Author Archives: Dominic Berry

About Dominic Berry

I am a historian and philosopher of science with particular expertise in the history of biology and technology.

Irene Manton and representations of the cell

Those with an interest in the history of cytology will be well aware of the remarkable changes that took place following the arrival of new imaging technologies in the twentieth century, particularly the electron microscope (EM). Questioned by some (such as Adrianus Pijper), aggressively promoted by others (most notably the Rockefeller Foundation), the origins and implications of representing the natural world with such devices have given many an historian a passage to publication. The aim of this post is to bring a great deal more attention to the botanist, cytologist and microscopist Irene Manton, who was arguably the greatest champion of the EM in the UK. Before any of my more knowledgeable readers get their knickers in a twist, I am sure she must already make an appearance in the secondary literature somewhere, I’ve just yet to find it! PLEASE HELP!

Synura – From the Irene Manton Collection, University of Leeds

The image above is just one of thousands upon thousands of micrographs taken by Irene Manton over her lengthy career. Her early work in the 1930s focussed upon chromosomes, before moving on to consider other intricate cellular structures including cilia and flagella, leading much later to nanoplankton, some of the smallest and most enigmatic life forms. Throughout this time her most consistent passion was microscopy, always seeking for new and better ways to see life at its smallest parts. Amongst the collections currently housed by the University of Leeds Library are some excellently well preserved items that date right from the start of her undergraduate days. Following her notes from her initial work on Cruciferae pursued in Britain and Stockholm (see earlier post) there are a series of drawing books that date from her time lecturing at Manchester. These contain her efforts to capture images of chromosomes gathering and dividing.

Notebook belonging to Irene Manton c1930 – Micrographs showing transition from metaphase to anaphase.

The notation on the right reads “Signs of chiasmata twisting in each cr.” placing Manton right at the cutting edge of then contemporary chromosomal work (I am of course thinking of the Nobel prize winning geneticist, and extraordinary female microscopist, Barbara McClintock, who was the first to observe the process of chromosomal cross-over). Manton could only be tempted to leave Manchester and take the Professorship at Leeds upon the condition that they establish a botanic garden (which has only recently been closed) and provide better equipment and facilities for a department that was, by all accounts, in decline. In addition, she was very quick to ensure the purchase of an ultraviolet microscope that, for a while, produced some of the clearest images achievable. Nor was this instrument immediately set aside upon the arrival of the EM, Manton instead often preferring to use the older machine.  (I do however suspect she was much more adept with the EM than one male colleague makes out in this obituary; say something once, and I’ll consider it, say it three times and you and me have got issues.) Considering her interests it seems strange that Manton never collaborated with her more well-known contemporary William Astbury. Perhaps Manton’s lack of notoriety points to something about the history of the rise of molecular biology and how that history has been told.

I’d like to end by pointing to the congruence between Manton’s search for stunning images of nature and stunning works of art. Not only were her slides once mistaken for paintings by Matisse*, but she consistently drew inspiration from, and attempted to inspire her students with, both modern and ancient works of art. Some of the receipts held in the collections would make your eyes water even today. Needless to say, there is much here for the historian of science to explore regarding the porous boundary between scientific and non-scientific representations of the world. Everything discovered in the collection thus far confirms that Manton (as a woman, a microscopist and a botanist) makes a fascinating figure in the history of twentieth-century biology, one in desperate need of scrutiny.

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*This is a story retold by Manton herself: ‘The Origins of the Manton Collection’ The University of Leeds Review, 32 (1989) pp. 153-159.


Irene Manton – Hidden treasures in the University of Leeds library

One of the HPS museum’s most important aims is to ensure that the university’s scientific heritage is preserved and celebrated. While we possess a great many items ourselves, if our expertise is called for we will work with the collections held by other departments on campus, helping to maintain them and ensure they get the attention they deserve.  This post is about precisely such a collection, one which is currently held in the University of Leeds library’s Special Collections department; the Irene Manton collection.

Irene Manton (1904-1988) image taken from Wikipedia

Professor Irene Manton is one of the most remarkable scientists to have ever worked at the University of Leeds. Of her many accomplishments the most widely known is her having been elected the first (and only) female President of the Linnean Society in 1973. In 2004 the Society published her biography as a special issue of its journal. Authored by one of Manton’s closest colleagues, Barry Leadbeater (who has kindly been sharing his knowledge of Professor Manton with the museum task force) you can download and read the biography (which is of a very high quality) on the society’s website for free. Despite witnessing and shaping some of the most important developments in twentieth-century biology, most notably through her pioneering work with the electron microscope, criminally little has been written about her. (If you know of any appearance by Manton in the secondary literature please do include it in the comments below.) Not only did Manton’s work attract international acclaim, but she studied and worked at some of the most influential botany departments of the time (chronologically Cambridge, the Botanical Institute in Stockholm, Manchester and Leeds – Leadbeater, 2004) while maintaining a passion for oriental and modern art. This connection between her love of art and the truly extraordinary scientific images captured by Manton, should make any historian of science’s ears prick up. While we’d love to be able to provide an example of such a picture, as yet, we haven’t found any. This is because the Manton collection runs to over fifty boxes, all of which contain any number of items and all of which exist in no form of order what so ever. Enter the historian of science.

Don’t be fooled by the numbers on those boxes, they correspond to NOTHING. Each of these (again, over 50) contain all manner of items; pre-prints, letters, lecture notes, micrographs, receipts- but above all, box after box of microscope slides. An entire careers worth! Each individual wooden case is capable of holding one hundred slides, and while few of them are full, thus far the museum has handled 66 of them!! And there are still many more to go.

A small sample of the very many slides that form a substantial part of the Manton collection

They are obviously an incredible resource, and together they chart the development of electron microscopy through some of the most important changes in molecular biology and cytology. The task for the HPS museum is to begin the slow process of bringing this archive material in to the light. This blog post, and those that will follow it, are an important part of that process. As it stands the Manton collection cannot be easily accessed by researchers. This is one of the most important things that the task force is hoping to collaborate with the library on improving. For now though, much remains to be done with the boxes themselves (like opening them). We’ll keep you updated as the process continues, and hopefully throw in a few juicy finds from time to time. For instance, one of Manton’s colleagues (I’ll spare their blushes) seems to have attracted a fair bit of attention from his PhD students. One particularly keen young woman, with an eye on his micrographs, wrote in a personal letter “Perhaps I could come and collect the plates sometime, and bring something for repayment (whatever you would like) at the same time?” An innocent offer to share scientific resources? Or an invitation to the forbidden!? Before you make up your mind, spend an entire day in an archive on your own.

Collections, Coffee and a weird Creamy Cake thing: Oxford Museum Conference

The Leeds History of Science Museum does not exist. This isn’t true, but it’s a good starting point when trying to explain to someone the status of the museum project. Our new museum Director, Dr. Claire Jones, has to try and get across to every interested party that we have museum displays, but no single museum to house them, that we have collections but no idea what’s in them, and that we have people who work on the museum, but no museum staff. Yesterday I was pleased to learn that this is by no means an unusual state of affairs nor a cause for concern. Claire, Jessica Henderson, Kiara White and myself went along to an Oxford meeting of the Science, Technology and Industry Subject Specialist Network. This is a body that brings together the people responsible for preserving and displaying scientific collections. We fuelled up on caffeine as we had to get up at an obscene time of day in order to make it. Our aim in attending was to gather useful information, contacts and of course potential sources of funding (and enjoy Oxford). The day was arranged around three panels, the majority of which described the work currently under way in different regions of the UK. For instance in the first session we were presented with the frankly remarkable work that has gone into the Glasgow based Riverside Museum for the history of transport and travel. The building looks incredible, and inside they appear to be leading the way in the use of digital displays. While the scope of the projects is far far greater than ours at Leeds, we were given a great deal to consider regarding the the extent to which we might be creative with our own displays. So too with the presentation given by Dr. Stephen Johnston on the Oxford Museum of the History of Science. This museum has garnered national attention of late for its innovative collaborative work, perhaps most notably its recent Steampunk exhibit, a video of which you can see here.

That morning we had already been discussing potentially using out magic lanterns in a display for the annual Leeds Light Night, and seeing the response to Oxford’s work in this direction was pretty inspiring.

Discussion throughout the day tended to focus on the lack of time available for the study of collections, lack of money for their proper care and display and finally the lack of coordination amongst curators when it came to collection rationalisation and the sharing of knowledge. Rather than moaning on about these things the majority of the conversation was dedicated to solutions, whether that be in the form of a collections management system developed at UCL or emerging networks for the sharing of expertise. In Lancashire for instance a curatorial register is currently being compiled in which each curator can put themselves forwards as an expert in particular fields, the aim being to call upon such people when an item in a collection baffles its home institution.  The success of this scheme will depend upon the flexibility of each institution, allowing their employees to dedicate time to outsider collections and so on. At Leeds we are already on the look out for precisely such people, and are currently working with the Wilderspin National School to evaluate some of our history of education items.

In the afternoon we were lucky enough to be given a guided tour of the Oxford Museum of the History of Science by Stephen Johnston. We were given a pretty comprehensive history of the museum and buildings, including the potential location for anatomy lectures, where the bodies of convicts hanged at the castle would be put to more creative use. At the same time we were given very clear descriptions of the sophisticated instruments on display in the museum, many of which would have been otherwise intimidating.

This tour was great fun, and definitely something for us to aim for once we have our multi-site museum up and running. After all, our HPS museum looks to emphasise the history of the university and its connections to our collections, a walking tour around the campus buildings and displays would clearly be ideal.

In sum, an enlightening day. Also the food was very good. Although dessert was this weird creamy cake thing in a glass.

p.s. The car journey on the way home turned into a sometimes heated discussion of methodological issues in HPS! We discussed the background to each of our different approaches to the subject, from social perspectives or the history of ideas and how our own HPS backgrounds continue to influence our work. I had never bothered to put myself to this kind of scrutiny and found it more than a little uncomfortable, after all, I am not a real person. When Claire and I were contrasting our approaches to HPS, our undergraduate dissertations quite strikingly demonstrated these differences. Claire had focussed upon child mortality in Birmingham in the nineteenth century, particularly the exceedingly high number of deaths from diarrhoea. I on the other hand had evaluated the Dawkins-Gould debate. (So from my perspective Claire rooted around in shit while bleating on about social injustice, while from Clarie’s perspective I spent my time fondling two highly successful and well educated white blokes). We then went on to discuss heritage; what it meant and what it meant to us. Jessica (well rested from her earlier sleep) put forward a strong defence of its value, and how she had always been brought up with a sense of where her family had come from and their culture. Jessica is American.

Miall’s Microscopy and the Modelling of more than Mammals


This is Hydrophilus piceus – ‘The Great Water-Beetle’. Of those beetles native to the UK it is second in size only to the stag beetle. What is more, it is the only insect to have been modelled by Friedrich Ziegler. While human embryology has tended to be the source of interest for those that come to the Ziegler models, it is always useful to bear in mind the wide variety of subjects in which these models were considered useful. What then was special about this beetle, and why does Leeds have a complete collection of the 34th Ziegler series?

Firstly, it is an ideal organism for the study of development. Not only does the beetle have a thoroughly interesting life cycle (including the building of a nest upon the surface of a pool of water) but includes moments in which one can see straight through its exoskeleton. This is possible after it sheds its skin, which occurs no-less than three times.

Secondly, it is cheap to maintain and can be grown easily in laboratory aquaria. Indeed in Britain, the homeland of aquarium keeping, they were commonly kept by amateurs and (if you couldn’t be bothered to catch one yourself) could be bought for the very reasonable price of 1 shilling.

Finally, in their early stages of growth, they are very very small indeed. For the study of this aspect of its development therefore, you would need a microscope, and preferably a series of Ziegler models with which to work.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, microscopy was beginning to enter into the disciplines of zoology and botany. In Leeds a very early advocate was Louis Compton Miall (1842-1921), who introduced a course on practical biology to, what was then the Yorkshire College of Science, in 1894. This was before the department had even built its own laboratory.  Samuel Alberti has described how such rooms were by no means pleasant places to work. Here he quotes a student from the early 1900s:

“the atmosphere is even more polluted & tainted than that of the Chemical Department…At the far end of the room are stationed mysterious jars evolving a strange & unpleasant odour, giving a decidedly fish-markety aroma to the place.”

While most of the messiest work would be done through dissection, Alberti has highlighted that microscopy was increasingly coming to dominate biological instruction. Miall was insistent upon each student becoming at least competent in the skills necessary for the preparation of slides and the ability to understand precisely what one was seeing. It was here that Ziegler’s models would have been of the most use. An excellent picture of the this kind of laboratory work, taken at Manchester (which can be found in Nick Hopwood’s ‘Embryos in Wax‘), demonstrates how each student would have access to these models, while carrying out their own microscopic analysis. Hydrophilus piceus would have been particularly important to the students at Leeds as Miall was widely acknowledged as one of the worlds foremost experts upon aquatic insects, publishing a book on the subject in 1895. You can read it here for free! Unfortunately the students in the picture at Manchester are busily working away at something other than insects, which in a round about way returns me to my original point.

It is usually the amphibian, reptilian, mammalian and of course human embryological models that receive the most attention in displays of Ziegler models. In choosing to display Hydrophilus piceus we are both recognising the history of the development of biology at Leeds and ensuring that as much as possible of the variety to be found in Ziegler is available to the public. To my knowledge the only other permanent display of such models in the UK can be found at Cambridge’s Whipple Museum of the History of Science. Other large collections can be found at the University of Aberdeen, the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh and the University of Dundee, while some examples are also held at the University of Birmingham. Finally, a few years ago the Wellcome Collection produced an exhibition surrounding the history of anatomy which included some Ziegler models. A video of the exhibition, which focusses upon the earliest examples of wax modelling, can be found below.

That’s everything for now, though this post is a work in progress. If you know of any other exhibitions focussing upon Ziegler in the UK, or have any recommendations for this post, please let me know in the comments  section.

Leeds and Seeds

Hello, I thought I would upload my pictures alongside a draft of the script I am writing for the video. I will then expand on this for the display description, so comments on either aspect (video/display description)  will be appreciated. (Any comments regarding the Coco de Mer in the background will not be considered irrelevant)

“Leeds was amongst the first universities in Britain to recognise that investigation of plants could go well beyond taxonomic classification. In 1907 it became one of a very few universities to offer a chair of Botany, a position which has since been held by many illustrious names. The first was Vernon Herbert Blackman who is now most widely remembered for his investigation of plant development, particularly how one plant can fertilise another and produce offspring. For this kind of research seeds are themselves important for producing the experiment subjects. However I have principally chosen this item for display in the museum because a well stocked seed collection was really the heart of any Botanical department. Here we see only a portion of a collection that would have run to hundreds of species and varieties, some common others very rare. The vast number of ways in which this collection can be put to work is staggering. Not only can these seeds be scrutinised for physiological and anatomical purposes, but they can form the basis of investigations into inheritance, fertilisation, classification and a whole host of other important biological questions. What is perhaps most interesting however is that there is every chance that one or two of these specimens could still be grown today. Some seeds have managed to germinate after decades or even centuries in storage. It makes you wonder what valuable genetic material might be hidden inside.”

Right then, what do you think? As it stands it takes me just over a minute to say this, going at a slower than normal rate. Have I crowbarred in the ‘hidden’ theme a little too brutally? Also, are we still on for filming these on the 18th?

UPDATE: You can view the finished video on the seed collection at the University of Leeds on our Youtube channel here.