by David Walker

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There's a fascinating variety of microscopes, photomicrographs and microbiologists depicted on stamps. The author would not describe himself as a philatelist but here's a few thoughts on how to collect microscopy related stamps with references to more detailed illustrated articles. To whet your appetite some of the author's favourite stamps depicting microscopes are shown.

Rekindling an interest

In 1989 the Royal Microscopical Society celebrated their 150th anniversary and the Post Office issued an attractive set of four stamps on this theme showing photomicrographs. As well as the PO's presentation pack of these stamps, there were a variety of attractive first day covers issued (see below) where the envelope illustrated old and new microscopes. Like many microscopists I bought a few of these, and this rekindled a latent interest in stamps that had been dormant since the days I collected them rather haphazardly as a youngster.

An inefficient way of collecting them ...

So, knowing nothing of philately, I began to wonder how many stamps had been published with microscopy as a theme. As a start I went back to my old stamp album gathering dust in a loft and found two stamps with a microscope on .... wow, I had the start of a collection! I even bought a stamp magazine and found a few dealers who had thematic catalogues of stamps. Catalogues of medical stamps seemed a good place to start browsing. However, I rapidly found that ordering sets such as those celebrating the World Health Organisation or the discovery of the tubercle bacillus hoping they may illustrate a microscope, was a rather laborious way of collecting them! Having said that, dealers catalogues do usually mention when microscopes form a major part of the stamp.

.... a much better way to collect

I thought there must be a better way to collect than this, so a trip to my local university library in late 1990 had me browsing through microscopy journals to see if anyone had catalogued them. Fortunately, I didn't have to look far. The Proceedings of the RMS had published a superb series of articles earlier in 1990 by William Wergin on this very topic. The articles had a complete list of stamps issued world-wide which depicted a microscope in some shape or form, and were illustrated by colour plates of many of these stamps. The colour plates showed the different themes for which a microscope illustration has been used on stamps. This varies from the celebration of famous discoveries such as Koch's isolation of the tubercle bacillus, health topics such as malaria eradication and scientific endeavour.

Click here to view a larger image of the stamp group right.

William Wergin's articles show that many countries in the world have issued at least one stamp depicting a microscope, although a country conspicuous by its absence in the list to August 1990 seems to be the author's home i.e. the UK. This is a pity when some of the finer stamps issued by other countries depicting microscopes are associated with British scientists e.g. Fleming.

What surprised me, was how many stamps had been issued illustrating microscopes, apparently almost 400 have been catalogued up to August 1990. This was a rather daunting number for me to attempt to collect myself, not to mention expensive. So I decided to just collect the stamps with the finer illustrations of microscopes old and new plus any first day covers I came across.

Many of the stamps depicting microscopes used stylised microscopes or the microscope did not form a good proportion of the illustration. My collection to date is still very modest, just fifty or so, but when they are nicely mounted in an album with the first day covers they are an attractive way of illustrating the history of microscopes and microbiology. Part of the fun of collecting is tracking down the more elusive stamps. I just regularly glance through thematic catalogues to see if the ones I'm looking for have turned up. This is made easier as some of the larger dealers are now putting their catalogues on-line.

One of the pleasures of collecting stamps related to a hobby like microscopy, is that it broadens your knowledge of the subject. It's quite a challenge to identify and learn more about some of the anonymous microscopes depicted in the illustrations, and some of the scientists commemorated were also unfamiliar to me. This often prompts a search to find out the scientist's contribution to, or use of, microscopy. Not surprisingly Koch and Pasteur are well represented on these type of stamps, but you may (like me) have to reach for a textbook to find out why for example Nansen, Cajal, Klug, Bruce and Zammit are illustrated on stamps with microscopes.

If you don't fancy collecting all 400 plus of the stamps depicting microscopes plus the new ones regularly issued, there are various narrower themes that you may wish to choose. For example, electron microscopes are only infrequently illustrated on stamps issued to August 1990. Photomicrographs of a specific topic e.g. protozoa or microbiology are another group of potential interest although I'm uncertain of the number issued. The image left shows an attractive photomicrograph of blood cells. The stamp set celebrating the RMS 150th anniversary also chose a theme of photomicrographs, and there are some very attractive first day covers including this set of stamps. A typical one is shown below, the microscope by George Adams is printed on silk.

Stamp Design Royal Mail Group Ltd (1989)

So I hope I've demonstrated that you don't have to be a dedicated philatelist to enjoy collecting stamps related to a particular microscopy theme. Reference 1 below illustrates the many themes for which microscopy is depicted on stamps, and this series of articles may provide some ideas for your own collection.

Stop press: Coincidentally, just as this article was published in the June 1997 issue of Micscape, an updated checklist of microscopes on stamps has been published (see reference 2). This list as well as being valuable in bringing William Wergin's list up to date, catalogues them based on the Stanley Gibbon's numbers which is particularly useful for British collectors.

David Walker.

Read a Micscape article discussing and illustrating Photomicrography on stamps (rather than microscopes) in more detail.

Related web sites:
Microscopy as illustrated on postage stamps - an excellent online stamp gallery hosted by the University of Virginia School of Medicine website of various microscopy themes and also of famous scientists, with notes.


1) 'Microscopes and Postage Stamps' by William P. Wergin, Proceedings of the Royal Microscopical Society (now published as 'infocus Magazine'), 1990, volume 25, pages 115-121, 212-214, 249-253, 324-327,416-422. A series of definitive articles and coloured plates. The last set of pages is a list of stamps depicting microscopes up to August 1990. The list includes the country, date of issue and the Scott catalogue number. Also provides references to articles published prior to 1990 on similar topics.

2) Microscopes on Stamps: A Checklist to 1996 by W Heathwood. Quekett Journal of Microscopy, 1997, 38(1), pp37-47. This invaluable list provides the SG catalogue number, the face value, year of issue and a brief description of the stamp. Useful guidelines on starting a collection are also provided in the accompanying article.

3) 'The Royal Microscopical Society Stamps' by Peter Evennett, Proceedings RMS, 1989, 231-237. A fascinating insight into the design and production of the stamps issued to celebrate the RMS 150th anniversary (illustrated on the first day cover above).

4) 'Microscopy Receives the Stamp of Approval' by A. R. Lane, Microscopy and Analysis, 1989, September, 15-18. An interesting article on how microscopes are used to monitor the production of stamps and also provides a good introduction on the types of printing techniques used.
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