Those with an interest in the history of cytology will be well aware of the remarkable changes that took place following the arrival of new imaging technologies in the twentieth century, particularly the electron microscope (EM). Questioned by some (such as Adrianus Pijper), aggressively promoted by others (most notably the Rockefeller Foundation), the origins and implications of representing the natural world with such devices have given many an historian a passage to publication. The aim of this post is to bring a great deal more attention to the botanist, cytologist and microscopist Irene Manton, who was arguably the greatest champion of the EM in the UK. Before any of my more knowledgeable readers get their knickers in a twist, I am sure she must already make an appearance in the secondary literature somewhere, I’ve just yet to find it! PLEASE HELP!
The image above is just one of thousands upon thousands of micrographs taken by Irene Manton over her lengthy career. Her early work in the 1930s focussed upon chromosomes, before moving on to consider other intricate cellular structures including cilia and flagella, leading much later to nanoplankton, some of the smallest and most enigmatic life forms. Throughout this time her most consistent passion was microscopy, always seeking for new and better ways to see life at its smallest parts. Amongst the collections currently housed by the University of Leeds Library are some excellently well preserved items that date right from the start of her undergraduate days. Following her notes from her initial work on Cruciferae pursued in Britain and Stockholm (see earlier post) there are a series of drawing books that date from her time lecturing at Manchester. These contain her efforts to capture images of chromosomes gathering and dividing.
The notation on the right reads “Signs of chiasmata twisting in each cr.” placing Manton right at the cutting edge of then contemporary chromosomal work (I am of course thinking of the Nobel prize winning geneticist, and extraordinary female microscopist, Barbara McClintock, who was the first to observe the process of chromosomal cross-over). Manton could only be tempted to leave Manchester and take the Professorship at Leeds upon the condition that they establish a botanic garden (which has only recently been closed) and provide better equipment and facilities for a department that was, by all accounts, in decline. In addition, she was very quick to ensure the purchase of an ultraviolet microscope that, for a while, produced some of the clearest images achievable. Nor was this instrument immediately set aside upon the arrival of the EM, Manton instead often preferring to use the older machine. (I do however suspect she was much more adept with the EM than one male colleague makes out in this obituary; say something once, and I’ll consider it, say it three times and you and me have got issues.) Considering her interests it seems strange that Manton never collaborated with her more well-known contemporary William Astbury. Perhaps Manton’s lack of notoriety points to something about the history of the rise of molecular biology and how that history has been told.
I’d like to end by pointing to the congruence between Manton’s search for stunning images of nature and stunning works of art. Not only were her slides once mistaken for paintings by Matisse*, but she consistently drew inspiration from, and attempted to inspire her students with, both modern and ancient works of art. Some of the receipts held in the collections would make your eyes water even today. Needless to say, there is much here for the historian of science to explore regarding the porous boundary between scientific and non-scientific representations of the world. Everything discovered in the collection thus far confirms that Manton (as a woman, a microscopist and a botanist) makes a fascinating figure in the history of twentieth-century biology, one in desperate need of scrutiny.
*This is a story retold by Manton herself: ‘The Origins of the Manton Collection’ The University of Leeds Review, 32 (1989) pp. 153-159.