Formulary and Guide by Peter Gray [4]. Indeed, if I could only select one book on microtechnique, this would be the one. Gray’s book, covering some 794 pages, is divided into two main parts. Part I, ‘The Art of Making Microscope Slides’ details various methods of mounting in 16 chapters. These cover whole-mounts made dry, in fluids (aqueous and non-aqueous), in gum, jelly and resinous media, smear preparations from fluid material and cut surfaces, squash preparations, ground sections, sections of free material, paraffin, nitrocellulose embedding, double embedding, frozen sections and finally injections. In each chapter, the relevant technique is explained in detail, choice of reagents justified and the process worked out – in great detail – using one or more examples of typical preparations. I know of no other books which come close to these chapters, both for breadth of technique and clarity of instruction.

Part II of The Microtomist’s Formulary and Guide is devoted to ‘Methods and Formulas Used in Making Microscope Slides’. Twelve chapters provide a most comprehensive coverage both of technique and published formulae for preservation, fixation, dye and metal stains, solvents, embedding and mounting media. A final chapter provides the ‘miscellaneous’ formulae, such as cements and varnishes, injection media and cleaning recipes. The extent of information provided by Gray in these chapters has to be seen to be appreciated For example, my work with tardigrades requires mountants that are miscible with water. Gray separately lists gum arabic media (34 formulae), gelatin media (39 formulae) and other water-miscible mountants (13 formulae). If there is a down-side to this coverage, it is perhaps the realisation that the perfect mountant does not exist! Finally, the book contains a comprehensive bibliography for all formulae quoted. I only have two minor criticisms of this book. Firstly, it does not provide good recommendations for how to obtain or process particular material. Few books are comprehensive in this field, but Peacock’s Elementary Microtechnique comes close. Secondly, the copy of Gray I hold was printed in 1953. Whilst there are more recent printings, the book has not, to my knowledge, been revised for the last 50 years. Perhaps the field is now too big to be summarised in one volume, with the developments in fluorescence staining and histochemistry. I suspect also that few people now mount the range of material that they did 50 years ago, and no longer require (or could afford!) one book covering all techniques.

Although I have other books on specimen preparation, each offering something, Peacock and Gray together are more than enough for one lifetime of practical microscopy. However, there is another book on the subject that I would not be without. I trust that our Editor will not be too embarrassed that I have selected his own A History of Microtechnique [5] as my next choice. Whilst much has been written, and is visible in museums around the world, on the development of the microscope, very little has been said on the development of specimen preparation, without which development of the instrument would have been worthless. A History of Microtechnique, first published in 1978, fills this gap in our knowledge. I hold the second edition (1987), published by Science Heritage Ltd. To my mind, this is the better edition. The quality of printing and binding, and use of colour illustrations, make this book a pleasure to own. It is also a book to read from cover to cover (don’t try that with Gray’s Microtomist’s Formulary and Guide!).

The author starts with a survey of microtechnique before 1830, before covering in detail the history of the subject from 1830 to 1910. For microscopic bibliophiles, the chapter on ‘Works on Microtechnique’ is essential reading. This covers not only those works known to most microscopists, but also the rarer (and consequently less well known) volumes. Whilst much of English microscopy at the time was focussed on development of the microscope, its application to medical research was more important in continental Europe and consequently, some of the more important works on microtechnique were published in France and Germany. Although no longer familiar to most British microscopists, these works are described in detail in this chapter, along with books from America and other countries.

The next chapter details the substances used in microtechnique. Seeing which substances have withstood the test of time, and those that have not, makes for interesting reading. Chapter 5 surveys the instruments used in microtechnique. As the author comments, it is surprising how little of the development of the microtome had previously been recorded, despite the number of microtomes still held in university departments and museums. Perhaps not as attractive as the ‘brass and glass’ of microscopes over this period, the microtome has nevertheless been essential in the development of microscopical science. The illustrations in this chapter are also most useful in identifying the various form of microtome; few museum catalogues provide illustrations of these instruments. The next chapter provides notes on commercial mounters, a taster of what was to come later from the author (and selected as another of my 12 books, below). Chapter 7 puts the preceding chapters into context by reviewing the state of histology in the 19th Century. A final chapter (added for the second edition) provides detail of the work of Leeuwenhoek, Hill and Quekett.

Throughout, A History of Microtechnique is profusely illustrated with line drawings of instruments and photographs (both black and white and colour) of instruments and slides, and each chapter provides a comprehensive bibliography. Quite simply, it is a pleasure to own.

I now move on to those books which have taught me the most about using and applying the microscope; they are also my points of reference when facing a new problem, or applying a technique which I only use infrequently. In this category, Rost & Oldfield’s Photography with a Microscope and Inoué’s superb Video Microscopy provide me with more than adequate theoretical and practical information.

Photography with a Microscope [6] is another of those well-produced books; attractive, well illustrated and readable throughout. This book, in my opinion, has to be one of the most informative and readable books on the subject. Divided into five main parts (totalling 19 chapters), plus appendices, the book covers basic photomicrography (i.e. low budget), microscopy, special optical techniques, advanced photomicrography (high budget) and materials and processing. Although much of this is available elsewhere, Rost & Oldfield strike a superb balance of theory, practical tips and humour – rarely found in a book on this subject. I particularly like the differing opinions of the two authors. For example, in the chapter on Darkground Illumination, we learn that an alternative name is “darkfield illumination, a term that co-author Ron prefers”. A chapter that is most useful is that on “Presentation: aesthetic and related considerations” (chapter 5). This early chapter is most important in considering what comes later – what is the intended use of the photomicrograph? Such considerations affect not only the resolution required, but also the style and composition. These aspects are rarely taken into account. The chapter also covers the basics of the three main reasons for taking photomicrographs; transparencies for presentation at meetings, illustrations for publication (either in their own right or to support a scientific paper) and poster presentation at meetings. These considerations are also useful to those who mount display panels at Club meetings.

A final aspect of quality of Photography with a Microscope is the quality of illustration. Few of the ‘illustrations’ are pictures – these show the quality to strive for, and no doubt provide inspiration to all who have not yet achieved this quality. However, the majority of illustrations are truly that – they illustrate an important point in a clear and easily interpretable fashion. The only exceptions are the photographs of microscopical equipment; I suspect that microscopists and photographers are equally impressed by optical equipment!

Inoué & Spring’s Video Microscopy [7] is definitely not a book for the beginner. This Journal [8] has already provided an excellent essay review of this book and I shall not attempt to repeat that information here. Although the book can be criticised because of its high price (£72), many would not hesitate to spend this amount on yet another objective; the book will be the better buy. Video Microscopy is a tough read but it is possible to read it cover to cover – I have. The reward for those who do persevere is a much clearer understanding of the microscope, how to apply it, and what the possibilities are of the optical microscope when coupled to the video camera and computer. I have great respect for those who can apply such technology – as the authors have – to image biological structures well below the resolution limit of the optical microscope predicted by diffraction theory. For the more humble amateur microscopist, there is much information in this book on how to assemble a video microscopy system and optimise it to give the best image; digital video cameras and monitors come with a plethora of adjustments which can control image quality. Other aspects of video microscopy, such as editing and tape management, are also covered.

Only a few years ago, application of video technology to the microscope was a promising area of application for the amateur microscopist, allowing recording of behaviour. Sadly, this has recently waned in favour of application of digital ‘stills’ imaging to the microscope which, in my opinion, only offers convenience over conventional microscopy. I hope that more microscopists can be encouraged to buy or borrow the book and renew their interest in this important field.

Between Photography with a Microscope and Video Microscopy, most microscopists are provided with enough theory and equations (in the latter book) for a normal lifetime. I therefore now move on to a subject dear to many microscopists, the historical books in this category can be divided into two groups, although I am not sure where the boundary between them falls.

In the first category, there are those books which are of historical interest because of their age and, in the second, those books which have been written more recently covering historical aspects of microscopy. In the first category, I suspect that Spitta’s Microscopy [9] and Carpenter’s The Microscope and its Revelations [10] would appear in many amateur’s top twelve books. Neither book needs introduction. For me, the attractions of Spitta’s book are the illustrations of the microscope stands of the day, for a variety of purposes, and the chapters on objectives. Testing objectives was important in the 19th Century and early days of the 20th, when manufacturing quality was less uniform than it is today and the chapter on this subject (chapter XIV) is one area where Spitta excels. Even today, this chapter is of widespread interest for amateurs, who often buy and use elderly objectives. For all microscopists the chapter is a test not of their lenses, but of their prowess in manipulating their instruments. Also in this book I enjoy the previous chapter, detailing the choice of objectives by a number of the workers of the day. Again, much of this still has application, although the range of objectives available new today is quite different from that available 90 years ago. Here we learn that David Bryce, in his work on the Rotifera, prefers a 1 in. and a 1/4 in., with only occasional recourse to a 1/6th; higher power objectives have insufficient depth of field, such that “every movement takes them (rotifers) out of focus”. However, Mr. C. F. Rousselet, “one of the greatest living authorities upon Rotifera” preferred a 12 mm apochromat and the 2.5 mm water immersion apochromat by Zeiss for studying the fine anatomical structure of living specimens in water.

Carpenter’s The Microscope and its Revelations is, to me, the definitive book of Victorian microscopy. In its 1099 pages (I have the seventh edition, revised by Dr. Dallinger), 756 figures and 20 plates, microscopes, accessories and subjects for the microscope are described and illustrated in detail. It is perhaps the range of accessories which is most impressive; five pages of live boxes and compressoria, seven pages of eyepiece micrometers, four pages of nosepieces, and so on. This is invaluable information for any collector of microscopes or accessories. Although recent publications have taught much about the mounters of slides from the 19th (and early 20th Century), collectors of mounted slides will also find Carpenter of great value in understanding the subjects they show. Although much of plant and animal taxonomy will have moved on (several times over!) since 1891, reference back to the names of specimens in Carpenter does allow a greater understanding of what one is looking at!

Although some microscopists lament the ‘good old days’ of microscopy, I always feel that we have never had it so good; good optical quality is generally available at low cost, a range of image-enhancing techniques are now available, and some superb books are recently published. Of these, it is on the subject of historical microscopy that we have indeed been fortunate in recent years. Two that I would not want to be without are great practical guides to historical microscopy; these are The Great Age of the Microscope [11] and Microscopical Mounts and Mounters [12].

The Great Age of the Microscope is a catalogue of the collections of the Royal Microscopical Society, held at the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford. The author, Gerard Turner, has done a superb job of describing the collections, which trace the development of the microscope from the early 18th Century to the mid 20th. Some 453 items are described in detail, all supported by clear photographic illustrations. The value of this book is threefold. First, it provides an atlas of the development of the light microscope over a period of some 200 years. Second, it is my book of first choice for identifying a microscope stand, accessory or maker. Third, the complete descriptions provided by the author of each microscope should serve as a model to anyone who aspires to publish descriptions of microscope stands. An additional aspect to the book is in daydreaming – how to ‘invest’ that winning Lottery ticket! Catalogues of other museum collections are also useful in achieving the above, but none is as comprehensive as Turner’s book; both in quality of content and extent of the collections described. We are indeed fortunate to have such a collection accessible in the UK.

For most of us, however, microscope slides are generally more collectable, generally costing less, being more available on the market and a lot smaller to store. Microscopical Mounts and Mounters is the only book that I am aware of that provides a guide to the companies and individuals who provided the legacy of slides from the 19th and early 20th Centuries, and of the subjects they mounted. The book, written by Brian Bracegirdle, Editor of this Journal, and published by the Quekett Microscopical Club, is divided into two sections. The first, of 105 pages, provides an alphabetical list of names of mounters, initials and objects mounted. This has been a monumental undertaking by the author, and reflects his access to an enormous number of slides over the past 40 years, and reflects also his methodical cataloguing of these. The second section of the book provides 60 plates, each in full colour showing up to 18 slides. As a reference book for anyone with an interest in slides, this book is essential. However, the book cannot hope to be complete in its coverage and indeed the author hopes in his preface that the book will stimulate more interest and exchange of information. There is a great pleasure when acquiring slides of checking the label against Dr. Bracegirdle’s book, in the hope of having found something new.

For my last two books, I move on to those volumes that describe microscopical subjects. My interest in the tardigrades is perhaps somewhat specialised and it serves little purpose to describe the books and monographs which are most important to me in this field. However, the two favourites that I have in this section neither describe what I typically study, nor are they off the shelf and beside the microscope on a regular basis. They are, however, superb books and I thoroughly recommend them. The first is Ward & Whipple’s Fresh-Water Microscopy [13]. The book starts with chapters on ‘conditions of existence’ and methods of collecting. Whilst I am sure that our knowledge of freshwater ecology has advanced significantly in the last 80 years, it is the subsequent 28 chapters which make the book so useful today. These describe the various plant and animal groups to be encountered in freshwater, from bacteria and bluegreen algae (Cyanobacteria) to the aquatic vertebrates. Each chapter provides an overview of the group, often with details of methods of collection and handling, followed by an illustrated dichotomous key for identification to family, genus or species level. Reference to more specialist taxonomic works will be necessary to study any of these groups in detail but the value of Ward & Whipple is in providing a basic guide to any organism found in freshwater. No pond-hunter should be without it.

My final book is an inspiration to all practical microscopists, but also to those with little or no knowledge of the subject. It is Canter-Lund and Lund’s Freshwater Algae [14]. If choosing a single book on microscopy for a coffee table, this would be the one. The authors have illustrated their subject superbly, both from a technical point of view and artistically. Most of the illustrations are in full colour, are either half or quarter page and are simply stunning. However, the book is more than just a collection of pictures showing the beauty of the Algae. It is also a most readable introduction to the subject, providing a comprehensive overview of our state of knowledge of the various algal groups, their commercial uses, and their biology. Perhaps the one regret I have with this book is the realisation of what superb coverage could be made of other groups of microscopical life, given the abilities of authors, illustrators and far sighted publishers.

So, there are my twelve books; to be made to survive with just these would not be a hardship. It is, however, a strange quirk of human psychology that I have another 200 or so microscopical books on my shelves.


1. Austin, V. A. & Blankenhorn, R. C. [1993] – Microscopes and Microscopy. A Preliminary Checklist. Redondo Beach: The Gemmary. [133 pp.].

2. Wells, L. [1969] – The Microscope Made Easy. London: Warne, 2ed. [255 pp.].

3. Peacock, H. A. [1966] – Elementary Microtechnique. London: Arnold, 3ed. [547 pp.].

4. Gray, P. [1954] – The Microtomist’s Formulary and Guide. London: Constable. [795 pp.].

5. Bracegirdle, B. [1987) – A History of Microtechnique: the evolution of the microtome and the development of tissue preparation. Chicago: Science Heritage, 2ed. [393 pp.].

6. Rost, F. & Oldfield, R. [2000] – Photography with a Microscope. Cambridge: University Press. [278 pp.].

7. Inoué, S. & Spring, K. R. [1997] – Video Microscopy – The Fundamentals. New York: Plenum Press, 2ed. [742 pp.].

8. Bracegirdle, B. [1999] – Book Review and Essay Review: Video Microscopy, The Quekett Journal of Microscopy, 38, 319–323.

9. Spitta, E. J. [1909] – Microscopy. London: Murray, 2ed. [502 pp.].

10. Carpenter, W. B. [1891] – The Microscope and its Revelations. London: Churchill, 7ed. [1099 pp.].

11. Turner, G. L [1989] – The Great Age of the Microscope. Bristol: Hilger. [379 pp.].

12. Bracegirdle, B. [1998] – Microscopical Mounts and Mounters. London: Quekett Microscopical Club. [225 pp.].

13. Ward, H. B. & Whipple, G. C. [1918] – Fresh-Water Biology. Boston: Stanhope. [1111 pp.].

14. Canter-Lund, H. & Lund, J. W. G. [1995] – Freshwater Algae – Their Microscopic World Explored. Bristol: Biopress. [360 pp.].


Quekett Journal of Microscopy, 2002, 39, 391–396

↑ Top of page