How To…See with the Microscope

By Michael Sappol

Microscopy was the coming thing in late 19th-century medicine. If you were an ambitious doctor, no matter what your field of interest, you probably wanted to own a good microscope, and apply it to the questions at hand. What do the structures of human and non-human bodies look like? How does that help us learn what these structures do? What happens in the human body when disease occurs? What do diseased tissues look like? And, really exciting, what microorganisms are present in diseased tissue? To find the answers to all these questions, you could consult Dr. J. Edward Smith’s book How to See with the Microscope.

But before you could do any of that, you had to obtain a fine quality instrument (which could be pricy). Then you could begin to learn how to see with it. Which was not an obvious or easy thing to do. If you didn’t know how, you might just end up confusing optical effects and distortions with the object you wanted to see. Or missing the fine details that distinguish one microorganism or tissue sample from another. Historians like Jutta Schickore and Jonathan Crary have shown that seeing with microscopes was something that had to be learned and practiced, and that the practice of seeing with microscopes changed how doctors, and patients and the general public, saw things and saw themselves. There were, Jonathan Crary tells us, “techniques of the observer,” many technologies of viewing.

A man sits at a table looking into a microscope.How to See with the Microscope is a book for beginners, containing “useful hints connected with the selection and use of the instrument,” and advice on monocular, binocular and “duplex” microscopes, stands, apertures, lenses, lighting, high and low magnification, preparation of slides, “the uses and abuses of the microscope,” and even the positioning of the person looking through the scope (a whole chapter on that). And “also some discussion of the claims and capacity of the modern high-angled objectives, as compared with those of medium aperture; with instructions as to the selection and use of American object-glasses of wide aperture.” All of which, at the time, were matters of disagreement and even some controversy. There was even a “war of the apertures” conducted in the medical press. Obviously you had a lot to learn, and the book’s author, Dr. J. Edwards Smith, was a vocal advocate of “eye training.”

Interestingly, Dr. Smith was a “Professor of Histology and Microscopy in the Cleveland (O.) Homœopathic Hospital”—homeopathists were as much interested in microscopy as regular physicians—and he consorted with regular physicians as a member of the Illinois State Microscopical Association and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Inscription reading: Col.J.J. Woodward Surgeon USA, with the kind regards of J Edward Smith, Cleveland Ohio March 10 1881The National Library of Medicine’s copy of the book was touched by Smith’s hand. He autographed it and presented it to Joseph Janvier Woodward, M.D., then a prestigious surgeon and curator at the Army Medical Museum and Army Medical Library (the ancestor of the National Library of Medicine). Sixteen years earlier, Woodward had performed autopsies on both Abraham Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth. In 1881 he served as one of the attending physicians to President James Garfield, following Garfield being shot by Charles Guiteau, and during this period Woodward was well known in microscopical circles for his work in developing photomicrography.

J. Edwards Smith, M.D., How to See with the Microscope (Chicago: Duncan Brothers, 1880). 410 pp. illustrated.

Read other How To… features from the NLM Collections here.

profile portrait of Michael Sappol in ChicagoMichael Sappol is a historian in the History of Medicine Division of the National Library of Medicine.