Book review

An introduction to the microscopical study of diatoms.

Robert B. McLaughlin. Edited by John Gustav Delly & Steve Gill

Heiloo, The Netherlands


If there is one situation the experienced diatomist dreads, it’s the radiant recent convert to diatom studies who says: “I want to study diatoms seriously, WHICH book do I need?”

Especially a few decades ago, I often thought that aspiring private diatomists must be suffering from pre-traumatic stress syndrome to consider serious studies on these microscopic jewels. Consider the requirements:

1) Investing in quality equipment. 2) Investing in a comprehensive and very expensive library. 3) Fluency in at least English, German and French, and ability to write Latin. 4) Ability to make excellent line-drawings. 5) Mastery of the techniques of preparation and examination. 6) Photomicrography including printing in the darkroom.

In recent times, the situation has become slightly easier: some of the literature (but not enough by far!) is now available on the internet, Latin is no longer obligatory for description of new species, line-drawings (which were formerly required as they are cheaper to publish than photomicrographs) are no longer necessary and digital photography has made the infernal darkroom activities superfluous. But still, starting to work on diatoms implies rather varied abilities and an appreciable investment. Including “the” diatom book!

Let’s be very clear: there is no single book that teaches you how to study diatoms, what the biological properties of these organisms are, and how to identify the myriad species including those from the less-intensively studied areas (meaning about 90%) of the oceans and inland waters. As a private person, you still need to buy a very comprehensive and expensive library for identification. But for an introduction to the subject, this book may appeal to the hopeful diatomist.

The late Robert McLaughlin was a redoubtable microscopist and published extensively on diatoms, also at the scientific level. This book, admirably edited by Delly and Gill, presents a sort of aggregate of “everything he picked up” in the course of many years. The story of how it failed to be published long ago is told in the introduction, but finally it has become available as a downloadable pdf as part of the 'Amateur Diatomist' resources' on Klaus Kemp's website and also on the 'Modern Microscopy website'.

In some 500 pages, McLaughlin introduces the reader to the general morphology, physiology, reproduction, the nature of the cell contents and the ecology of diatoms. Mountants, making slides, collection and preparation methods including cleaning are described in detail. There are separate chapters on microscopy, drawing and photomicrography of diatoms and the book concludes with a comprehensive list of references to the literature. Free-hand sketches from McLaughlin’s notebooks clarify some concepts and various tools and aids to diatom studies.

It should be noted that some of the text is no longer up-to-date (for instance, the chapter on photomicrography is purely pre-digital and SEM studies have greatly improved our insight into diatom ultrastructure), but still there is a lot of information to be absorbed and digested, especially as regards collection, cleaning and preparation of slides. Also, you’ll pick up an overview of the history of diatom studies.

And “the definitive” diatom book permitting instant identification of each and every diatom you may find in both fresh and marine samples, from the North Cape to Tahiti? Alas, we’ll not live to see it published, but websites like AlgaeBase, Planktonnet and AlgaTerra are of great value!

Frithjof A.S. Sterrenburg

Microscopy UK Front Page
Micscape Magazine
Article Library

© Microscopy UK or their contributors.

Published in the February 2013 edition of Micscape.

Please report any Web problems or offer general comments to the Micscape Editor .

Micscape is the on-line monthly magazine of the Microscopy UK web site at Microscopy-UK

© Ltd, Microscopy-UK, and all contributors 1995 onwards. All rights reserved.
Main site is at