Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Richard Suter's Legacy

Yes, I must admit, and you are forewarned, that this is the third post in a row that in some fashion concerns mounting microscopic specimens on slides.  My apologies.

When poorly shredded records from the Nassau County Police Department somehow found their way into the confetti used in Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade in New York City, bits of readable personal data literally rained down from the sky.  (Abby Rogers, Business Insider, November 26, 2012.)  How symbolic.  We are awash in information about people living today, much in print, much, much more in digital formats.

It's ironic that the capacity of the web to amass information about any one of us appalls me, yet I thoroughly enjoy its capacity to pull together the traces of lives lived out decades and centuries ago.  As a consequence, we do know something about the life of teacher and “microscopist” Richard Suter (1864 – 1955).  There are bits and pieces in the digital records, though much of the narrative is marked by gaps.  Nevertheless, it is a story salvaged by the marvelous legacy he left.  Peter B. Paisley, author of many superb articles detailing the history of British microscopy and, in particular, those who created slides with mounted specimens, has marshaled much of what is available about Richard Suter in a piece titled Those Other Suter Slides (Micscape Magazine, June 2010.)  I have relied principally on Paisley for the Suter family history that appears below.

Paisley includes Suter among the “well documented mounting family industries," but that may be because the record is poor for many other such enterprises.  (William Barwell Turner (1845-1917):  Life, Research and Business in Leeds, Micscape Magazine, September 2011.)

Suter was born in India in the city of Secuderabad in 1864 to Ann and Richard Suter, Sr., the latter presumably in the British Army at the time.  Paisley notes that the young family was back in England no later than 1871, living in inner London.  The growing family moved to No. 5 Highweek Road, Tottenham, some time after 1881.  Richard, Jr. had trained and worked as a school teacher, but the 1901 Census lists him as a “microscopist.”  He devoted much of his life to mounting and selling microscope slides, as well as the sale and exchange of microscopes and related items.  The enterprise was run out of the Suter home at No. 5 Highweek and subsequently No. 10.

There is no question that Suter’s interests ranged widely through natural history, presumably often with an eye to what would sell.  Consider the ads he posted in the Exchanges column of the monthly Hardwicke’s Science-Gossip:  An Illustrated Medium of Interchange and Gossip for Students and Lovers of Nature.  Based on those that ran in 1890 (Volume XXVI), he offered “choice” mounted slides of such objects as diatoms, parasites, and anatomical material in exchange for many different items including unmounted microscopic material, foreign butterflies, foreign shells, books about shells, stamps, books about microscopes, and “anything interesting.”  He also offered, in exchange, “rare British marine shells.”

In 1890, when Suter lived at No. 5 Highweek Road running this business out of the family home was probably no small undertaking.  But, by the end of the decade, when the family was in No. 10, I suspect the business posed even greater logistical challenges for the household.  In the December 10, 1898, issue of the Pharmaceutical Journal, Suter ran an ad announcing the availability of “50,000 Choicest Microscopical Objects” for sale!

Of course, one can pack a lot of microscopic objects into a small space, but not microscopes and cabinets, and mounting specimens on microscope slides in crowded conditions is asking for trouble.  Brian Bracegirdle (Microscopical Mounts and Mounters, 1998) comments on the quarters occupied by the Suter household and Suter business.

If one ever saw 10 Highweek Road, it was to wonder at how all this could ever have been produced and stored, while he was living with his sister and her family!  (p. 89-90)

"If one ever saw 10 Highweek Road" - I looked up the road in a 1900 map of London.  A short, very short stretch of road, marked with a black arrow in the image below from “Geographia” Authentic Atlas and Guide to London and Suburbs (1900, p. 16).

When I tried to make a virtual visit using Google Maps to Highweek Road, I found myself stymied, much as Paisley recounts in his article.  Sadly, it is no more, this trace of Suter is gone, victim to a housing development and the redirection of Stonebridge Road into a dead end.  Seemingly it incorporated Highweek in the process.

Thankfully, Suter left a legacy that, despite its inherent fragility, is still with us today - his prepared microscope slides.  Glass, microscopic specimens, and glue – not a combination with a very long half life.  Simply amazing that so many have survived (of course, he produced a multitude).  They are studied and enjoyed today much as they were a century ago, and they are scrutinized for clues about the man and his craft.

The very, very small part of that legacy in my possession is pictured below.  I’ll be generous and suggest it may be approaching, if not already passed, its centennial.  It’s a product of that crowded household at No. 10 Highweek Road.

On it, Suter arranged the tests (shells) from six small diatoms spoke-like around a single, slightly larger test.  This slide presents a simple radial arrangement of diatoms, a totally appropriate design given that these shells all come from a radially symmetrical kind of diatom (called Centrales).  The arrangement is pictured below.  (My apologies.  Photographing microfossils is an art that eludes me.)

Diatoms are single-celled photosynthetic protists that live inside and around a shell comprised of a nested pair of siliceous valves.  This two-valved shell is also known as a frustule.  I don’t know whether complete frustules are mounted on this slide or just individual valves.  The label on the slide identifies these as Heliopelta leeuwenhoekii, a name accorded a “preliminary entry” in AlgaeBase, an online database with information on over 130,000 algae species.  It notes that this entry “has not been subject to full verification.”

I’d love to know where these shells came from, but the label on the slide provides no provenance and, alas, the maker has long since left the scene.

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