written by Frank Rowntree

John Norris McArthur 1901-1996


John McArthur, a distinguished son of Scotland, died on 26th. April this year aged 94. With his passing many of us lost a friend and colleague and the whole world lost a great medical scientist who contributed so much to many fields of endeavour. Microscopy particularly owes him a debt. His inventive abilities led to the development of the portable microscope that was to bear his name, a revolutionary instrument incorporating the most radical innovation in microscopic design since Galileo.

 The prototype of his unique pocket instrument was conceived during his medical studies at a time when he simultaneously fell in love and failed his final examinations in consequence of which he was "banished" to South America by his father ( in those days things like that were not uncommon ! ). There the need for a portable and low cost instrument became apparent to him. He returned to England, married his sweetheart and qualified as a doctor going on to develop "the McArthur". The prototype was eventually developed into a fully professional instrument from the original, made during his time as a medical student, which he carved from a block of wood and fitted with an objective, an eyepiece and a couple of scrap second hand prisms. In its developed form both before and after W.W.II the McArthur was to prove invaluable for use in difficult situations and on expeditions where lightness of weight was important and many discoveries and diagnoses in all kinds of situations and terrain were to result from its availability and ease of setting up.

 In the Post War Years following the establishment of the Open University where there was a desperate need for a low cost lightweight microscope for its Biology courses permission was given for quantities of the instrument to be produced in plastic where it proved a boon to students both in the rarer three objective as well as the two objective model. In later years many of these plastic instruments were to find their into the hands of amateur microscopists where they provided a low cost means of access to microscopy or a light weight additional instrument for holiday and field use being a source of great pleasure as well as an aid to field studies. He received a Design Council Award for this instrument as a recognition of his work.

 John McArthur was keenly interested in the use of his microscope by amateurs as well as professionals and was very supportive of their endeavours but few of them knew the romantic background to the early history surrounding the development of the McArthur until some 20 years ago when I persuaded him to "tell all" during a stay with me for a meeting I had arranged of "the Sorby", a society named for another distinguished English microscopist. Sadly John fell ill with influenza and was unable to travel but such was his commitment and wish to avoid disappointment that he made a cassette tape where it is believed that he for the first time revealed publicly the romantic aspects of the story as well as his wartime ordeals. The audience listened enthralled !

 John was equally well known in medical and scientific circles as a malariologist of distinction who made major contributions to the discipline from the time of his first specialization in Borneo in 1938 until the war and again after his release from Japanese captivity with his wife and child in 1945. Through his research he developed an eco- friendly method of malaria control which though proven effective for use in his area of the Far East was not taken up by WHO officials who preferred the massive use of DDT as an alternative. He quite rightly remained bitterly disappointed by this being supported in his views by those who were instinctively concerned for the environmental consequences of the DDT approach.

 John McArthur made many contributions to science and the welfare of mankind for which he was never given the full honours he deserved though his true genius may well yet be recognized by future generations. What is certain is that his name will be ever remembered through his microscope as his memory will be by those who had the privilege of knowing him.

 Editor's Note: An illustrated article My Favourite Microscope by Don Bruce describing the McArthur Microscope is in the Article Library. The image at the top of this article shows a McArthur microscope, photograph by Bill Ells.

Coordinator's note: Sadly, Frank Rowntree - the author of this article and one of our companions here at Micscape - died shortly after writing this article. He will be very much missed by us all.


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