Category Archives: Events

Leeds’ Hidden Visionary: Louis Compton Miall and Magic Lanterns


Professor Louis Compton Miall, Photo by E. E. Unwin

To most current students in Leeds, the name Louis Compton Miall would mean very little. A few might recognise the name from the LC Miall Building, home of the Faculty of Biological Sciences. Our team certainly had never heard of him before we were assigned to create an exhibition on magic lanterns and their relationship with the University of Leeds.

While carrying out research for the exhibition Lighting the Way: Leeds and the ‘Magic’ Lantern, we noticed that Miall’s name kept recurring. It soon became clear that Miall and his pioneering work with magic lanterns have long been overlooked. His innovations were not only crucial to the development of magic lanterns, but to teaching more generally. More on Miall later, first a quick history of the lanterns.

First developed in the 1600s by the Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens, magic lanterns were an early form of projection equipment, which used a light source and a series of lenses to show images on a much larger scale than ever before. See this previous blog post for a more detailed discussion of the lanterns’ history and workings.

However, it was not until the mid-nineteenth century that magic lanterns started to be used widely in education – although in this context they were often called ‘optical lanterns’ instead as ‘magic’ was deemed not serious enough. In a darkened hall, a lecturer would deliver a talk accompanied by slides displayed by a specially-trained ‘lanternist’. This format was used for the rest of the nineteenth century, despite the obvious drawback of teaching in the dark and the difficulty of coordination between the lecturer and lantern-operator.

Lantern Teaching

Magic Lantern in Use During a Biology Lecture
History & Philosophy of Science in 20 Objects. Object 20: Magic Lanterns

Here, the intervention of Louis Compton Miall was pivotal. He was Professor of Biology at The Yorkshire College and its successor the University of Leeds from 1876 to 1907. In order to display his biological specimens more easily to his students, he developed a more stable and powerful lantern which could broadcast images that were visible even with the lights on. Miall could then combine the lantern with specialist equipment such as microscopes or liquid-containing ‘tank slides’, allowing the live demonstration of experiments to an entire lecture hall.


A Nineteenth-Century Newton and Co. Combined Lantern and Microscope
A. Pringle, The Optical Lantern for Instruction and Amusement (1899)

Professor Miall also altered the set-up of the lantern so it could be operated by the lecturer unaided. He could now seamlessly teach and operate the lantern, without having to interrupt his lectures to communicate to an operator if there were any difficulties. In an article of May 1890 from the Review of Reviews entitled ‘How to Utilise the Magic Lantern; Some Valuable Hints for Teachers’, its author summarises the benefits of Miall’s method:

“The most novel and important points are that the slides are exhibited in a well-lighted room, and all the necessary manipulations are done by the lecturer or teacher without any difficulty.”

Today, in the age of the digital projector, most University staff structure their lectures and seminars around a PowerPoint presentation, which they use to illustrate their points and invite wider discussion. This teaching method, which is so taken for granted today, relies on the innovations of Professor Miall in allowing lecturers to control their own presentations and show them in a lit room.

Without Louis Compton Miall, the whole structure and teaching practices of higher education could thus have been radically different. It is time to recognise Miall’s achievements with magic lanterns at the University of Leeds, and shine a light on this largely unsung educational pioneer.

In the Lighting the Way exhibition, we track the evolution of magic lanterns at the University of Leeds, including highlighting the contributions of individuals such as Professor Miall and other educators to the development of the lanterns’ educational potential. Amongst the objects on display are a lantern produced by the famous Newton & Co. optics; various lenses and accessories used in lecture halls, such as an elbow polariscope; and a small sample of the Museum’s collection of around 5,000 lantern slides, including two mechanical astronomy slides.

Lighting the Way: Leeds and the ‘Magic’ Lantern has been curated by MA Art Gallery and Museum Studies and MA Arts Management and Heritage Studies students in collaboration with the Museum of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine. It will be displayed in the Philosophy, Religion and the History of Science Common Room on the 1st floor of the Michael Sadler Building from 13 December 2018.

More information can be found on the use of magic lanterns in education at Leeds here.


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.

HPS in 20 Objects Lecture 9: Anthrax Finger. Or, ‘Death in 24 Hours’: The Making of Modern Anthrax

By Alex Aylward

The ninth instalment of the HPS in 20 objects lecture series centred upon easily the most gruesome artefact yet: a dismembered finger of an Anthrax victim, preserved since 1914 in formaldehyde. Dr Jamie Stark and PhD student Richard Bellis were our expert tour guides through time and across space, as we learned―through the lens of this grisly digit―about: the history of a disease (or, indeed, diseases); the birth of the practices of preserving and collecting anatomical specimens; the politically-charged negotiations of medical expertise amongst a wide variety of peoples, and most importantly; the infectious mohair of Turkish Angora goats.


Professor Greg Radick introduces the speakers, with the gruesome Anthrax finger to his right, and pictured on the screen

Jamie’s narrative began locally, with the case of the sudden death of James Greenwood, a Bradford wool-sorter who, in July of 1880, complained of an “aching in his bones” as he returned home from another gruelling day in the factory. Within 24 hours, he was dead. Reported in the local newspaper, Greenwood’s death was attributed to “Wool-sorters disease”. Nowadays, we would simply classify this malady as “Anthrax.” And we might think that by 1880, amid the so-called “bacteriological revolution” (the period in which medical practitioners began attributing causal status to specific microorganisms in the development of particular diseases), that Greenwood’s contemporaries would have been beginning to do the same. However, Jamie did a wonderful job of emphasising the protracted nature of the negotiations over the identity of this particular ailment; though the term “anthrax” was used at this time (and long before) to describe the symptoms presented in Greenwood, it was far from universal. For workers in the wool factories, branding the disease as their own, one specific to their working conditions, would provide leverage in bargaining for the improvement of these conditions. The establishment were sceptical, attributing the cases to the kinds of conditions found in workplaces everywhere, or even to the drinking habits of the workers. Disagreement over the cause, nature, and identity of this disease, which presented itself through sores and pustules on the skin (thus providing the excuse for our speakers to display numerous grim pictures), raged throughout most of the latter half of the 19th, and into the 20th century.


Dr Jamie Stark explains the representations of anthrax symptoms used to raise awareness among wool factory workers

Zoning in on the finger itself, we heard from Richard about the beginnings of the practices of preserving and collecting anatomical and pathological specimens in the 18th century. What with corpses being relatively difficult to come by, and possessing a limited shelf-life, the preserving of dismembered body parts was a flexible tool for building up a large catalogue of reusable specimens in teaching. Samples could be prepared in different stages of the decay process, or utilising various techniques to emphasise particular aspects of the specimen. The impact of these practices, Richard explained, extended beyond the realm of science and medicine, inspiring the innovative floral arrangements depicted in the paintings of figures like Rachel Ruysch.

   big-bird-anthraxRichard Bellis explains the drawbacks of using cadavers in demonstration; seven of the Sesame Street gang have to crowd around one specimen, as Big Bird orates

We were then transported from the local to the global (and back again), as Jamie resumed his story by telling us about Friedrich Wilhelm Eurich of Bradford, also known as “Professor Anthrax”. Eurich, we heard, was instrumental in putting measures in place to prevent wool-sorters from becoming victims of the disease, such as a system for wool disinfection, and the introduction of into factories of “cautionary notices” advising workers to seek medical advice immediately should any of the described (and colourfully pictured) symptoms present themselves. Leaving Yorkshire behind, we were taken across the globe to learn about some of Anthrax’s other alter egos. In Australia, the “Cumberland disease” ravaged livestock in the region of modern-day Sydney, prompting numerous attempts to provide cures or vaccinations for this economically detrimental illness, some more successful than others. We then moved on to Turkey, where the mohair of Angora goats living around lake Van was pinpointed by Bradford journalists as carrying the much-feared disease (known locally as “Dallack”) on its way to British shores.


The Angora Goat, in all its glory

The lecture ended with some provocative reflections. We tend to think of diseases as being well-defined, and the expertise upon them belonging to an exclusive and highly-trained medical elite. Dr Stark demonstrated how little over 100 years ago, the picture looked very different indeed. The diseases discussed in this lecture were defined divergently based, not just on symptoms and causes, but also on location, and even the occupation of the patient. Farmers, workers, employers and journalists joined physicians in offering their own thoughts on the nature of diseases. Later in the twentieth-century, the cultural authority of medical practitioners reached what may be seen by future historians as its peak. I can’t help thinking that today, as we increasingly consult search-engines and our fellow internet-users concerning matters medical, and the spectre of a “post-truth,” “post-fact,” “post-expertise” world looms, we are particularly well-placed to appreciate the fragility of the authority of medicine and science, and thus to uncover the historical and social processes through which that authority was achieved in the not-so-distant past.


Next month’s lecture sees the series reach its halfway-point. Professor Gregory Radick will introduce us to the Newlyn-Phillips Machine, and use it to show us “How Money (with Help from Models and Maths) Makes the World Go Around”. With the lecture taking place on 13th December, and thus well into the notoriously pocket-emptying festive season, I’m sure few of us will be able to disagree.

HPS in 20 Objects Lecture 8 – Brain Knife

The second HPS in 20 Lecture of this academic term has kept to the exceptional standard we have come to expect from this series. Like all of these talks, one central object was used to catalyse a discussion that ended up being extremely wide-ranging; taking us to considerations of the very nature of our being. However, the lecture began with PhD researcher and museum expert Laura Sellers explaining how the museum had come into possession of what initially seemed to be a rather ordinary looking Knife. Rather like the ones my Gran used to keep. However, this was in fact a knife used for dissecting the brains of the dead. Laura pointed out that it had been designed with a small horn handle and a disproportionately long blade in order that its users could wield it with the requisite delicacy for long cutting strokes through soft tissue. And who were these delicate users? Most likely, they were teachers and researchers working in Pathology at Leeds in the Algernon Firth Institute or Thoresby Place.


School of Pathology on St. George Street opened in 1933 by Algernon Firth

We were then shown images of the places and contexts in which these tools would have been used, leading up to the site of the current Medical School in the ‘concrete extravaganza’ that is the Worsley Building. I had just the week before started working in administration in the medical school and delighted at telling my new colleagues the next day that the Medical School had just had its 850th birthday on the 25th of October. Turns out I had misheard this and it was actually 185 years old.  They were either too polite or too sorry for me to point out my ridiculous error. Luckily there was nothing ridiculous in the main body of the lecture, which was given by Marie Curie Fellow Dr Sean Dyde.


Van Aeken, Cure of Folly or the Extraction of the Stone of Madness, 1485

Sean began his discussion of the brain knife by giving some context about why people have traditionally cut into brains and indeed into skulls, and pointed out that the notion of the mind being connected to the brain isn’t actually an especially Western idea. He then moved onto explain how he would situate the mind brain dichotomy in a particular discussion of the Age of Enlightenment, that is, the eighteenth century. Sean was clearly passionate about this subject matter and he really came into his own here, with some really lovely turns of phrase used to describe this period: ‘an Age of Improvement, an Age of Refinement, an Age of absolute monarchs, an Age of Enlightenment. A time of new wealth, paper money, stock bubbles and market crashes; Greco-Roman architecture, English gardens and Gin Lanes.’

At this point, perhaps predictably, but clearly necessarily, Descartes came in. It would be bizarre indeed to describe conceptions of the mind in the 17th and 18th century without resource to the Cartesian method. However, Sean did not relate the brain knife to philosophy in isolation; he took us on a fast paced tour of literature, politics, drugs, and science.

The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli



Sean was able to condense a great deal of complicated ideas into an entertaining and provocative lecture, which I found thoroughly enjoyable. My favourite parts probably centre round his discussion of Tristram Shandy (a book I have not read, but now intend to) and his ideas about the relationship of the romantics to God, art, and opium. The link between nineteenth century phrenology and a recent paper in the journal Nature, in which its authors highlighted 360 localised areas of the brain, provoked the most questions from the audience. There was in fact so much in the lecture that I’m really struggling to provide a succinct summary of the diverse areas it touched upon. Of course it was a subject area that I am well familiar with, but my friend Amy (a physiology researcher) said that she had loved learning about medicine in such a different way. It should not only be recommended for its variety, but also for the elegant prose Sean used throughout. I suppose what I want to get across is how interesting and entertaining this was, and highly recommend that anyone reading this should also watch the recording below.

As always though, these lectures are best experienced live, and the selection of objects on display at this one was particularly fascinating (or particularly disgusting depending on your sensibilities). A preserved sheep’s brain and wax models of embryonic development of the brain were used to good effect to illustrate points in the lecture, and we were invited to take a closer look at the end. On Tuesday the 22nd of November we are going to be treated to an Anthrax ridden finger floating in a jar, and I, for one, cannot wait.

HPS in 20 Objects Lecture 7: Biblical Herbarium

By Clare O’Reilly

A large late nineteenth century mahogany box with a collection of dried plants inside – a herbarium – is not the most obvious object that we today would associate with science. More surprising still, this single object unifies science with religion.


Dr Jon Topham began by explaining how important herbaria were in the practice of Victorian science by describing the contents of the box and its 38-page descriptive pamphlet. It was produced, at considerable expense, by Southhall Brothers, druggist and medical suppliers, in 1897. Herbaria like this were used as educational tools. Botany had a long association with medical studies, and students learnt plant identification and their medicinal uses from dried specimens. In schools, herbaria were used to illustrate God’s creation through the study of the natural world and ultimately brought biblical stories – of the reeds surrounding the hidden baby Moses, of the crown of thorns from Jesus’ crucifixion, – to  life.

A now-familiar and pervasive view is that Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection marked a turning point in the history of science, and was a major cause of conflict between science and religion. Evolution is often cited as the best example of the irreconcilability of science and religion, for example, by Richard Dawkins in his influential work The Blind Watchmaker (1986).   Jon argued that Victorian science and religion were not so in conflict as we are led to believe by those who use this historical myth to suit their own agenda in the present.


Perhaps the most famous historical clash between science and religion was the 1860 debate over evolution in Oxford, between Bishop Samuel Wilberforce and public intellectual, Darwin’s bulldog, Thomas Huxley. Jon dramatically challenged our popular understanding of this event, showing how it has been told and re-told to emphasise far more of an intense spectacle than actually took place, and that it was portrayed as establishing a straight choice between science or religion as polar opposites. Nineteenth century historians started this rhetoric and histories of this sort have been debunked by recent scholarship. The dispute was actually part of a wider struggle over who should ultimately be *the* authority on the natural world: the scientists or the clergy. At stake, for the new men of science like Huxley, was the professional status of scientists, who got to be professors, and how to free science from the influence of the Churches. Huxley himself was agnostic – he coined the phrase  –  and many scientists at the time took intermediate positions on evolution, reconciling their Christian faith with evolution by God acting through natural laws like Darwin’s natural selection.

picture1The lecture then moved on to far less-familiar people and more unexpected stories connected with the biblical herbarium, to show how religious belief has long been part of scientific practices, and scientific practices – specifically an interest in natural history and botany – was part of a good Christian lifestyle.

Science and religion was particularly intertwined in education, with educational organisations, like Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge, producing scientific publications with a religious tone. Even at the end of the century, many of the most successful popular science books were produced for a Christian audience. Jon used the story of Ellen Parry, daughter of a fashionable Bath physician, to show how science, “rational accomplishment”, was used by people to enhance their faith.

thumbnail_220px-hbtristram1908Jon then masterfully brought the lecture to its finale, by linking back to the biblical herbarium itself. The author of the pamphlet accompanying the box, Henry Baker Tristram, was a Fellow of the Royal Society but also a clergyman and Church Missionary Society activist. He was, perhaps most surprisingly, the first naturalist to apply Darwin’s theory in print. He embodied how, for many Victorians, the practice of religion and the practice of science were mutually supportive. He later opposed the Darwinians, but largely because of how they behaved, sneering and putting down their opponents, and because natural selection was inadequately supported, rather than because he regarded Darwin’s theory as atheistic.

This lecture was a fantastic demonstration of what professional historians do in challenging misinterpretations by those unwittingly back shadowing today’s debates on to the past. The history of science and religion is far more rich and complex than the popular polarising myth suggests.