John W. Watson (1830 – 1919) and Thomas H.W. Sharpe (1842 – ca. 1903)

Brian Stevenson, Kentucky, USA

Professional-looking antique microscope slides are occasionally seen that bear the names “I.W. Watson” and “T. Sharpe”. Either Watson’s name printed is above and Sharpe’s printed below the specimen, or only Watson’s name is present (Figure 1). These papered slides are distinct from those known to have been sold by the microscope maker W. Watson, and there is no reason to presume any connection between the two.

Figure 1. Examples of microscope slides labeled by Watson and Sharpe (left 3 slides) or Watson alone (right 3 slides). All known examples of their work are fully-papered, with lithographed front papers consisting of gold ink on red or green paper.

Searches through British census records for the 1800s failed to unearth anyone named Watson whose first name began with an “I”. However, during those times, the letter “J” was sometimes written as “I”. For example, the famous diatomist J.D. Möller frequently labeled his slides “I.D. Möller”. With that assumption, searches were made of censuses and period publications. Two men were identified who advertised microscope slides for sale/exchange, and who worked together as school teachers: John W. Watson and Thomas Sharpe. Both also had connections with Edmund Wheeler, one of the most famous microscope slide makers of the Victorian era, who may have assisted them with their business. Although it cannot be stated with absolute certainty that John Watson and Thomas Sharpe made the slides shown in Figure 1, they are the most likely contenders.

John W. Watson

John William Watson was born in 1830, son of John and Mary Moon Watson, Wolviston Mill, Stockton-on-Tees, Durham. In 1841, John and his younger brother, Alfred, were the first students to attend the Ayton School. The two reportedly walked into the school side-by-side on the first day, so that each could be the first. Ayton School was a boarding school in Great Ayton, Yorkshire, operated by the Society of Friends (Quakers). At the age of 14, Watson became an assistant teacher at Ayton. The school superintendent, George Dixon, was also John’s mother’s cousin, and encouraged John’s interests in botany, conchology and other aspects of natural science.

Watson later taught at Flounders Institute, Ackworth, Pontefract. He also presented guest lectures at the nearby Ackworth School, a famous Friends school. The 1852 diary of Ackworth student Joseph Spence Hodgson included the following references to Watson: “John William Watson (Flounders Institute) gave a lecture to the Botanical Class” (September 17), “Stayed up till nine to hear lecture by John W. Watson on Botany” (November 5), “Lecture on Botany by John W. Watson of the Flounders Institute” (November 12), “Botanical Class had a lecture from John W. Watson (Flounders) on ‘Mosses’ “ (November 24), “Exhibition of the Society of Arts. There were 705 drawings exhibited of the boys' doing, and a great many other pictures. I got a first prize of sixpence for a piece of printing entitled ‘Colony of Pennsylvania, etc.’; another first prize of sixpence for a map of Scotland. There was £1 0s. 3d. spent in prizes…There are seventy-one members in the Society of Arts. The dining-room was very full of drawings; some were not exhibited. We went in the exhibition about half-past four. The boys in the Society of Arts went in first, and then the other boys on paying a penny. Soon after we had got in the dining room, Henry Wilson read the judges' report; William Pollard, John W. Watson, and Henry Sparkes judges” (December 1), “John W. Watson (Flounders) on ‘Fungi’, to the Botanical Class between eight and nine o'clock” (December 3).

In 1854, Watson published “A Few Remarks on the Pulsations of Some of the Land Mollusks” in The Zoologist:

Having been engaged a little in the examination of the internal structure of some of the mollusks, - chiefly the Limaces, as being easier to dissect than most, - and having unexpectedly become cognisant of one or two facts respecting them, I thought it might not be out of place to record some of these observations in the 'Zoologist,' for I feel assured, from the papers on various subjects which appear in it from time to time, that its contributors, and, as a matter of course, its readers, do not confine themselves to the mere collection of specimens, but aim at something higher.

It is very pleasing to observe that the study of land and fresh-water shells has become much more general than it was a few years ago, particularly amongst young people; and though they are most of them small and insignificant in appearance, requiring very diligent search in order to discover them, there is something very interesting even in their outward form, of which there is considerable variety, from the spirally twisted Clausilia to the disk-like Zonites; and, in size too, only compare the huge Helix Pomatia with his pigmy brother H. pygmaja! When, however, we extend our inquiries to their inhabitants, observing their habits and investigating their physiology, we at once raise the study to a rank on a par with that of Zoology, Entomology, or any other branch of Natural History. That to which I would invite the attention of the readers of the 'Zoologist' is the circulating system of the mollusks. Perhaps in none can it be better observed than in the common slug (Lima.v maximum), from his large size: he is provided, as is every other land mollusk, with a breathing-hole, into which, at irregular intervals, air is admitted, though it continues for the most part open, when the animal is in motion, closing instantly if the smallest breath of air comes against it. This opening discloses wonders when closely examined; the cavity to which the breathing hole opens extends right through the upper part of the body, beneath the mantle to the skin on the other side. Within this may be seen part of the pulmonary vessels, the greater portion of the heart, and a sac containing the arteries, through which the semitransparent blood is poured to all parts of the body. The arterial sac is furthest removed from the opening, and shows the pulsations in a remarkably beautiful manner; in fact, the arteries themselves may be seen to be slightly darkened by the flow of the blood at every stroke. The number of pulsations in the one I first examined was from 50 to 55 per minute. In front of a portion of this sac is the heart, which is a whitish and almost opaque body, the lungs being spread over the upper part of the cavity, and protected by the flat internal shell. Having been very much interested with the above observations, I was led to make further investigations and experiments on the circulating system of a few of the other commoner mollusks, and the following is the result of some of these investigations.

At a temperature of about 60° or 65° Fahr. the pulsations of Zonites radiatulus are from 50 to 55 per minute; of Z. crystallinus 60 to 65; of Z. parus about 70; of Z. nitidulus 65 to 70; and of Z. alliarius 65 to 70. The pulsations of Helix hybrida, in an immature specimen, were about 90 per minute; the latter, however, was examined when the temperature was about 70° Fahr. This may seem to some to be a useless remark, and may perhaps excite a smile, but let them read on, and I doubt not they will be as much surprised as I was at finding what an effect a small amount of heat has upon the circulation of these seemingly sluggish creatures. Let any one, after watching and counting the pulsations of Z. alliarius at the above temperature, take the same shell into his hand, and he will find that the pulsations are very much accelerated almost instantly ; in fact, nearly doubled. The pulse of Z. alliarius beats at the rate of 110 per minute. In Z. radiatulus I counted 100 per minute, and similar results were obtained from the rest. From this I was induced to proceed still further, and see what effect the abstraction of heat had upon them: I found it precisely the same as might have been expected from the above results.

By dissolving equal parts of saltpetre and muriate of ammonia in six parts of water, a cooling mixture is made: over this I placed a piece of metallic foil touching the fluid, and upon this laid Z. alliarius: in a very few seconds the pulse began to decrease, until there were only about 30 beats per minute, and these very weak.

It does not require any very close investigation to make these observations, since the beating of the pulse of Z. alliarius is quite evident to the naked eye at the under side of the shell, on account of its transparency, and with a small pocket lens it is very distinct.

Where, in Nature, can we find more marvellous results than these? for by merely increasing the temperature a few degrees, we have the pulse increased to a feverish speed, and by reducing the heat in the same degree there is almost a cessation of its action. The problem of how mollusks exist during their hybernation is solved at once, and in a most satisfactory manner.

J.W. Watson, Flounders Institute, Ackworth, near Pontefract, June 26, 1854”.

Watson began teaching full-time at the Ackworth School as a Master in 1855. He was promoted to the post of Master on Duty in 1863. Watson also offered his services to organizations, etc. as a guest lecturer: in 1858, he advertised to lecture on “Arctic Explorations”. He also contributed money toward scientific causes, such as funding the 1861 publication of William Mudd’s “A Manual of British Lichens”.

During his time as a Master at Ackworth, John Watson operated a business selling microscope slides. The two advertisements shown in Figure 2, from 1861 and 1869, clearly indicate that he was professionally producing and selling slides. As the business ran for at least 8 years, it must have been successful to some extent, and would have been a nice supplement to his teacher’s salary. I did not find any records indicating that Watson sold slides outside the 1861-1869 period, suggesting that the slides shown in Figure 1 date from that time.

Figure 2. Advertisements for sale of microscope slides from John W. Watson. A. from Notes and Queries, 1861. B. from Monthly Microscopical Journal, 1869.

During the summer of 1958, John Watson married Ann Wood, who was also a teacher at Ackworth. The couple had two children, Gertrude and John Malcolm. Young John died while still a child. In 1869, Watson left Ackworth for nearby Middlesborough, where he operated an art school. The family moved to Redcar in 1871, then to Norton-on-Tees in 1905, with John continuing to teach art. John William Watson died January 9, 1919 of old age, exacerbated by bronchitis.

Thomas Henry W. Sharpe

Thomas Sharpe was born during the winter of 1843, and christened March 12, 1843 in Ackworth. He was the second son of Joseph and Sarah Sharpe. Father Joseph was a farm laborer in Ackworth Moor Top. His parents clearly wanted a better life for Thomas, and he was sent to Ackworth for schooling. Thomas evidently did very well as both a student and teacher there, as the 1858 Ackworth School Report stated, “Thomas Sharp, an apprenticed Pupil Teacher in these schools, passed so good an examination, that the Lord President of the Council has given him one year of his apprenticeship”. During this time, Thomas lived with his parents, rather than at the boarding school.

Sharpe married Mary Ann Atkinson in 1861. Between 1863 and 1871, his position at Ackworth School was “Principal Shoemaker”. It is not known why he ceased teaching at the school.

Sharpe had a clear interest in microscopy by the mid-1860s (Figure 3). He posted offers to exchange materials and slides during 1866-1869. Some of the specimens described in these advertisements suggest that he had a business relationship with J.W. Watson at that time. Watson was an enthusiastic conchologist (snail collector) – the “rarePlanorbis glaber advertised in Figure 3C is a snail. The second-from-the-right slide shown in Figure 1 is of Ceramium ciliatum, a red alga/red sea weed (see Figure 3B).

Figure 3. Exchange offers from Thomas Sharpe, which appeared in Hardwicke’s Science-Gossip during 1866 (A and B), 1867 (C), and 1869 (D).

Sharpe may have been the 1869 correspondent to the Monthly Microscopical Journal who submitted a series of inquiries: “Injecting Specimens for Microscopic Purposes.—Mr. T. Sharp sends us the following queries, to which we shall be glad to have the answer of our correspondents. Meanwhile, we append a brief reply. 1st. How is the carmine fluid prepared? 2nd. When a subject is injected, does it require any other preparation, such as hardening or shrinking with anything; and, if so, with what? 3rd. What is the best method of slicing such substances as injected brain, lung, &c. - Answers. (1) See Dr. Beale's 'How to Work with the Microscope.' (2) We ourselves simply place the tissue in glycerine with a minute proportion of carbolic acid. (3) Most persons prefer the razor. We (ED.) always use Valentin's knife, and, from long practice, find it most convenient”.

During 1871, Thomas Sharpe took up the occupation of his father, working as a farm laborer. That same year he won first place for showing partridges at the Colchester Poultry Show. That was the last non-census record of Thomas Sharpe yet located. He and Mary Ann had 6 children, at least 5 of whom survived, who went on to be farm and domestic servants. Sharpe was alive at the time of the 1901 census, employed at the age of 68 as an “agricultural labourer” in Tickhill, Yorkshire. Shortly thereafter, two men named Thomas Sharpe and of the same age as our man died in the area, one in 1903, the other in 1904.

Ackworth School: a connection with Edmund Wheeler

Many pioneering English microscopists were Society of Friends (Quakers), such as Joseph Lister and the Beck brothers. From a review of records, it appears that the Quaker-operated Ackworth School placed a strong emphasis on the natural sciences. It is probably not a coincidence that at least two Ackworth students went on to become notable microscopists: Frederick Enock attended from 1855 until 1860, and Edward Horsnaill attended for the 1850-51 school year.

Edmund Wheeler was a frequent guest lecturer at the Ackworth School. Although best known nowadays as a preparer of microscope slides, Wheeler’s chief occupation was as a travelling scientific lecturer. His expertise ran the gamut from astronomy to telegraphs to the physics of heat and electricity. A lapsed Quaker, Wheeler visited Ackworth regularly between 1852 and 1882. He would, therefore, have had numerous interactions with Master John W. Watson, especially considering Watson’s passions for biology. There are many similarities between slides made by Watson and Sharpe with those produced by Wheeler (Figure 4). I think there is a good possibility that Wheeler played some role in the Watson & Sharpe business, even if only to help arrange printing of custom papers. Noting that Wheeler distributed slides made by Möller and the Toppings, it is possible that he facilitated distribution of Watson & Sharpe productions.

Figure 4. Comparisons of slides produced by Watson and Sharpe (A and D) with those made by Edmund Wheeler (B, C, E and F). Both used the same style of slide papering. A single sheet of plain paper was attached to the back of the slide, and wrapped around all four sides and onto the slide front. A custom patterned paper was then attached to the front, being gilt-printed on either red or green paper. Even the color combinations were the same: red front paper with yellow wrapping or green front with red wrapping.


Published advertisements indicate that John W. Watson of Ackworth School offered large quantities of microscope slides for sale between 1861 and 1869. His colleague at Ackworth, Thomas Sharpe advertised for mountable specimens in exchange for prepared slides. Some of the objects offered/requested by Sharpe coincided with those associated with Watson. These two men are therefore the leading candidates for having been the slide-making duo of Watson & Sharpe. The microscope slides shown in Figure 1 were probably made by them during the 1860s.

Comments to the author will be welcomed.

Author’s note

This and other biographies of historical microscopists can also be read at


Many thanks to Peter Hodds and Geoff Goldberg for suggesting research on Watson and Sharpe, and for sharing images of slides.


Ashford, Charles (1882) A list of the shells of the “Lower Tees” district, Yorkshire, Journal of Conchology, Vol. 3, pages 278-281 (includes information on snails collected by J.W. Watson)

Ayton Old Scholars Association web site: John William Watson,

Ayton Old Scholars Association web site: A list of the boys who have been educated at the North of England Agricultural School,

The British Friend (1863) Note from J.W. Watson on the yearly educational conference, Vol. 20, page 194

England vital statistics, including birth, marriage, death and census records, accessed through

Hardwicke’s Science-Gossip (1866) Exchange offers, Vol. 2, pages 120 and 264

Hardwicke’s Science-Gossip (1867) Exchange offers, Vol. 3, page 144

Hardwicke’s Science-Gossip (1869) Exchange offers, Vol. 5, page 144

Hodgson, Joseph S., Frederick Enock and Wilfred Whitten (1902) Edmund Wheeler, Reports of Ackworth School, report 23, page 65-70

Journal of Horticulture and Practical Gardening (1871) Colchester Poultry Show, Vol. 20, page 188

The Literary and Educational Year Book for 1859 (1859) List of gratuitous lecturers, page 111

Monthly Microscopical Journal (1869) Advertisement from J.W. Watson, Vol. 1, April 1 issue, page 6

Monthly Microscopical Journal (1869) Injecting specimens for microscopic purposes, Vol. 2, page 53

Mudd, W. (1861) A Manual of British Lichens, H. Penney, Darlington

Notes and Queries (1861) advertisement from J.W. Watson, Second Series, Vol. 11, March 9 issue, unnumbered page

Post Office Directory, Professions and Trades for Middlesbrough (1890)

Proceedings of the Ackworth Old Scholars’ Association, parts 17-22 (1898) Diary kept by Joseph Spence Hodgson, page 79

Reports of the Ackworth Old Scholars’ Association (1906) Obituary of Ann Watson, Issues 23-26, pages 113-114

Saywell, Joseph L. (1894) The Parochial History of Ackworth, Yorks., J. Atkinson, Pontefract

Superintendents, Teachers, and Principal Officers of Ackworth School: from 1779 to 1894 (1894) pages 17-18, 28, 64, 75 and 95

Watson, J.W. (1854) A few remarks on the pulsations of some of the land mollusks, The Zoologist, Vol. 12, pages 4417-4419

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