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A Very Large Collection of Very Small Things

25 Nov 2016

Hannah Cornish

John QueckettThe museum collections at the Royal College of Surgeons contain over 50,000 microscope slides. Based on numbers alone, microscope slides form the majority of the RCS collections, but don’t always get the same attention as some of the larger objects. We hope to change that!

Some of the finest microscope slides in our collection were produced by John Thomas Quekett (1815 -1861). Quekett was a pioneering histologist who built a collection of slides giving the most astonishing overview of the natural world on a microscopic scale, a natural history collection in miniature.

Professor Quekett collected samples of minerals, fossils, plants and animals and prepared slides of everything from microscopic diatoms (below) to part of the placenta of a giraffe (bottom), and over 12,000 of these slides survive today. Quekett received specimens from all over the world and corresponded with some very famous scientists and explorers. Alongside these remarkable slides the College also holds Quekett’s diaries, manuscripts and some of his equipment providing vital context for his work.

Microscopic diatoms

In 1848 Quekett wrote A Practical Treatise on the Use of the Microscope which became a classic text for microscopists, and is known to have instructed Prince Albert in the use of his silver microscope. Such was his influence that shortly after his death a group of scientists set up an association that still bears his name - The Quekett Microscopical Club. Not surprisingly the recent review of our collections concluded that the Quekett material is “one of the strongest representative collections of Victorian microscopy and scientific practice in general in the UK and possibly the world”.

Giraffe placentaQuekett’s collection is proving to be of great interest to researchers working on the history of science, and over 170 years after Quekett started preparing his slides they are once again being used for scientific research. While some of the samples of soft tissue prepared by Quekett have degraded over time, the slides of harder materials such as fossils, bones and insect exoskeletons have survived in excellent condition, enabling modern researchers to gather data from the collection. In recent years researchers have used the collection to study pterosaur histology and bone remodelling in mammal species.

These are just some of the reasons we are running a project to conserve, protect and digitise the Quekett microscope slide collection, generously supported by The Quekett Microscopical Club. In the years to come who knows what these specimens will be able to tell us about the natural world and the history of scientific study.

Hannah Cornish, Collections Assistant

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