A History of Science
Tome I
Tome II
Tome III Tome IV

Book 4, chapter V
Anatomy and physiology in the nineteenth century
Lister and the perfected microscope
At the same time when these broad macroscopical distinctions were being drawn there were other workers who were striving to go even deeper into the intricacies of the animal mechanism with the aid of the microscope. This undertaking, however, was beset with very great optical difficulties, and for a long time little advance was made upon the work of preceding generations. Two great optical barriers, known technically as spherical and chromatic aberration - the one due to a failure of the rays of light to fall all in one plane when focalized through a lens, the other due to the dispersive action of the lens in breaking the white light into prismatic colors - confronted the makers of microscopic lenses, and seemed all but insuperable. The making of achromatic lenses for telescopes had been accomplished, it is true, by Dolland in the previous century, by the union of lenses of crown glass with those of flint glass, these two materials having different indices of refraction and dispersion. But, aside from the mechanical difficulties which arise when the lens is of the minute dimensions required for use with the microscope, other perplexities are introduced by the fact that the use of a wide pencil of light is a desideratum, in order to gain sufficient illumination when large magnification is to be secured.

In the attempt to overcome those difficulties, the foremost physical philosophers of the time came to the aid of the best opticians. Very early in the century, Dr. (afterwards Sir David) Brewster, the renowned Scotch physicist, suggested that certain advantages might accrue from the use of such gems as have high refractive and low dispersive indices, in place of lenses made of glass. Accordingly lenses were made of diamond, of sapphire, and so on, and with some measure of success. But in 1812 a much more important innovation was introduced by Dr. William Hyde Wollaston, one of the greatest and most versatile, and, since the death of Cavendish, by far the most eccentric of English natural philosophers. This was the suggestion to use two plano-convex lenses, placed at a prescribed distance apart, in lieu of the single double-convex lens generally used. This combination largely overcame the spherical aberration, and it gained immediate fame as the "Wollaston doublet."

To obviate loss of light in such a doublet from increase of reflecting surfaces, Dr. Brewster suggested filling the interspace between the two lenses with a cement having the same index of refraction as the lenses themselves - an improvement of manifest advantage. An improvement yet more important was made by Dr. Wollaston himself in the introduction of the diaphragm to limit the field of vision between the lenses, instead of in front of the anterior lens. A pair of lenses thus equipped Dr. Wollaston called the periscopic microscope. Dr. Brewster suggested that in such a lens the same object might be attained with greater ease by grinding an equatorial groove about a thick or globular lens and filling the groove with an opaque cement. This arrangement found much favor, and came subsequently to be known as a Coddington lens, though Mr. Coddington laid no claim to being its inventor.

Sir John Herschel, another of the very great physicists of the time, also gave attention to the problem of improving the microscope, and in 1821 he introduced what was called an aplanatic combination of lenses, in which, as the name implies, the spherical aberration was largely done away with. It was thought that the use of this Herschel aplanatic combination as an eyepiece, combined with the Wollaston doublet for the objective, came as near perfection as the compound microscope was likely soon to come. But in reality the instrument thus constructed, though doubtless superior to any predecessor, was so defective that for practical purposes the simple microscope, such as the doublet or the Coddington, was preferable to the more complicated one.

Many opticians, indeed, quite despaired of ever being able to make a satisfactory refracting compound microscope, and some of them had taken up anew Sir Isaac Newton's suggestion in reference to a reflecting microscope. In particular, Professor Giovanni Battista Amici, a very famous mathematician and practical optician of Modena, succeeded in constructing a reflecting microscope which was said to be superior to any compound microscope of the time, though the events of the ensuing years were destined to rob it of all but historical value. For there were others, fortunately, who did not despair of the possibilities of the refracting microscope, and their efforts were destined before long to be crowned with a degree of success not even dreamed of by any preceding generation.

The man to whom chief credit is due for directing those final steps that made the compound microscope a practical implement instead of a scientific toy was the English amateur optician Joseph Jackson Lister. Combining mathematical knowledge with mechanical ingenuity, and having the practical aid of the celebrated optician Tulley, he devised formulae for the combination of lenses of crown glass with others of flint glass, so adjusted that the refractive errors of one were corrected or compensated by the other, with the result of producing lenses of hitherto unequalled powers of definition; lenses capable of showing an image highly magnified, yet relatively free from those distortions and fringes of color that had heretofore been so disastrous to true interpretation of magnified structures.

Lister had begun his studies of the lens in 1824, but it was not until 1830 that he contributed to the Royal Society the famous paper detailing his theories and experiments. Soon after this various continental opticians who had long been working along similar lines took the matter up, and their expositions, in particular that of Amici, introduced the improved compound microscope to the attention of microscopists everywhere. And it required but the most casual trial to convince the experienced observers that a new implement of scientific research had been placed in their hands which carried them a long step nearer the observation of the intimate physical processes which lie at the foundation of vital phenomena. For the physiologist this perfection of the compound microscope had the same significance that the, discovery of America had for the fifteenth-century geographers - it promised a veritable world of utterly novel revelations. Nor was the fulfilment of that promise long delayed.

Indeed, so numerous and so important were the discoveries now made in the realm of minute anatomy that the rise of histology to the rank of an independent science may be said to date from this period. Hitherto, ever since the discovery of magnifying-glasses, there had been here and there a man, such as Leuwenhoek or Malpighi, gifted with exceptional vision, and perhaps unusually happy in his conjectures, who made important contributions to the knowledge of the minute structure of organic tissues; but now of a sudden it became possible for the veriest tyro to confirm or refute the laborious observations of these pioneers, while the skilled observer could step easily beyond the barriers of vision that hitherto were quite impassable. And so, naturally enough, the physiologists of the fourth decade of the nineteenth century rushed as eagerly into the new realm of the microscope as, for example, their successors of to-day are exploring the realm of the X-ray.

Lister himself, who had become an eager interrogator of the instrument he had perfected, made many important discoveries, the most notable being his final settlement of the long-mooted question as to the true form of the red corpuscles of the human blood. In reality, as everybody knows nowadays, these are biconcave disks, but owing to their peculiar figure it is easily possible to misinterpret the appearances they present when seen through a poor lens, and though Dr. Thomas Young and various other observers had come very near the truth regarding them, unanimity of opinion was possible only after the verdict of the perfected microscope was given.

These blood corpuscles are so infinitesimal in size that something like five millions of them are found in each cubic millimetre of the blood, yet they are isolated particles, each having, so to speak, its own personality. This, of course, had been known to microscopists since the days of the earliest lenses. It had been noticed, too, by here and there an observer, that certain of the solid tissues seemed to present something of a granular texture, as if they, too, in their ultimate constitution, were made up of particles. And now, as better and better lenses were constructed, this idea gained ground constantly, though for a time no one saw its full significance. In the case of vegetable tissues, indeed, the fact that little particles encased a membranous covering, and called cells, are the ultimate visible units of structure had long been known. But it was supposed that animal tissues differed radically from this construction. The elementary particles of vegetables "were regarded to a certain extent as individuals which composed the entire plant, while, on the other hand, no such view was taken of the elementary parts of animals."




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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.