'God bless the Microscope: let us have a Society'

A Very Brief History of the Royal Microscopical Society #1

A quick note: the title of this post is perhaps a bit false - this post will actually only give a brief history of the founding of the Microscopical Society of London. The Microscopical Society of London was the original name of what is now known as the Royal Microscopical Society. I hope to do a number of posts about the society, which is a very important learned society founded to promote,

microscopical investigation, and for the introduction and improvement of the Microscope as a scientific instrument [1].

What is the Royal Microscopical Society?

First up, I should summarise what the society does (but you can find out more on their website). According to the Royal Microscopical Society’s (RMS) website [2] they are dedicated to furthering the science of microscopy through education and research. The society hosts and supports a wide range of events for training scientists at all level, encouraging networking and collaborations and conferences. The RMS also publishes the Journal of Microscopy [3], a members magazine, infocus, and a range of resources for professionals and enthusiasts.

The Founding of the Microscopical Society of London

Right,  back to the history bit. During the 1830s, several technical advanced in microscopes occurred, including the development of new objectives that massively reduced spherical aberrations, sample preparation and instrument design. Naturally, the increasing popularity of the microscope led to meetings of microscopists, including James Scott Bowerbank, the fourth President of the Society, who, at one such meeting, proclaimed,

God bless the Microscope; let us have a society! [1]

In September 1939, seventeen microscopists met with the intention of forming a formal body for the promotion and enhancement of microscopy. The seventeen members included Bowerbank, Joseph Jackson Lister (whose research led to the aforementioned improvements in objectives), Edwin J. Quickett (at whose home the meeting was held) and a mixture of entomologists, botanists, zoologists and anatomists.

I’ve always wondered why the society has the long and slightly cumbersome ‘microscopical’. Apparently, this was at the insistence of the Revererend Joseph Bancroft Reade, one of the founding members and the society’s fifteenth President, who added the ‘-al’ to prevent,

the possibility of ourselves being mistaken for microscopic objects [1].

The First Year

A provisional committee was formed and a constitution drawn up. At a public meeting held in December that year Professor Richard Owen (not one of the original seventeen) was elected President, Dr Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward and Dr Arthur Farre (both of the original seventeen) took up the position of Treasurer and Secratary, respectively. A full council was appointed and a total of 45 men signed up to the society as this meeting.

One very important decision made by the provisional council was to purchase a cutting board and diamond cutter for the preparation of glass slides for sample mounting. The council decided that members of the society should use one of two size glass slides: 3 by 1 inch or 3 by 1.5 inch. Eventually 3 by 1 inch slides were adopted as standard across the community and industry. Although we’ve now moved onto metric measurements, the standard stands and modern microscopy slides are still the same size (75 by 26 mm).

The council agreed to have regular meetings of the society and an Anniversary Meeting (now the AGM). And the first Anniversary Meeting in February 1841 is where we will leave the society for now. I hope to explore other parts of the society’s history in future posts.


  1. Turner, G.L.E., 1989. God Bless the Microscope. A History of the Royal Microscopical Society over 150 Years. (This book was commissioned to record the history of the society for it's 150th anniversary and is my primary resource for this post.)
  2. Royal Microscopical Society
  3. Journal of Microscopy
Chas Nelson
LKAS Research Fellow in Data Science

An interdisciplinary scientist with a background in quantitative microscopy and bioimage analysis.