Friday, September 30, 2011

Mystery Microscopist

Many years ago, when I was a student, I was given this box of old prepared microscope slides. I can't remember who the donor was but they've been at the back of a cupboard for years and only emerged when I was having a clear-out, a couple of months ago.

They date from around the time of the First World War. Some were commecially prepared by the firm of Watson & Son, of 313, High Holborn, London - labelled with beautiful handwriting, in mounts that were so well ringed with shellac that they have remained in perfect condition for almost a century.

Others were prepared by the original owner, who I'm guessing must have been a chemist because many are cystalised mounts of chemical compounds, intended to be viewed with polarised light, made from substances that would only have been available to a professional chemist - possibly a plant biochemist because quite a number of the crystals are naturally-occuring plant compounds that he might have extracted and purified himself. One contains the only clue to the identity of the mystery microscopist, because he has written his name in chemical crystals on the slide - 'SID'.

Sid would have looked at these specimens with a rather primitive instrument called a Fox Polariscope - so Sid probably wouldn't have seen the images in quite the same vibrant colours that you can see here, achieved with a modern polarising microscope. The specimen above is strychnine...

... this is floridzin, an alkaloid from apple roots... is this one, too.

This is mercuric cyanide


Coumarin, the compound responsibe for the scent of new-mown hay...

Salicin, extracted from willow bark and the precursor of salicylic acid ,better known as aspirin...

... and ammonium bitartrate


  1. At least they weren't Dexter's.

    Nice find.

  2. Beauty and history and mystery all combined. What a treasure!

  3. Amazing, I mostly look through a polarized light microscope (looking for animals) and tiny crystals in soil always attract my attention

  4. The polarised light really brings out the structure. Amazing.

  5. Hi Wilma, I love the way the colours change when you rotate the specimen - must work out a way of showing that on the web...

  6. Hi Antares Cryptos, I still ahven't explored them all....

  7. Hi Alan,I'd love to know more about the person they originally belonged to....

  8. Hi Starshade, there are some rock samples in the slide collection - I'll post pictures of some of those too

  9. Hi John, it does have a way of adding magic to the mundane....


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