A Golden Age for Amateur Microscopy?

by Andy Chick (UK)


With growing tensions regarding the ability for the amateur microscopist being able to obtain the reagents they need to carry out research to a professional standard have been well documented in Micscape (see “Microscopists, health, and war against narcotics and terrorism” by Walter Dioni or “Dodo extinct species – see also ‘amateur microscopist’” by Jim Battersby.) but I would like to present the flip side of this argument, basically why amateur microscopists are on the forefront of microscopy!

As a bit of my personal background, I got into amateur microscopy about 4-5 years ago, while doing a distance learning MSc course, for me, the amateur microscopy started as a way to identify insects using a stereo zoom microscope (I had no intention when I started to own a compound microscope, but when I saw a Meiji at a car boot sale for £5 it was too good not to buy). With my focus being entomology, had looked into the sort of slide mounts that would be required for the insect groups I studied. These were mounts in either gum choral mountants (Berlese in particular) and mounts in Balsam. I settled down and read a web article on www.forensic-ent.com about making whole mounts of blowfly maggots, this included reference to Specimen Clearing Fluid and Double Stain none of the suppliers in the UK had these chemicals in stock, however the author of the web page had helpfully included the recipes for both solutions which I reproduce here as follows.

From this, I set about contacting some of the businesses that supplied to amateurs which prided themselves on being “able to mix up reagents to the customers specifications if contacted” of about 8 that offered this, approximately 4 just didn’t reply, 2 replied that phenol is not for amateurs to play with even in small amounts and they wouldn’t mix anything containing it, and lignin pink is a very hard to obtain stain. 1 stated the above, but offered an alternative, with all manors of reagents, including xylene which they assured me was not as bad as I had probably been told! The final one offered to make up everything but as the chemicals where not ones he commonly kept in stock here would have to order then from the supplier and I would have to pay for the lot plus the labour for mixing, this would leave me broke but with several life times supply of the reagents!

Another example of these sorts of supply problems is Gum Chloral media, the active clearing agent is chloral hydrate, my colleagues across the pond tell me that even in professional institutions chloral hydrate is seen as “more trouble than it is worth” and I have had similar experiences over in the UK.

One thing that has become evident to me in the few years I have been at the hobby is that the term “amateur microscopist” is not a one size fits all badge, there are several different kinds of “amateur microscopist” all of which are equal to my eyes, the lines do blur but as I can tell these are the main groups (again given loving names by me!)

  1. Collectors: pretty self explanatory.

  2. Tinkerers: a microscopist that turns basic scopes into research grade, by swapping parts out and fabricating parts from scratch.

  3. (Semi)-professional: either a professional microscopist, or in contact with one, either way some how has a stock pile of scopes and reagents that make some research labs jealous.

  4. Dabblers: the microscopists that have a desire to just see things close up, for the hell of it often.

  5. Kitchen Pioneers: researchers without the luxury of regents, basically a chemical tinkerer.

And it is the Tinkerers and Kitchen Pioneers that are at the forefront of the science!

Allow me to explain, through necessity, these microscopists have created new solutions to the age old question of “how do I look at this close up?” to go back to the Berlese fluid problem, as someone who wanted to study mites, in a professional lab, but could not get hold of the required chemicals I ended up on Micscape, and found Dioni's 'Safe Microscopic Techniques for Amateurs' series. From this I found the glycerated lactic gum substitute for Berlese, I modified it somewhat to use the regents I had at my disposal (ie lumps of gum Arabic, rather than gum Arabic solution) and found that the substitute out performed Berlese, as it does not have as may problems with bubble formation as Berlese (Chick, 2010).

We have a tendency to use what we know until it is improved upon, or found unsuitable. In the case of microscopy, Amateur Microscopists have a head start on Professional Microscopists as the reagents are being banned in the amateur sector before the professional sector, for example Brown (1997) notes that xylene may be further restricted in museums in future this means has a two fold effect, firstly museums will have to find a replacement, and secondly professional labs using xylene for their zoological materials will be frowned upon, as if they require a museum to confirm ID (or something else) the use of xylene in the original protocol may complicate matters. Now here is a case of where we have the initiative, xylene has been unavailable to us for over a decade!

So what do I mean by a golden age?

In some respects, microtechnique is being pushed back to stage one, we are losing all of our reagents this much is true, however this provides us with a rather unique opportunity, for fame and fortune (ok maybe not fortune), and also to do something rather important, in Gray's “Microtomist's formulary and guide” (1954) the author noted his opposition to “trade secrets” in microscopy, and increasingly reagents are following the “Euperal” style of a flashy name and no details as to composition! As amateurs we, (I hope), are more open regarding the way we work, requiring little more than acknowledgment for our endeavours. What is required is a little knowledge of why we do the steps we do in a protocol, or why we include the ingredients we do in a solution. The best source of these answers I have found has been the above mentioned book by Gray (which is freely available from www.archive.org). Another point to remember is that Google is a first point of research rather than a library in this day and age, this again puts amateurs one step ahead, Micscape is very easy to find online indeed it is one of the top microscope searches. The point I would some what strive to make is that Berlese, Hoyer, Kaiser and all the other microscopists throughout history whose names are synonymous with formulae in common use in microscopy, probably did not create these formulae to immortalise their names, but rather because at that point in time they found there was a gap in the knowledge. For rather different reasons we are at the same point as these forefathers of microscopy at this very moment!

All comments to the author Andy Chick are welcomed.


Brown, P.A., 1997, A review of techniques used in the preparation, curation and

conservation of microscope slides at the Natural History Museum, London, The Biology

Curator, 10: Special Supplement, 33pp.

Chick, A. I. R 2010 A modification of Dionis Mountant as a substitute for Berlese Mountant. Entomologists Monthly Magazine. 146 (2) 117-118

Gray, P., 1954., The Microtomists Formulary and Guide.

Constable and Company, Ltd, London


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