Seeing the Invisible: Microscope Collection

Latest blog post from our digitisation intern, Kirsty Early.

Today, there are a variety of methods that enable us to visualize objects of microscopic proportions, from electron microscopes to light microscopes. However, the physical mechanisms of magnification were once a mystery to the human race.

Thousands of years ago, it was understood that water affected the view of an object. This was due to the manner in which water interacted with light, a concept known as refraction. Years later, philosopher Robert Bacon described the magnifying properties of lenses [1]. His major work Opus Majus was a milestone in the field of optics, with the first optical microscope being developed in the 16th century.

Within the College’s museum collection are several types of microscopes from the 18th to 20th centuries. Designs vary, which reflects the progression and improvement of microscopic technology. The Wilson-Type Microscope was designed by James Wilson in 1702, not as replacement for other microscopes, but simply as an alternative magnification tool [2].

Wilson-type microscope

Wilson-type microscope

Samples to be examined were placed onto a slide containing lenses of different magnification strengths. The position of the eyepiece could then be manipulated by a screw-mechanism, allowing the viewer to see different components of the target object more clearly.

Wilson-type microscope

Wilson-type microscope

Also within the collection is a Culpeper-style microscope (1725), whose design is not dissimilar to a Galileo microscope. Edmund Culpeper was an English instrument maker in the late 17th century. Although having made simple microscopes before, his personal design included a compound microscope with a tripod stand [3]. The tool was so popular that it continued to be manufactured for the next century [4].

Culpepper-type microscope

Culpepper-type microscope

The College has many resources on the life and works of Lord Lister, the pioneer of antiseptic surgery, but it also contains an example of his father’s work. Pictured below is an achromatic microscope manufactured by Andrew Pritchard, an optician and instrument maker of the mid-1800s. Joseph Jackson Lister, Lord Lister’s father, was a wine merchant with an interest in the study of optics [4]. His creation of a more accurate achromatic lens allowed for higher resolution viewing, and earned himself a fellowship in the Royal Society. Achromatic lenses focus light of different wavelengths in the same plane, hence producing a sharper microscopic image. This development in microscopic technology was truly revolutionary [5].

achromatic microscope manufactured by Andrew Pritchard

Achromatic microscope manufactured by Andrew Pritchard

The final example of microscope within the College collection is a monocular microscope from the 1900s.This microscope is most similar in design to those seen in laboratories today, although many today will be binocular. It contains a stand onto which a microscopic slide is mounted, kept in place by two pegs on either side. The light mechanism from the bottom is directed through the lens by a mirror, which reflects the light of its surroundings. Unlike the other microscopes, this model contains a simple switch mechanism that allows the magnification to be altered between 2/3” and 1/6 “.

monocular microscope

Monocular microscope c1900

Before the invention of the microscope, the only observations of the body were those visible to the human eye. However, under the microscope a whole new world was discovered.

1. Bacon, R., 1267. Opus Majus.
2. Wilson, J., 1702. The description and manner of using a late-invented set of small pocket microscopes, made by James Wilson; which with great ease are apply’d in viewing opake, transparent and liquid objects: as the farina of the flowers of plants etc. The circulation of blood in living creatures etc. The animalcula in semine, etc. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 23, pp. 1241-1247.
3. 3. Clay, R.S., and Court, T.H., 1925. The development of the culpepper microscope. Journal of the Royal Microscopal Society, 45(2), pp. 167-173.
4. Allen, E., and Turk, J.L., 1982. Microscopes in the Hunterian Museum. Annals of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, 64(6), pp. 414-418.
5. Bracegirdle, B., 1977. J.J. Lister and the establishment of histology. Medical History, 21(2), pp. 187-191.

The semi-flexible gastroscope

In her latest blog post, Digitisation Project Intern Kirsty Earley looks at the technology behind a mid 20th century gastroscope.

The development of gastroscopy and endoscopy evolved during the 19th century. Philipp Bozzini in the early 1800s is regarded as the first to attempt to see inside the body using a light source – at this stage candlelight and mirrors. The use of electric light in the later 19th century advanced the procedure. In 1868 Adolph Kussmaul tested a rigid gastroscope on a sword-swallower to establish the line from mouth to stomach.


Rigid gastroscope in Mayer & Meltzer catalogue, c1914

Prior to any form of recording technology, visualization of the gastrointestinal tract could only be achieved via rigid gastroscopes. These were essentially long telescopes through which the physician could view inside of the patient’s stomach (see illustration above and below).


Due to the limitations on flexibility, the patient had to be positioned in order that the gastroscope could simply slide down the oesophagus towards the stomach. It would then be rotated to visualize all areas of the stomach. Not the easiest of procedures. For gastroscopy to advance, something had to be done to the gastroscope itself.

Rudolf Schindler (1888-1968) was a German doctor who specialised in gastroenterology. Considered the “father of gastroscopy”, Schindler made incredible efforts to promote the use of gastroscopy as a diagnostic technique for gastrointestinal conditions [1].

Schindler was the brains behind the first ever semi-flexible gastroscope, created in 1931 [2]. He constructed the gastroscope in such a manner that the distal end could be rotated, while the proximal end remained stationary (see image below). This allowed easier access to all areas of the stomach. But how did he test his design? Often, his instruments were tested on his own children, especially his daughter Ursula as she had a strong gag reflex [3].


One of our mid 20th century gastroscopes

To ensure that procedures were being carried out safely, Schindler trained practitioners in how to use his gastroscope as a diagnostic tool. He argued for many years that gastroscopy should not become a specialised field of medicine, but an examination technique performed by any level of practitioner.


Detail of mid 20th century gastroscope

Ultimately, the gastroscope was replaced by fiberoptic endoscopes [4]. Instead of a flexible distal end, the entire length of the fibreoptic endoscope was flexible. This allowed the patient to be in a more natural position, e.g. sitting up, during the examination, [5].

Gastroscopy today involves examining components of the gastrointestinal system by inserting a wire-like endoscope down the patient’s throat. The endoscope contains a camera and light, and is controlled by the physician performing the examination. The images from the camera are then fed to a monitor screen for visualization.


  1. Gerstner, P., 1991. The American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy: a history. Gastrointestinal Endoscopy, 37(2).
  2. Olympus, date unknown. Olympus History: VOL 1 The Origin of Endoscopes. [online] Available at:
  3. Schindler Gibson, U., 1988. Rudolf Schindler, MD: living with a Renaissance man. Gastrointestinal Endoscopy, 34(5).
  4. DiMarino, A.J., and Benjamin, S.B., 2002. Gastrointestinal Disease: An Endoscopic Approach. Slack Incorporated: New Jersey.
  5. Hirschowitz, B., 1961. Endoscopic Examination of the Stomach and Duodenal Cap with the Fiberscope. The Lancet, 277(7186).

Dr Harry R. Lillie

We recently received an unusual donation, and one that holds an incredible story. A medical bag belonging to Dr Harry R. Lillie was generously given to the College, along with a copy of his book The Path through Penguin City (1955). In this blog post our Digitisation Project Intern Kirsty Earley explains its significance.


Dr Lillie’s medical bag


Dr Harry Russell Lillie was a surgeon and medical officer aboard British whaling ships in the Antarctic during the 1940s. Originally from Dundee, Lillie received his MB ChB from the University of St Andrews in 1939, previously graduating with a BSc Engineering in 1926.


Dr Lillie’s Baumanometer

He began his career at sea during the whaling season of 1946-1947. Serving up to 600 sailors at a time, Lillie was putting his surgical skills to good use at sea [1]. Life at sea was always busy, and certainly not a 9-5 job. Surgeons and medical officers had to be ready to deal not only with common illnesses contracted at sea, but also severe injuries of the whaling profession. It wasn’t unheard of for sailors to find themselves inside the mouth of the whale they were trying to hunt:

“Trapped with only his boots sticking out as the jaws came together, he got off with a moderately crushed chest and emphysema from the neck to the waist, but was back on his job in six weeks.” [1]


Dr Lillie’s surgical kit

As well as exercising his medical skills, Lillie was able to observe the conditions and methods of whaling in the Antarctic. The hunting of whales has been performed since prehistoric times, however the reasons for hunting whales has changed over time. Whales have been targeted as a food source for some communities, as well as being killed for oil and blubber.

The tools used to kill whales have evolved over the years. Lillie describes in detail the specific methods sailors used to take down their prey, and, as the true scientist he was, didn’t leave out any details. “Explosive Harpoons” were used to take down the whale instead of standard iron harpoons used previously. These harpoons had a delayed mechanism, where the spear would pierce the whale’s tissue, and then explode via implanted grenades after a few seconds. As would be expected with such a large mammal, death wasn’t immediate; often it required several hours for the whale to die after more than one harpoon fired.

Such scenes were the cause of Lillie’s campaigning for new whaling laws. He reported the horrific methods used to kill whales to make a clear point- things had to change. And things did change. His book The Path through Penguin City was published in 1955 and remains to be one of the most influential books in whaling conservation. Here he uses helpful imagery to explain the how horrible whaling was:

“If we can imagine a horse having two or three explosive spears stuck in its stomach and being made to pull a butcher’s truck through the streets of London while it pours blood into the gutter, we shall have an idea of the method of killing. The gunners themselves admit that if whales could scream the industry would stop, for nobody would be able to stand it.” [2]

It was this work that led to the formation of several conservation groups, including the International Whaling Commission, [3]. In fact, Sir David Attenborough has quoted Lillie’s work when discussing the still present inhumane methods of whaling [4].

With such an interesting background, it is safe to say that there is still much to discover about H.R.Lillie, his workings as a surgeon and as a conservationist.


  1. Lillie, H.R., 1949. With whales and seals. The British Medical Journal, 2(4642), p.1467-1468.
  2. Lillie, H.R., 1955. The Path through Penguin City. Benn Publishers.
  3. Society for the Advancement of Animal Wellbeing. Whaling. Available at:
  4. Kirby, A., 2004. Whaling too cruel to continue. BBC News. [online] Available at:

Cause of Death?

Latest update on our Uncovering our Medical Instruments project by our Digitisation intern, Kirsty Earley.

Death is an unfortunate certainty for us all, but how people die often differs. Sometimes it is even a mystery. Mysterious deaths are not only found in crime novels, but also in real life, and it is the job of pathologists to solve these mysteries.

The process by which pathologists determine the cause of death is known as a Post-mortem Examination, or an Autopsy. They will examine every inch of the body for any clues as to how the individual died. As would be expected, the examination involves several stages, with several different techniques used to investigate the tissue. Tissue is sampled and checked for any abnormalities. The pathologist may also test to identify any poisons that may be present in the victim’s system.


Wooden case containing a 20th century post-mortem kit.

Wooden case containing a 20th century post-mortem kit.


The findings can then be used to assist in a court case, e.g. to convict a suspected murderer. Biological evidence like this, along with DNA profiling, gives the court a strong indication of what happened to the victim, and whether or not to convict or release the suspect.

This is clearly a combination of medicine and law working together to discover the truth. However, this relationship hasn’t always existed. There was a time when post-mortem examinations were rarely carried out by medical professionals, but instead those who had some form of legal background. This all changed due to the efforts of one man- Thomas Wakley.

Thomas Wakley (1795-1862), was a surgeon based in London and also a coroner for the region of Middlesex, (1). During the 1800s, the care for employees was much more relaxed, workers in industrial environments were at high risk of injury, even death. For example, when the railways lines were first built, many of the men constructing the lines died while on shift. And this death rate increased over time. Hence, Wakley took it upon himself to campaign for medical coronerships. This would mean that coroners would need to have some form of medical training, ensuring that the cause of death would be investigated on a legal and medical level. This would then hopefully reduce the number of deaths.

Scalpel blades (c.1900) used in post-mortem examinations

Scalpel blades (c.1900) used in post-mortem examinations

Unfortunately, Wakley did not see the day when his fight was won. It was not until 1926 that The Coroner Amendment Act was passed, and the requirement for coroners to be legally or medically trained was compulsory (2). And this is still the case today; coroners must either be qualified lawyers or doctors with years of previous experience, (3).

An example of a post-mortem examination kit was found within the collection of medical instruments here at the College. It contains an array of instruments that were used during a post-mortem examination, including a bone chisel, cartilage knife, and solid steel saw. This particular kit dates from 1900, and it is uncertain as to who it belonged to and whether they were trained in medicine or not.

hooks and papers contained in the post-mortem kit

hooks and papers contained in the post-mortem kit

Despite the fact that there was much debate over exactly who should investigate the cause of death, the role of the coroner was still of vital importance in order to bring out justice in the courtroom.

1. Cawthon, E.A., 2004. Medicine on Trial: A Handbook with Cases, Laws, and Documents. ABC-CLIO: California.
2. Sprigge, S., and Morland, E., 1926. House of Lords: Coroners Bill. The Lancet, 1, p. 630.

The Vapo-Cresoline Scam

Latest update on our Uncovering our Medical Instruments project by our Digitisation intern, Kirsty Earley.

Ever see advertisements that offer to solve all of your problems? “Live longer by taking this pill!”, “Grow back your hair with this miracle wax!” There are a variety of products out there that promise outstanding results, but do they actually work? Or is it all a con?

We have good reasons to be sceptical of certain healthcare products; the exploitation of people through the manufacturing of useless healthcare remedies is not a new story. In fact, it has happened several times throughout history.

One of the most popular examples is that of the Vapo-Cresolene lamp.

Vapo-Cresolene lamp with box

Vapo-Cresolene lamp with box

The lamp advertised as a cure for a variety of respiratory conditions, such as asthma and whooping cough. The idea was that it was a “Night Lamp”, providing light during the dark nights, but also providing a cleansing vaporised gas that opens up the airways and cures ailments.

The glass container at the base of the lamp was to be filled with kerosene, dousing the candle wick. The lamp would then be lit for 10-15 minutes to heat up. Then, the cresolene, which is derived from coal tar, would be placed in the vaporiser tray above the flame of the lamp. Over time the cresolene would vaporise into the atmosphere.

But did it actually work? Was there any evidence to show that this lamp helped to cure respiratory diseases while people slept? This product was manufactured by The Vaso-Cresolene Company, which was founded in 1879. It was advertised in such a manner that the vaporised form of cresolene had antiseptic “superpowers”, able to kill all germs incredibly efficiently. After an in-depth analysis of the chemical constituents of cresolene by the American Medical Association, it was discovered that the vapo-cresolene lamp used the simple disinfectant, cresol. Any such miraculous powers of this chemical were deemed false.

Box containing the Vapo-Cresolene lamp

Box containing the Vapo-Cresolene lamp

The popularity of the vapo-cresolene died out with time. However, these lamps can still be found in charity shops, antique shops, and even everyday households. So, have a look around and see if you can spot this false cure from history!

Risky Business for Treating Tuberculosis

Latest update on our Uncovering our Medical Instruments project by our Digitisation intern, Kirsty Early.

The lungs are vitally important for the proper running of the human body. They help us get essential oxygen to the cells of the body and rid of carbon dioxide waste. Lung tissue itself is very flexible, and must be in order to expand and deflate during breathing. The lungs can essentially be seen as two balloons sitting in your chest cavity.

Due to their importance, any form of damage to the lungs can ultimately be fatal. Tuberculosis (TB) is an infectious disease that targets the lungs, and, if left untreated, can result in death. It is caused by an airborne bacterium known as Myobacterium Tuberculosis. As this condition mainly affects the lungs, common symptoms include a persistent cough with blood in the sputum, fevers, and weight loss.

Today, TB is mainly an issue in developing countries, with fewer cases found in Europe and the West. However, there was a time during the 19th and 20th century when TB was a worldwide concern. Although TB can be dated back to ancient times, it wasn’t until 1882 that the specific bacteria involved in TB was identified by Robert Koch, [1]. The current treatment of TB involves the administration of antibiotics, but this only came into practice in the late 1940s, [2]. Modes of treatment prior to antibiotics were a tad more invasive.

Artificial Pneumothorax

Artificial Pneumothorax

One such method was the Artificial Pneumothorax, pioneered by Carlo Forlanini. Forlanini was an Italian physician who specialised in research into TB and the respiratory system. He, along with his brother Enrico, designed a new model of an artificial pneumothorax, which allowed him to attempt to treat TB with “Collapse Therapy”. This technique involved introducing nitrogen gas into a patient’s pleural space, a small space between the layers of fibrous tissue lining the lungs. This gradual build up in pressure external to the lungs resulted in a pneumothorax, more commonly known as a Collapsed Lung, [3].

Artificial Pneumothorax

Artificial Pneumothorax used to treat TB with “Collapse Therapy”

This was quite a risky procedure. Applying too much nitrogen gas could collapse the lung to such the extent that the patient could die of respiratory arrest. If so dangerous, why was it used as a method of treating TB for nearly 30 years? The idea was that if the lung size was decreased, the lung would be able to relax and recover, [3]. It is difficult to see this as a treatment for TB as it had no effect on the bacterial infection itself.

Although collapse therapy and the use of an artificial pneumothroax was revolutionary at one time, the method was ultimately replaced by antibiotics. This reflects the development of medical practice as a whole; replacing invasive methods with minimally invasive procedures.


[1] Koch, R., 1882. The etiology of tuberculosis. Berlin Clinical Weekly, 19, 221-230.
[2] Rakovich, G., 2010. Artificial pmeumothorax: tapping into a small bit of history. CMAJ, 182(2).
[3] Sakula, A., 1983. Carlo Forlanini, inventor of artificial pneumothorax for treatment of pulmonary tuberculosis. Thorax, 38, 326-332.

Uncovering our Medical Instruments

We recently appointed a Digitisation Project Intern for Uncovering our Medical Instruments, a project which aims to make our collections much more accessible and visible. Kirsty will be photographing and researching our instrument collection, and sharing them as much as possible, via this blog, @RCPSGlibrary and the Museum Collection pages on our website.

Opthalmic Mask Higher Exposure

Ophthalmic Phantom, c1900 – 1920 (for teaching eye surgery)

The project will delve into our Instrument Store to uncover medical and surgical instruments and equipment that is rarely seen. These collections date from the 18th – 20th century, many with a link to Glasgow. As well as making these collections more visible online, the project will also contribute to our exhibition programme and pop-up displays.

Photography set up 3

Pop-up studio

So far Kirsty has been trying out some new kit and testing backgrounds. Many of the instruments are metallic so achieving the right conditions for digitisation can be challenging. The collections also vary in size, from tiny surgical needles to heavy respiratory equipment. Some items can’t be displayed traditionally, so we will develop digital displays to complement our exhibition space.

WT microscope side view high contrast

Wilson Type Microscope

Uncovering our Medical Instruments is a nine month project, kindly supported by Museums Galleries Scotland. During that time, we hope to provide access to hundreds more instruments from our collections.