Peering Back In Time – 19th Century Microscope Slides of William Sullivant

Peering Back In Time – 19th Century Microscope Slides of William Sullivant
Posted August 23, 2022
Topics: Natural HistoryMuseum Collections

By David Dyer, Natural History Curator

I’ve written previously about large things like mastodons and dire wolves. Now let’s switch gears to the smallest objects in our collections – tiny objects on glass microscope slides. But the specimens on the slides, ranging from the scales of a 1.5 mm arthropod called a water springtail to the ovipositor (egg-laying organ) of an ichneumon wasp, are not what’s of interest here – rather it’s the beautifully created microscope slides themselves and their history.

When I returned the Ohio History Connection in 2013 as a curator, I noticed an unassuming dark wooden cabinet on the shelves in the collections. I thought it probably contained a microscope or other equipment from a previous curator’s lab. I was amazed when I opened one of the nine porcelain-handled drawers in the cabinet and saw an array of very old and beautifully created microscope slides!

William Sullivant's microscope slide cabinet

William S. Sullivant’s microscope slide cabinet (Ohio History Connection photo)

Most of the slides are glass and are wrapped in paper with varying designs and color. At first I didn’t think there would be any way to accurately know the time period that the slides were produced nor who made them. As I looked at the slides more closely I noticed that some of the wrappers had names on them. A quick internet search revealed who the makers were, where they worked, and showed examples of their distinct designs.

The easiest to track down were slides with the name of the slide preparator printed right on the wrapper. Paper wrappings on slides were first used to help hold down the cover slip – the small and very thin piece of glass that covers the specimen. The wrappers then became more decorative over time. The slide pictured here is from Joseph Bourgogne (1803 – after 1879) of Paris. He began his slide production business in 1835 and eventually was rated by his peers as the most important slide preparator of the 19th Century. He won numerous awards at exhibitions in Paris and London, and his mounts were in demand from scientists all over the world. Joseph also had a unique design to his slide wrappers. Circular holes were cut in the top green wrapper and the name of the specimen is written on the lighter colored under wrapper underneath. This prevented having to use gummed labels which could loosen and become lost over time. Two of Joseph’s sons, Charles (b. 1832) and Eugene (b. 1838) continued the family business and became noted for their high-quality slide preparations

Detail of Joseph Bourgogne prepared slide. (Ohio History Connection)

Slides produced by Joseph Bourgogne with wrappers similar to his slides from mid-1850s

Slides produced by Joseph Bourgogne with wrappers similar to his slides from mid-1850s. (Ohio History Connection)

Some of the slide wrappers didn’t have the maker’s name, but this distinctive wrapper was easy to match by comparing to known slides on the internet. These slides, using a black wrapper with a gold pattern, were prepared by Conrad von Rappard (1805 – 1881) of Switzerland. He produced slides under company names of August Menzel & Co. or Engell & Co. Most of his slides were produced between 1850 and mid-1860s.

Slides of Conrad von Rappard.

Slides of Conrad von Rappard. (Ohio History Connection)

Conrad von Rappard

Conrad von Rappard

It would take an entire blog post to summarize the life of Conrad von Rappard, so here’s the brief outline. He studied law from 1823 – 1827 and eventually became a judge in several towns in Germany. He also dabbled in mining and established several successful coal mines in the Brandenburg region. In 1848 he was elected to the Frankfort National Assembly. However that did not last long, and in 1849 the Assembly was dissolved. Due to his political stance and involvement in several rebellions, a warrant was issued for his arrest. von Rappard managed to flee to London, but was tried in absentia and was destined to prison if captured. He later settled in Switzerland and pursued business interests in mining, hotels, and yes, even microscopy! He earned a Phd in 1852 in Paris, studying a group of marine animals known as sea cucumbers. This helps explain why many of his slide mounts are of sea organisms. The von Rappard slides are different from many others. Instead of having the specimen name written on the slides, each slide is labeled with a number. He sold slides to many different countries  and included a printed list, ordered by number, in the correct language. The von Rappard slides we see today that have specimen labels glued on were probably added later by scientists who didn’t want to keep referring back to the printed list.

Microscope slides by John T. Norman

Microscope slide by John T. Norman. (Ohio History Connection)

The ornate green wrapper often used by John T. Norman was also an easy one to identify, especially with the letters JTN entwined with plant vines. He would sometimes include an extremely small version of the Norman monogram, hidden in the intricate pattern on a slide. However I couldn’t find this on our Norman slides.

The John T. Norman microscopy business operated in London for 90 years, from its beginning by John Sr. in 1846 to the death of his son Alfred in 1936. The business was indeed a cottage industry, and operated entirely out of the family home for all those years. Five of John’s sons worked in the family business, and most of them for many years. The 1868 advertisement pictured here gives the address as 178 City Road, the site of his home and workshop for many decades. It is now, ironically the site of the Royal London Ophthalmic Hospital. He also dabbled in making microscopes and various other pieces of scientific equipment.

1868 advertisement for John T. Norman

1868 advertisement for John T. Norman

A packet of diatoms collected by William Sullivant in 1857

A packet of diatoms collected by William Sullivant in 1857. Ohio History Connection

An assortment of diatoms showing cell walls

An assortment of diatoms, showing cell walls. (Pixabay)

The slides were amazing enough but the best was yet to come. In one of the last drawers was a small, innocuous looking folded paper packet. It would be easy to overlook but the obviously old style handwriting was intriguing. It said that diatoms collected “in the run 3 miles west of Columbus” were contained in the packet. Diatoms are a type of one-celled algae found in marine and freshwater environments and have beautifully formed cell walls made up of silica. They are significant for several reasons, not the least is that one-fifth or more of the photosynthesis on Earth is carried out by diatoms. This small packet of diatoms is interesting because it is an early sample, collected in 1857. Then I noticed the initials written towards the bottom: “W.S.S.” I had read recently about Lucas Sullivant, the founder of Franklinton and a well-known naturalist in his time. I remembered too that one of his sons was an internationally known botanist and a specialist in studying diatoms. Hmm, the Sullivant name and diatoms - could it be!? I looked up Lucas’ son and sure enough it was William Starling Sullivant: W.S.S!

photograph of William S. Sullivant in the 1850's.

Photograph of William S. Sullivant in the 1850's. (Image from Ohio Memory)

A page from Sullivant’s Musci Alleghanyenses, Vol 1, 1845, in the collection of the Ohio History Connection

A page from Sullivant’s Musci Alleghanyenses, Vol 1, 1845, in the collection of the Ohio History Connection

William Sullivant (1803 -1873) was the oldest son of Lucas and Sara (Starling) Sullivant and was born in Franklinton. He wrote major works on botany including A Catalogue of Plants, Native and Naturalized, in the Vicinity of Columbus, Ohio in 1840 and The Musci and Hepaticae of the United States, east of the Mississippi River in 1856. We are fortunate to have in our collections an original copy of his major contribution on mosses of the Allegheny Mountains, titled Musci Alleghanyenses. The two volumes consist of actual plants he collected on a trip with Asa Gray in 1843. Asa Gray, as any botanist will know, taught at Harvard and is considered the “Father of American Botany”. The actual specimens are glued on pages in the bound volumes. The text is a little hard to read though – it’s all in Latin! He eventually became known around the world as an expert on North America mosses and their relatives. His major works in botany were published from 1840 – 1856, which is concurrent with the time the European slide makers discussed above were producing microscope slides commercially.

If the name Sullivant rings a bell, you might know it from Sullivant Ave. in Columbus or from Sullivant Hall located at 15th Ave. and High St. on The Ohio State University campus. That is where our museum was located before moving to our current location in 1970. Sullivant Hall, built in 1912-1913, was named in honor of Joseph Sullivant, William’s brother. Among other accomplishments, Joseph was a member of the first Board of Trustees of Ohio State from 1870 – 1878.

William Sullivant's microscope

William Sullivant's microscope. (Ohio History Connection)

Inscription on William Sullivant's microscope

Inscription on William Sullivant's microscope. (Ohio History Connection)

As I researched the cabinet that housed the microscope slides, I found that it had been donated to the Ohio History Connection in 1928 by Elizabeth U. and Jane D. Sullivant, direct descendants of Lucas Sullivant. In addition to the microscope slides and specimen books belonging to William, we also have the microscope that we believed he used. It’s a brass instrument made in Paris from 1830 – 1840. Having worked in Europe for a time (and visited with Charles Darwin!), Asa Gray may have brought this microscope with him when he returned to America, and it’s known that he gave a microscope to Sullivant. The accession record for the microscope states that it was the "First one used in Franklin Co., Ohio."

On a collecting trip to Highland County, Ohio in 1839 Sullivant discovered a small plant growing on the limestone cliff faces along Paint Creek. He didn’t recognize it, so he sent samples to Asa Gray at Harvard and to John Torrey of Princeton University. It was indeed a new species, and Torrey and Gray named it as a tribute to William Sullivant: Saxifraga sullivantii. Later it was realized the plant didn’t actually belong in the genus Saxifragia. So a new genus was created, Sullivantia, and it was given the species name “ohioensis” which translates as “from Ohio”.  Today it is known as Sullivantia sullivantii  with the common name “Sullivant’s Coolwort”. Rare over much of its widely scattered range in the Midwest, it is found only on moist sandstone and limestone cliff faces where the conditions are fairly consistent throughout the year. Some believe that William’s microscope described above was used on his trip to Highland County when this plant was discovered.

It’s a privilege to be able to see the plant specimens that William Sullivant personally collected, to peer through his microscope, and to open the drawers of his microscope slide cabinet just as he did so many years ago. Museums allow us these opportunities, these glimpses into the past which otherwise would not be possible.

A specimen of Sullivantia sullivantii in the natural history collections

 A specimen of Sullivantia sullivantii in the natural history collections.

For more information:

Historical Makers of Microscopes and Microscope Slides:

A Selection of Antique Microscope Slides from the Victorian Era c. 1830s ~ 1900:

William Starling Sullivant:

William S. Sullivant:

My William Starling Sullivant Treasure Hunt Had All the Elements of a Thrilling Page-Turner:

Rare Flowering Plant Finds Safe Haven:

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