HPS in 20 Objects Lecture 16: Irene Manton’s Slides

By Simon Newey

In 1946 Irene Manton became the first female professor at the university of Leeds. Her work on botany using electron microscopy to study cell structures in greater detail than ever before, contributed to ground breaking discoveries made in these fields, as well as earning her several academic honours never before held by a woman. While at Leeds, she covered the walls of offices and labs with prints and artworks, many of them from east Asia, or schools influenced by east Asian art. These art works often hung next to prints of electron or ultra violet microscopy.

These images often had a striking resemblance to one another, leading one visitor to confuse artworks for micrographs. They later commented on “that mad professor at Leeds who colours her micrographs, cuts them up and puts them on the wall”. Manton herself acknowledged the similarity between these images, and made clear that she did not see her collection as art, but “as working tools with which the scientist endeavours to comprehend certain aspects of the world which are not science.”

In this talk, Nicola Williams, Alice Murphy and Steven French set out to help us understand Irene Manton and the strange connection between art and science, that led her to amass this collection of images.


Nicola Williams began the talk with a fascinating account of Manton’s life and personality. Manton was presented as a force of nature, whose background, intelligence, and personality allowed her to break through the glass ceiling of her day. Manton devoted her life to exploring the structures of plant cells using cutting edge electron and ultra violet microscopy. This new technology could give unprecedented insights about the microscopic world, but required skilful interpretation. Scientific models had to be developed from a range of (often unclear) images, produced with different technologies, at different length-scales. Manton’s skilful use of this new technology allowed her to make important breakthroughs, including successfully identifying structures within cilia and flagella.

Manton was skilfully presented through a broad range of objects associated with her life. From sketches of plant structures, she made during her school days, to the Philips 100 Electron Microscope with which she worked, and of course her art collection. Nicola presented us with Manton as a complex character with a fascinating lifelong attachment to art.

Alice Murphy then took over to discuss representation in art and science, and the connections between Manton’s art collection and her work as a microscopist. Alice began by discussing the philosophical question of whether art can ever be a valuable source of insight or knowledge. Plato believed it could not. He believed that it did not stem from a serious knowledge or understanding of the subject, and so, was likely to mislead. Recently however, Catherine Elgin has argued that art departs from truth only in the way that scientific models do, and so should not be regarded as misleading, but helping us to a particular understanding.


Alice began by using examples of satirical drawings to show how departing from the form of the physical object allows the artist to represent other aspects of their subject. She then proceeded to show the same themes in cubist and expressionist works, as well as Chinese and Japanese art which influenced these schools, often using examples taken from Manton’s collection. She compared this to the ideal gas law, as an example of a scientific model that departs from the dynamics of actual gasses, in order to exemplify particular dynamics of these gasses which can be hard to discern without these idealisations. In both cases an informative and explanatory representation of a subject is being achieved by idealising away from the details of the actual subject. Alice concluded with a fascinating discussion of the similarities and differences between these types of representation.


Finally, Steven French concluded with a discussion of observation in art and science, and the role that developments in scientific observation within the lifetime of Irene Manton are likely to have had in forming her attitude to art. Manton’s professional life was spent working with a range of microscopes, using electrons, ultra violet, and visible light to produce images of microscopic structures. These were often cutting edge technologies, and could be extremely difficult to operate and interpret. The makers of the Philips 100 electron microscope themselves described successful use of the microscope as “being rather more of an art than a science”.

The images produced by these highly technical instruments are very different from traditional notions of observation. Manton worked hard to interpret these images, sorting informative data from often unclear micrographs. It is easy to see why schools of art work that took a broader of view of how images represent, might have appealed to her. Steven continued with a discussion of whether or not these kinds of microscopy can really be considered as observation, given the exceptionally technical methods needed to make sense of them. He concluded by returning to the idea that an image could be representative, even if it does not resemble observation in the traditional sense. This possibility can clearly be seen in both the art collection, and the technical work, of Irene Manton.


HPS in 20 Objects Lecture 14: Coral, or, A fragile enigma brings lessons from the shallows

Blog by Arthur G. Carlyle


Dr Ellen Clarke and PhD student Emily Herring promised to transport us to a tropical paradise in this fourteenth instalment of the HPS in 20 Objects Lectures, and they did not disappoint. The object of April’s lecture was coral, a small marine invertebrate closely related to the sea anemone and jellyfish. Corals, Ellen and Emily told us, are, and have been, the source of an enigma: corals disrupt the human tendency to divide life into discrete categories.


Animal, vegetable, or mineral? It seems easy to know to which of these options any particular lifeform belongs, but as Emily quickly pointed out, which of the boxes corals belong in have been historically tricky. In fact, before the 18th century, most naturalists used to believe that corals must be either a mineral or a plant! The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle even had a word, ‘zoophytes’, for organisms that fell somewhere between the categories of “plant” and “animal”, and it’s likely that he included corals in this category.

So confounding are corals, that an explanation for it found its way to into Roman poetry where Ovid offers a mythological account of its existence. Most of us know about the great hero, Perseus, who, in the Metamorphoses, Ovid describes as killing the Gorgon, Medusa. Medusa, it’s told, had the ability to turn those that gaze upon her into stone. On his journey back home with Medusa’s, Perseus slays a sea monster with the aid of his new trophy. After, he washes his hands in the salt water, placing Medusa’s head on some underwater plants such that it would not be bruised by the sand. The powers of the head, Ovid tells us, affected the plants such that they turned to stone. Water nymphs see this, and after dispersing the seeds of the plants, fill the oceans with corals—plants that are soft below the waves but turn to stone above the water’s surface.

Not everyone believed corals to be plants or minerals, however. Al-Biruni (973-1048), an Iranian scholar hypothesised that corals were neither a plant nor a mineral, but rather an animal because they responded to touch. This idea didn’t really take off until the eighteenth century, however, until a French physician by the name of Jean-André Peyssonnel (1694-1759) tested corals in a variety of different ways. Doing this, he noticed that they responded to the touch. This observation led Peyssonnel to believe corals were animals.  By the 1770s it was believed that the coral reefs were caused by the growth of the animals.

Henri Bergson (1859-1941) would later ask what the primary difference between animals and plants were. He believed that the overlap of animal and plant properties that existed in organisms such as corals blurred the boundaries between the two kingdoms. When asked which characteristics animal life had that plant life did not, and vice-versa, Bergson concluded that no such characteristic existed; plants and animals then must not be static entities, according to Bergson, but points on a spectrum.

Emily and Bergson

Emily talking about Bergson (photo credited to Alex Aylward, follow on Twitter at @_amaylward)

Around the same time Bergson was working, the zoologist Julian Huxley (1887-1975), started forming his own metaphysics inspired on Bergson’s writing. Huxley began thinking about what it meant to be an individual. Regarding the matter, he concluded that individuality was not a static category, but was rather like everything else in the living world in that it was something that had evolved and continued to evolve. Individuality came in degrees, according to Huxley, such that an individual coral polyp could be considered an individual, but so couldn’t a coral colony.

The lecture then turned from history to philosophy as Emily handed over to Ellen. Ellen then explained a contemporary problem in biology and philosophy of biology that corals stand as an example of. Huxley’s question, “where is the individual now?” is still pertinent. How do biologist and philosophers of biology know how to distinguish a single living thing from many? This problem isn’t as difficult for many of the organisms that we interact with on an everyday basis, but some organisms are not as easy to distinguish the individual from the many. Corals, as you might have guessed given the lecture’s topic, are such a problematic case.

Many corals are colonial, meaning that at some point in their life, the coral polyp will begin to “bud”, making a colonial copy of itself. When doing this, a polyp will either rip itself in two with each half regenerating into a full polyp, or cells will begin to grow outside of the polyp making a larger object. Understanding this phenomenon, the scientist and philosopher are confronted with a problem: what is the individual? Is a polyp a separate organism? Or is the polyp only a small part of a larger organism? The answer is unclear.

Coloniality isn’t the only puzzle one faces when studying corals. Colder water is better at sustaining life than warm water. To help survive the warm water in which they live, some corals make friends in the form of symbiotic relationships with a species of algae that lives inside its tissue. The algae give the coral nutrients and oxygen, and the coral gives the algae protection and carbon dioxide and other required nutrients.

Because of this and other examples of symbiotic relationships, some have argued that a host and all of its symbionts count as a larger organism—a “holobiont” organism. However, this position has not persuaded everyone. Instead of understanding the individual as the larger “holobiont” organism, some biologists and philosophers have suggested that it is more accurate to view the host and its symbionts as separate organisms. Once again the answer is unclear, and the conversation regarding it continues.

Coloniality and symbiosis illustrate how difficult it is to determine what counts as an individual coral. These cases and the puzzles that they reveal are still discussed lively today as much (if not more) than they were back when Bergson and Huxley investigated the issue. What Ellen and Emily’s presentation showed us, is that individuality comes in degrees and that there are no neat, tidy boxes in biology.

The lecture ended with Ellen speaking about the current disappearing coral reefs brought upon by threats such as invasive predators, pollution, and rising sea temperatures. In times of the stress brought upon by these and similar threats, the corals eject their symbionts, causing them to lose their colour and “bleach”, which can cause them to die if they don’t quickly regain their symbionts. Although these events are known to have happened before, the amount of bleaching that has recently occurred leads experts to predict that most of the world’s coral reefs will be destroyed by 2050. Despite this bleak revelation, a ray of hope is illuminated: humans are attempting to save the reefs, such as marine parks, coral reef nurseries, “designer reefs”, and coral probiotics. Ellen also showed us that reefs have disappeared before, but given their resilience have come back. This led her to conclude that the reefs may have a better chance of recovering from the destruction we are causing on this planet than we have—corals may be back way after we are gone.

bleached reefs
The whiteness of the reef means that it has been bleached. (Photo credited to Laura Sellers, follow on Twitter at @LauraSellers11).

HPS in 20 Objects Lecture 13: Perpetual Motion Machine

By Clare O’Reilly

In 1904, Arnold Lupton, the Professor of Mining at the University of Leeds, donated a “decidedly quaint” curiosity to his university, a painting of an impossible object, a perpetual motion machine. The imposing oil painting depicts a large central over-balanced wheel connected to a fly-wheel which in turn ran a music box, a clock and a pump, which worked a fountain.


Perpetual Motion Machine Painting

Perpetual motion is the idea that a machine will work self-sustained and forever. Once the laws of thermodynamics were established by the end of the nineteenth century, people realised that perpetual motion cannot work. However, a steady stream of inventors have proposed such machines, from the thirteenth century to today.

Dr Michael Kay dramatically opened our lecture with the cry “roll up, roll up, to see the incredible perpetual motion machine.” In the mid-nineteenth century science became a public spectacle, as crowds enthusiastically attended lectures, exhibitions and science demonstrations.  The perpetual motion machine was featured in side shows at nineteenth century funfairs in America and possibly in Britain, despite the fact that it did not work. By 1861, Henry Dircks in his Perpetuum Mobile; or A History of the Search for Self-Motive Power lamented that seven centuries of perpetual motion machine failures had not deterred would-be inventors. Leonardo da Vinci thought about the concept and decided that it wouldn’t work. That did not stop others from attempting to design increasingly complex machines. These machines were well-known enough by the 1860s for the satirical paper Punch to ridicule perpetual motion. We can get an idea of how popular perpetual motion machines were from the hundreds of patent applications in America and Britain made for similar contraptions. What is unclear is whether the idea was for such a machine to drive other machines and produce power. That gives the device more commercial potential but the distinction was blurred, perhaps deliberately, between a machine that works forever and one that can drive other machines. A patent marked your invention as legitimated by the monarch, so a funfair curiosity could become a serious business proposal.

Michael explained that our machine was invented by Robert Hainsworth, a Leeds mechanic and later an assurance agent. We know little about him, other than that, in the 1890s, he took out a series of patents for valves and small mechanical parts, and lost his job in 1899. The connection between Professor Lupton and Hainsworth is uncertain, but they shared a political affiliation (both men opposed compulsory smallpox vaccination), and as a mining engineer Lupton would have been interested in machines to pump mine water. The painting was probably produced in the 1890s, but in his letter giving the painting to Leeds University, Lupton never explained where the painting has come from.

The story of the perpetual motion machine, and our painting, illustrates two recurrent themes in history and philosophy of science: the close association between technology and scientific knowledge and the role of artisan maker’s knowledge in science. Francis Bacon’s aphorism ‘knowledge is power’ (1597), that science would improve human life through its application, became the underlying new philosophy of science of the Enlightenment. This Baconian view recognised that empirical learning through instrument and machine-making could extend science itself. Science could also be practiced by an artisan, and not just by those with book-learning from a privileged background. The development of the steam engine provides a familiar example of maker’s knowledge in the history of technology: James Watt, a young instrument maker, partnered with natural philosopher Joseph Black, to improve the prototype ‘atmospheric engine’ and Watt steam engines were sold from the 1770s for pumping water from mines. This coupling, of artisan maker and scientist (as professionals doing science were known by the late nineteenth century), was also a feature of our perpetual motion machine’s story – although, as Professor Graeme Gooday then explained, Lupton would have known that the perpetual motion machine is impossible.

Graeme continued the lecture with a tour of the history of thermodynamics. There are at least two different forms of perpetual motion machines depending on whether the perpetual motion involves power being drawn from a machine or a machine just operates without power being drawn. Fraudsters demonstrated the latter to try to sell people the former type of machine.  Charles Henry Draper’s best-selling physics textbook of 1893 noted that all attempts at producing a perpetual motion machine had failed; and explained why each type of machine was impossible. A machine cannot create or destroy energy, only transform it. This is the first law of thermodynamics, or, as Graeme quipped, “you can’t get more out than you put in”. Graeme explained how maker’s knowledge was involved again in the history of physics. In the 1840s, Manchester industrialist James Joule used his knowledge of brewing to establish a quantitative relationship between work and heat, and to infer that all was energy, which cannot be converted, and so established the first law. A perpetual motion machine would have to create energy without energy input and so is impossible. The second law of thermodynamics states that the more energy is transformed, the more of it is wasted, and the system moves towards entropy. So “you can’t get more out than you put in” and the second law is “you can’t get even that.” The second law means that power cannot be drawn from a perpetual motion machine. Ironically, the two types of failed perpetual motion machine have provided overwhelming experimental support for the first and second laws of thermodynamics.


A Perpetual Motion Machine  Model by Andy Sloss and HackSpace Leeds

The lecture ended with a modern-day contribution of maker’s knowledge from Andy Sloss of Leeds HackSpace. Andy had made a model of the perpetual motion machine in the painting. He described how his model should work and its various problems with friction and energy demand for 43 moving parts and 99 points of contact. The model is also unstable. It seems reasonable to assume that the designer must have been either a fairground con man or a gentleman dilettante inventor with little actual practical knowledge of machine-making. In fact, it seems likely that Hainsworth was neither, but instead an impecunious but inventive individual who believed that his machine might enable him to escape his bad fortune. The painting has wrinkles across the canvas which suggests that it was repeatedly rolled up. Perhaps Hainsworth used it to show potential investors, like Lupton, his invention? The quest for perpetual motion, Lupton thought, was “decidedly quaint” and Hainsworth was unlikely to get far with the professor yet, ironically, the quest for perpetual motion illustrates a wider shift of importance in the history of science and technology. At the start of the twentieth century, the combination of practical, artisan skills and commercial enterprise was emerging as a defining characteristic of modern science.


From Left to Right: Greg Radick, Andy Sloss, Michael Kay and Graeme Gooday

A video of the lecture is now available on our website. Please click here.

HPS in 20 Objects. Lecture 12: Laennec Stethoscope, or: is it?

By Polina Merkulova

The stethoscope is one of the most familiar medical instruments of our time and serves as a universal symbol of medical profession. In the 12th lecture of the HPS in 20 Objects series Dr Adrian Wilson and Caz Avery shed light on the incredible role this humble instrument played in bringing about the medicine as we know it now.

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“What do you think of when you think of a doctor?” Dr Adrian Wilson and Caz Avery tell us that “stethoscope” is, of course, the right answer.

They started by explaining historical significance of the stethoscope and percussion (a clinical method of tapping on the chest to determine if there is liquid inside), which completely transformed diagnosis and medicine as a whole. Before those techniques were introduced – percussion in 1761, stethoscope in 1819 – medicine had largely been patient-led. It meant that doctors based their diagnosis on the symptoms described by the patients, which is reflected in the diagnostic categories of the time. However, the popularisation of those clinical methods brought forward anatomy-based medicine characterised by diagnosis founded on the combination of symptoms, anatomical causes and specific signs observable only to a trained practitioner.

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Caz demonstrates percussion of the chest.

Why were the stethoscope and percussion crucial? Firstly, both of them allowed the doctors to “see” inside the living body by listening to the sounds it produced, hence, they provided the doctors with the means to make their own observations independent from the patients’ self-report. Secondly, both methods relied on anatomico-clinical correlation – the activity of relating symptoms in the living patient to the subsequent post-mortem findings in the dead body. The inventors of the new methods used it to prove that they helped to accurately identify causes of the patient’s symptoms, e.g. that a dull sound produced by percussion was the result of excess liquid in the lungs.

Although the necessity of linking symptoms to anatomical causes seems painfully obvious to a modern observer, Adrian explained that it was not always so. He argued that before the end of the 18th century the opportunities for carrying out anatomico-clinical correlation were severely limited; it was technically very difficult as both the symptoms and post-mortem findings were seldom simple; and it need to be done systematically on a vast scale to be useful for diagnosis. Until these difficulties were overcome they had not only prevented the invention of new effective methods of medical examination but, also, the recognition of their importance. For instance, other doctors did not accept percussion, invented by Auenbrugger in mid-18th century, until 1794, when it was taken up at the newly established Paris medical school, which offered the opportunity for anatomico-clinical correlation on an earlier unprecedented scale.

The stethoscope’s inventor, René Laennec, first studied and then taught at the Paris school. He frequently used percussion and a method known as immediate auscultation (listening to the patient’s chest by applying an ear to it directly) and, he claimed, that the relative ineffectiveness of the latter practice led him to inventing a better one – mediate auscultation or listening through the stethoscope. Caz told us, that Laennec first got his idea when faced with a difficult case in 1816 and then perfected it further working with the TB patients at Necker Hospital. He presented his invention to the Paris Académie des Sciences in 1817 and published the book on mediate auscultation in 1819.

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Laennec examines a consumptive patient with a stethoscope in front of his students at the Necker Hospital by Théobald Chartran. As we now know, here Laennec is performing immediate auscultation, while simply holding the stethoscope in his hand.

In contrast with percussion, the stethoscope was taken up very quickly in most of the main centres of medical teaching across Europe. Our own stethoscope demonstrates as much. Its design clearly shows that it was made within 10 years of Laennec’s original invention. We know that it was donated by a Leeds doctor Edward Atkinson and that he had received it from his father, a surgeon John Atkinson, who studied in Paris. This furnishes us with three possible origin stories for our stethoscope: it might have come straight from Laennec himself, or made in France and imported to Britain, or made by one of the first British stethoscope-makers in London. Even though it would be interesting to determine which one of these options is true, the lecturers assured us, that, in a sense, it does not matter because all three point to the incredible and immediate popularity of the stethoscope not only in France but also in Britain.

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A fragment of the relief in the Temple of Kom Ombo (Egypt) sometimes misidentified as a stethoscope.

The lecture was concluded by the handling session with the 3D-printed replica of the museum’s stethoscope and a brief Q&A session, during which Adrian and Caz dispelled a popular myth that the stethoscope was invented by ancient Egyptians and engaged the audience in a lively discussion about the future of the stethoscope.


*Join us on the 28th March for Lecture 13: A Perpetual Motion Machine*

HPS in 20 Objects Lecture 11: Astbury Camera or, ‘From Dark Satanic Mills to DNA’

By Alex Aylward

Many of us enjoy rooting for the underdog. The sporting world is probably the arena in which this sentiment is most commonly manifested. But what about the history of science? In the 11th lecture in this series, Dr Kersten Hall and Helen Piel treated us to an underdog’s tale: a tale of Leeds’ important place in the history of molecular biology;  of prescience and priority; of the serendipity of scientific discovery; a tale, as is becoming customary in this series (see lecture 9 on the ‘Anthrax finger’), of wool.

Few scientific achievements are as salient in the public consciousness as the discovery of the double-helical structure of DNA, the genetic material. Most of us know the story of the co-discoverers, James Watson and Francis Crick, announcing to their fellow patrons at the Eagle pub in Cambridge that they had “discovered the secret of life.” And nowadays, as Kersten emphasised, we can barely glance at the news without being greeted by stories of genes-for this-or-that trait, or disease.

Mythbusting is a not-uncommon activity for the historian of science. Textbooks and the media often package up the history of a given scientific episode in neat and convenient ways, jettisoning many of the extra details and actors that make them so fascinating. Nowadays, we rightly remember the essential role that Rosalind Franklin played in the unravelling of the helix. But there are still other strands to the story, missing from the yarn that popular accounts and student biological texts habitually spin. Kersten and Helen ably weaved these additional strands, yielding a more nuanced and inclusive history of the dawn of molecular biology.



Astbury’s x-ray camera

The textile-inspired metaphors are not accidental. The story centres on wool. When the young William Astbury left London for Leeds in 1928, to take up a Lectureship in Textile Physics, he worried he was “going into the wilderness.” In London he had worked with William Bragg, former Cavendish Professor of Physics at the University of Leeds, who along with his son Lawrence, won the 1915 Nobel Prize in Physics for their work in the development of X-ray crystallography (the principles of which Helen Piel adeptly informed us, with the help of some rather fetching ‘x-ray specs’). Bragg set Astbury the challenge of investigating whether, and how much, X-ray crystallography could tell us about the nature of molecules that make up living things. Wool, being central to Yorkshire’s economy, was an obvious and potentially profitable, place to start. Through this work, crucial steps were made in understanding the molecular structure of proteins, and it represents a milestone in the explication of everyday properties of biological materials (the springiness and stretchiness of wool) with reference to the structure of its constituent molecules.


A mathematician colleague of Astbury celebrate the latter’s investigation of wool with a poem

In the 1940s, the pioneering work of Oswald Avery (another crucial figure in the origins of molecular biology whose achievements have been perhaps unduly dwarfed in popular histories by those of Watson and Crick) alerted the scientific community to the role of DNA (previously presumed to be a merely structural cell component) as the genetic material. Astbury and his colleagues were galvanised, and against the obstacles of a hesitant University Senate, sub-par infrastructure, and snubs by funding bodies, the X-ray camera was utilised for probing the structure of DNA. Indeed, in 1951, an image strikingly similar to Franklin’s ‘Photo 51’ (which has been described as one of the most important photographs in history, and was a crucial clue in Watson’s and Crick’s proposing the double-helical structure of DNA) was produced. Lacking the conceptual framework for interpreting this image in the way his Cambridge counterparts famously did, Astbury shelved the photo, devoting instead his attention to the manipulation and utilisation of biological fibres towards human ends (resulting in the ICI fashioning him an overcoat made from the fibres extracted from monkey-nuts!). Kersten speculated that, for Astbury, who was guided by an interest in structure, rather than function, a helix (if he had managed to hit upon such a model), might even have been disappointingly monotonous.


An image that features in Astbury’s student Florence Bell’s PhD thesis in 1938 showing x-ray diffraction patters caused by DNA


The lecture was anything but. The narrative was littered with quips, voice-clips, and anecdotes about locks of Mozart’s hair, as well as profound reflections on what light the story of Astbury’s involvement in the origins of molecular biology could shed on some of the big questions about science and the study of life. Outside of the UK, Kersten mused, mention of Leeds quite often evokes (if it is known at all) mention of The Who’s Live at Leeds, recorded at the University student’s union in February 1970. Kersten and Helen assured us not only that William Astbury should take pride of place in any who’s who of Leeds, but that Leeds itself deserves recognition in any discerning history of molecular biology.


Kersten treated us to a real who’s who of Leeds History

The 12th lecture in the series takes place on the 28th February at 6:30pm, in the Rupert Beckett Lecture Theatre. Dr Adrian Wilson and Caz Avery will introduce us to an early stethoscope, throught to have been made by the device’s inventor René Laennec.