A Lab In A Coal Bin
by Richard L. Howey, Wyoming, USA
I wrote this piece for the Manchester Microscopical and Natural History Society and its original title was "A Naturalist's Lab In A Coal Bin". It was published as supplement to the Society's Newsletter "Micro Miscellanea" Issue no. 47, August 2000.
When I was fourteen years old, my parents converted the furnace in our house from coal to gas and I desperately wanted the coal bin for a laboratory. I begged, I pleaded and finally, mostly to silence me I think, I was granted permission on several conditions: 1) I had to clean out all the coal dust, 2) I had to whitewash the walls and floor, 3) I had to build my own benches and shelves and 4) I had to seal off and insulate the door to the old coal chute. This, of course, was a win-win situation for my parents. If I failed in the enterprise, they would be able to say "Nice try; but it's just too big a project for a young boy." If I succeeded, they would also be able to stop my wheedling once and for all, give me a pat on the back and say, "Good job, we knew you could do it."
In those youthful days, I had more energy than good sense. I found a bucket and an old mop and I spent a week scrubbing and washing, washing and scrubbing. By the end of that week, I was convinced that I had black lung disease, but I suspect more than anything it was an adolescent attempt to show off my vocabulary as my voracious reading had brought to my attention the lovely word (for a very unlovely condition) pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis (or silicosis, for short). I found some old cans of paint and turpentine in our garage and I canvassed our neighbors who gladly contributed. It seems that every household always has some left-over paint which it is reluctant to throw away, but yet doesn't quite know what to do with. Naturally, not all of it was the same color, but I was in no position to be fussy. The combination, not surprisingly, turned out to be a standardized institutional gray of the sort one finds in prisons, schools, and on World War II vintage battleships. The vestiges of coal dust still embedded in the walls and floor produced a more distinguished charcoal gray hue.
Next came the problem of lighting and electrical outlets. There was already a central light and one outlet, so a couple of heavy duty extension cords with multiple sockets solved the problem, especially as I had very little in the way of equipment. Since in the U.S., we have 110 volt electrical systems, the extension cords were a reasonable solution. Little did I know, but the hard work was just beginning.
The next stage was building benches, I wanted benches all around the four walls at a height comfortable to stand and work at, but which would still accommodate a tall stool. Now I'm 6 foot 2 inches tall and I gained my height early, so this called for some calculation. The wood was scrap lumber, 2x2s and 4x4s for the frame and 1x8s for the shelves. I have no recollection of where we got it. My parents had very little money, but were always resourceful in acquiring whatever was needed. The tops of the benches were masonite panels and my father did help me buy these along with screws and bolts. I was adamant that my benches would be STURDY. My mother was rather lukewarm about the entire enterprise, but my father was more supportive in his quiet way; mainly, I think because two years previously I had installed my chemistry set in his workshop area of the basement and he was hoping to reclaim that space.
I began measuring and cutting and drilling and installing bolts and screws—no nails—and gradually the monstrous wooden benches tookform and sturdy they were. From installing the screws my hands were red, sore and blistered, but from my viewpoint at the time, that was a small price to pay. I moved in my chemistry set and arranged everything neatly. I carefully set up my precious microscope and installed a small lamp for illumination. I nervously invited my parents down for inspection. My father, always a quiet man, had a small smile of approval on his face and I felt terribly proud. My mother looked around and said: "Well, try not to blow anything up."
For the past two years, I had been working part-time in my father's cafe, washing dishes, mopping floors and peeling potatoes for 35 cents an hour. Except for buying science and literature books, I saved the money towards a microscope. I had no idea where I could acquire a microscope, but my mother suggested that I read the classified advertisements in the local newspaper. I did this day after day, week after week, month after month for over a year and I was beginning to suspect a plot on the part of my parents to discourage my interest in microscopy so that I might instead spend the time practicing the piano. But then miraculously, about a month before the conversion of the furnace, there, in the newspaper, jumping out at me like an advertisement on a billboard was the terse statement: "Used microscope for sale. Reasonable."
This was on a Friday. I always read the ads after I got home from school. I ran to my mother and begged her to call. The microscope was a 1913 Bausch and Lomb with a 10x ocular and a draw tube to increase the magnification, 10x, 43x and 97x objectives, a substage condenser, filter holder, mirror, a blue daylight filter, a darkfield stop and a 5x ocular as well—all in a fitted wooden case with a key for $75! The man who was offering it for sale was a retired dentist. Since the next day was Saturday, I pleaded with my parents to take me to look at it (snap it up, was more like it!). My parents patiently explained to me that just then they really couldn't afford to lend me the money. I patiently explained to my parents that I had been working 15 hours a week for the past two years and although I had spent $65 for books and another $10 to acquire items for my lab, I still had $225. I told them that I could buy the microscope and still loan them $150 if that would help. My younger sister had been ill and I suspected that was why money was short. My mother got teary-eyed, my father tousled my hair—the only time I can ever remember his doing so—and I got the microscope, they got 150 dollars, my sister got better and everyone was happy. The microscope was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.
I began pestering my mother to save every empty container that came into the house; jars, cans, milk bottles, gallon jugs—as I prepared to launch my massive project of collecting specimens of everything in the area. I soon had 20 jars of outrageous smelling pond water, 4 white rats, 3 garter snakes, 2 wolf spiders and a partridge in a pear tree. My father was always up at 5 a.m. so that he could open the cafe at 6 a.m. and he often didn't get home until 7 p.m. in the evening, so he was much too tired to take any interest in my collecting. My mother worked part-time at the cafe, did the shopping, cleaning, washed clothes, and did about half of the cooking. My grandmother did the other half of the cooking and she also worked a full day at the county assessor's office. My mother would be home when my younger sister and I got out of school. I would quickly do my homework and then head for my wonderful lab. My grandmother avoided the coal bin completely and, although my mother would occasionally stick her head in the door for a quick glance, I quickly formed the impression that she really didn't want to know what was transpiring in there and as long as there were no bizarre noises, awful stenches, or escaped beasties, I was left to my own devices.
It was about this time that my cousin Tim, who was living with my maternal grandparents while he attended college, agreed to sell me his used, battered and heavily underlined copy of Hegner's "College Zoology". I thought then and I still think—45 years later—that he should have given it to me, but I'm sure that somehow,in some way, paying the silly twerp for it helped me build character. However, I can't complain too much. Although the book was a general survey and covered all of the phyla of the time, I happened to open it to the section on tunicates which I read with keen interest. I was utterly fascinated by the account even though it wasn't until twenty-five years later that I was to encounter a preserved tunicate and another five years after that before I experienced a live one.
My collection of live and preserved organisms continued to grow and I acquired tadpoles and frogs, crayfish, bullheads, perch, catfish (my father was a weekend fisherman), bees, ants, wasps, garden spiders, pill bugs, June bugs, beetles, lightning bugs, cicadas, and antlions.
In our town, there was a medical supply house and one day I boldly marched in and introduced myself to one of the salesmen and explained to him my need for small bits of apparatus and chemicals at a modest price. Looking back on it now, I think he was probably amused at the young upstart that I was, but he was a sympathetic man who always tried to accommodate my requests. About five years later, there was a dreadful fire which started on the top floor where all the chemicals were stored. It started at night and no one was injured, but the supply house was, to my great distress, totally destroyed. I had purchased beakers, flasks, test tubes, and small amounts of chemicals from them and now I had to find a new source. For the chemicals, I turned to a local pharmacy, and through a teacher, I discovered a wonderful biological supply house in Chicago called Turtox. I obtained a copy of their catalog which must have been 300 or 400 pages and got a free subscription to their very nice little publication called "Turtox News" which came out several times a year and contained notes, hints, advertisements, and short articles on everything from gastrotrichs to bird skeletons. Turtox has long been out of business but how I would like to have a complete set of "Turtox News"—it reveals a good deal about the history of teaching the biological sciences in the middle part of the last century in this country.
The Turtox catalog was a revelation. My mother used to get catalogs from companies such as Sears, Penney's and Montgomery-Ward's and she always referred to them as her "wish books". For the first time, I understood what she meant. Here was a range of marvels available which was beyond my wildest dreams. Live cultures of Didinium (the voracious predator of Paramecium), preserved Acetabularia, snake skeletons, Venus fly traps, Petri dishes, pH meters, microscopes—the list was endless. I spent hours poring over my precious catalog making wish lists; I never marked in the catalog as it had become an almost sacred object and I didn't realize that the next year I would be able to get a new updated one. I never got bored. My Turtox catalog was a fixed reference point and I knew it was always there loyally waiting for me whenever I needed it. To this day, I have a special affection for catalogs from scientific supply houses. They serve as an anchor to a secure, exciting, slower-paced past full of promise. I still make up wish lists, usually carefully crafted to my budget, but occasionally after a particularly trying and tiring week, I'll sit down and make up a list with reckless disregard for cost, knowing full well that I can't order all those things, but nonetheless, the fantasy pleases me.
In the U.S., chemicals, stains, and mountants have become very difficult for the amateur scientist to obtain, since most major supply houses will not sell chemicals to individuals, but only to educational and research institutions. This often makes it impossible for the amateur to take advantage of even rather simple bits of microtechnique. However, when I was building up my lab, such restrictions were few and my needs were modest. One early purchase from Turtox particularly stands out in my mind. It was a set of ten small vials of powdered stains specially selected for bacteriological, protozoological, and histological work. As I remember a number of them were vital stains, which when used in proper dilutions, would stain structures in living cells or protozoans.
My boundless enthusiasm for experimentation encountered an immovable barrier when my mother found a jar of live (although, very torpid) spiders in the freezer compartment of her refrigerator. They weren't even very large spiders, but apparently size was not the issue. Mysteriously, there seemed to be some inexplicable, but nonetheless, absolute principle that no creature from my lab—living, dead, or comatose—was ever again to leave the confines of my lab except for disposal. I felt that this was especially unfair with regard to my spiders, since I had just read an intriguing article on the capacity of certain spiders to endure sub-freezing temperature and then be revived. However, I was soon onto another project. I had read another article—this one on the reversibility of ultraviolet radiation effects on Paramecium through exposure to white light. ( I will talk about this much, much later in this narrative, so be patient, I haven't forgotten.)
By this time, a High School science teacher, whom I suspect was tired of my incessant inquiries, introduced me to a professor of anatomy at the University, Dr. Wade, a portly imperturbable man. Unbeknownst to me, although I learned five minutes after I met him, he was the one in charge of the human anatomy lab with its cadavers. After I introduced myself, he led me down the hall, opened the door to the anatomy lab where three students were working on dissections and then he turned to me and said: "Look around. When you get a stomach full, come back to my office and we'll talk." I did look around; the bodies looked like leathery manikins only rather more realistic. The room reeked of formaldehyde and phenol (carbolic acid). The students were, I think, showing off a bit and talking a bit louder than necessary about slicing open the pancreas and sectioning the liver. I found it all fascinating and I think they were a tad disappointed that I wasn't in the least queasy. I lost track of time and eventually Dr. Wade came looking for me. I suspect he thought I had fled, but when he opened the door and saw me engrossed in the dissection which the three students were conducting, he smiled broadly and took me back to his office. I think I had just passed a test. Dr. Wade retired at the end of the term, but through his kindness I met Dr. Annan, a geneticist; Mrs. Annan, the biological sciences librarian; Dr. Lomassen, a botanist; Dr. Peltier, the Head of the Bacteriology Department; Dr. Georgi, a distinguished virologist; Dr. Manter, an internationally known expert on the parasites of fishes, and Mr. Schoeder, the head of the bacteriology preparations laboratories. I mention these people by name, because there are stories connected to each of them.
Dr. Annan was studying the genetics of fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster) which have giant chromosomes. He would irradiate specific clusters of genes and then study and map the mutations.
Dr. Annan was a quiet, intense man who seemed to appreciate my interest and he showed me microscope slides of the giant chromosomes from the salivary glands of Drosophila and examples of mutations in eye color, wings, bristles, and even in the appendages and thorax. He showed me charts which indicated which irradiated parts of the chromosomes produced which mutations. I was afraid that I was being a nuisance and asking too many questions, but one Saturday morning I went to his lab to discover that he had set up a stereo-dissecting microscope at one corner of a bench for me along with several of the half-pint milk bottles which he used to culture the Drosophila. He told me he thought I should have some hands-on experience in learning their morphology and explained to me that I was welcome to come and work in that corner of the lab anytime it was open whether he was there or not. I was enormously pleased and felt I had been granted a great privilege. That afternoon I took the bus home from the University and rushed into the house to explain it all to my mother. When I finally wound down, she looked up from the socks she was darning and said, "Well, don't cut yourself."
Dr. Annan had two further surprises for me. One afternoon, all the High School students had gotten out early as the teachers were havng a special conference. I headed to the University. As I walked into Dr. Annan's laboratory, he looked up from a microscope and said: "Ah, good. You were able to come on a weekday. I want you to meet my wife." We walked up two flights of stairs in Bessey Hall to the middle of the corridor and entered a large room which took up most of the wing on that side. It was the biological sciences library and Mrs. Annan was the librarian.
Bessey Hall was named after Dr. Charles Bessey, a distinguished botanist, and it housed the departments of Zoology, Botany, Parasitology, and Bacteriology/ Virology. Years later at a book sale, I found an old botany book, battered and much used, which had his signature on the inside front flyleaf. I could never enter Bessey Hall without being aware of the distinctive odors. There was a mixture of floor wax, cleaning fluid, unidentifiable chemicals, and above all, of formaldehyde and carbolic acid.
So here on the second floor of Bessey Hall (Dr. Annan's laboratory was in the basement) a new adventure was about to begin for me. I was introduced and Mrs. Annan smiled warmly and said, "So this is the budding scientist I've been hearing about. I have something for you," and she handed me a special library card which would permit me to check out books there in the biological sciences. I was overwhelmed, but managed to sputter my thanks. Dr. Annan disappeared and Mrs. Annan gave me a brief tour showing me how the books were grouped and then left me to browse. For the first several months, I devoted most of my attention to the sections on protozoa and algae. One day I noticed a section of very large volumes off to one side. I pulled one down, put it on a table and opened it up to a whole new world. It was filled with colored prints of the fishes of Australia, page after page of color combinations that I never knew could occur in nature. These volumes were for reference only as they were too valuable to be checked out. Visit after visit, I would go to these shelves and take down a new volume and spend two or three hours in an almost trance-like state. I knew nothing about fish and still don't, but the beauty of those drawings gave me a whole new way of looking at nature, an aesthetic perspective grounded in a deep sense of wonder. I have often thought of those drawings and wished that I had a book with just a few of them. Then three years ago, I found a book of old drawings of tropical fishes and although the drawings are on a considerably smaller scale, they serve as a concrete reminder of those wonderful hours.
Mrs. Annan noticed my fascination and told me that those books were part of a special research collection for Dr. Manter, the chairman of the Zoology department, who was from New Zealand and who was a world-renowned parasitologist of fishes. Would I like to meet him? I was so elated, I could only grin and nod vigorously. She said she would arrange an appointment and let me know.
The following week, Mrs. Annan ushered me into Dr. Manter's office which was filled from floor to ceiling with bookcases and cabinets filled with specimens of fish and parasites. Everything was neat and orderly, as was Dr. Manter, a small, precise, even fussy man, who was very formal and proper even to this rather gawky and awkward High School boy who had invaded his domain. I must admit that although I had a great deal of respect for his reputation, I didn't much like him. Human nature is quirky and I have wondered on several occasions whether my slight reservations regarding Dr. Manter were the reason why I never got interested in fishes and, for that matter, only marginally in parasites.
The spring term at school ended and I spent several weeks at the farm of my great aunt and uncle. The farm had a wonderful duck pond. On one side there was an arc-shaped mound of earth and if one crawled slowly and quietly up to the edge and peered over, it was sometimes possible to watch ducks and geese feeding. And, of course, I collected water samples everywhere to examine under my microscope.
There was one small farm pond which especially caught my attention. There was a distinct scum on its surface and at certain times of the day, it was a rich green color and at other times a bright red color. At first I thought I was just imagining it and that impression was reinforced by the fact that nobody else around the farm seemed to have noticed it. I watched for several days and again and again observed the shift from green to red to green to red. That weekend my parents were coming out to fetch me home and I wheedled some jars out of my great aunt Flossie and began collecting samples to take back to my lab. I collected in every pond and stream I could find, but especially in what I called my summer Christmas pond that alternated red and green. It was really more of a large extended puddle than a pond, but I knew that it contained something wonderful and mysterious. We arrived home late on Sunday evening and my parents insisted that I go to bed immediately. I prevailed upon them to at least let me set my samples on the lab benches and take off the lids, otherwise they would spoil and smell terrible. That logic won out, but I had to wait until the next morning to examine my catch.
The next morning I arose early hoping to have a quick breakfast and sneak off down to my lab before the others were up. When I walked into the kitchen, everyone was already at the table getting ready to eat. Was my clock wrong? Had there been a power failure? Had something dreadful happened? And then I remembered. We were going out to visit relatives. I was hoping that it would be Great Aunt Dean, who lived just on the edge of town and we could spend the morning and be back by noon. Great Aunt Dean was married to a minister who ran off with another woman. She lived alone in a large old house on the outskirts of the city. The house was cheerful, but always had a slightly dilapidated air about it. There was a large garden with fruit trees and a few vegetables. I was never allowed in the upstairs part of the house and on hot, humid, Mid-Western, summer Sunday afternoons, I would play alone among the bushes and trees while parents, grandmother, and Great Aunt gossiped about people I didn't know and relatives I didn't like. Great Monarch butterflies, sluggish from the heat, would sit on the tips of twigs and slowly open and close their wings like elegantly painted miniature Oriental fans. The hot air would make me drowsy and I would stretch out under one of the cherry trees, only my head resting against the trunk and try to count the branches. Sometimes, however, when I felt adventurous, I would tackle the overgrown lilac hedge that ran the entire back length of the garden. It was a formidable untrimmed hedge, ten feet tall and several feet thick. I would crawl into the middle of this jungle and there with my bare hands and body, push and bend and twist until I had hollowed out a hiding place for myself, secure and serene.
From my secret hollow I could quietly watch the wild beasts. For some reason there were never any savage natives. People didn't interest me much in those earliest days. The most formidable creature in the area was the neighbor's large, ferocious, lethargic Persian cat and after much goading this good-natured beast would sometimes play along and we would take turns stalking each other through the underbrush. One steamy midsummer afternoon, I hacked my way through the hedge out into the overgrown alley behind it. There on a large stalk of wild carrot I discovered three large—and to my eyes—beautiful Swallowtail caterpillars noisily munching away. I raced back to the house to plead for an empty Mason jar , so that I might spirit these magnificent creatures home with me and watch them go through their wonder act of turning into butterflies. A feat more marvelous than any circus act. I detested circuses then and still do.
But, no, we were going to visit my great, great Aunt Dove out in the country and then on to Plattsmouth to spend the day with Aunt Jessie and Uncle Ed. "My cultures!" I protested. "Don't be silly," I was told. "They'll be here when you get back." So off we went in my father's old boxy Buick with its wooden spoked wheels.
My great Aunt Dove was a formidable old woman in her nineties who lived alone on a small farm in a large old house. She had strong views about everything and anyone who disagreed with her, she regarded as a fool. At 95 she still drove an ancient relic of a car that I suspect couldn't exceed 30 mph, and she drove straight down the middle of the road. She never had an accident, but I'm sure that, at the very least, she elevated the blood pressure of countless other drivers. Her house was a strangely designed one. A veranda ran around all four sides and it was full of doors that went into the various rooms, but inside there were no connecting doors between the rooms. The main and largest room was the music room, which her dead husband had decorated by painting huge murals on the walls. The house was full of old instruments; two pianos, a violin, a flute, a trumpet, a zither, a violoncello, and a French horn. They all had the appearance of being long unplayed. And these were just the leftovers. When her husband had died, Great Aunt Dove had given thirty-three instruments to an orphanage for boys. On the wall by the staircase going upstairs, there hung a velocipede with an immense front wheel and a tiny back wheel. An odd house for an odd old woman. I thought so then and I think so now.
The most vivid memory I have of those visits was the ritual moment when my sister and I would be summoned by our Great Aunt out into the yard where there was a deep stone-faced well. Aunt Dove would hurl the wooden bucket down into the well and we would wait and listen for the satisfying smack and splash against the water and then she would grip the wooden handle and slowly crank until the bucket, brimming with the freshest, coldest water I have ever tasted would appear at the edge. She would ladle the water into tall glasses and then, without fail, would reach into the deep pocket of her apron and extract a packet of graham crackers. Then she would return to the house leaving my sister and me to invent ways to idle away those long Sunday afternoons.
Then on to Plattsmouth and as we drove through the countryside, I kept an eye out for ponds and everytime I spotted one, I shouted, much to the annoyance of my parents and grandmother, "Algae!" When we finally got home, it was naturally, too late for me to examine my samples, so it was off to bed. However, the next morning, I really did get to spend time in my lab, and, if you remember, the samples I was anxious to look at were the ones from my summer Christmas pond. I had to see what it was that had made it change back and forth between red and green. I put a sample on a slide, focused the microscope and held my breath. At first, all I noticed were paramecia and some slow-moving flagellates. My wonderful old Bausch and Lomb had three objectives—a 10x, a 43x, and a 97x. I moved up to 430 magnifications and the flagellates riveted my attention. They were a type of Euglena and I could see the typical green chloroplast but, in addition, the organisms contained bright red chromoplasts! I got out my copy of Jahn and Jahn's "How To Know The Protozoa", a book that should be in the library of every aquatic microscopist, and discovered that this splendid little "Christmas tree" flagellate is named Euglena rubra.
As it turns out, the red chromoplasts apparently function as a combination early warning device and protection system. Euglena rubra are frequently found in very shallow barnyard ponds. When the sunlight becomes very intense, it can do damage to the organisms, and so the red chromoplasts move to the outer surface and the green chloroplasts migrate inward and are protected from damage. When the light is less intense, this process is reversed and the chloroplasts then utilize the light to produce food photosynthetically. It is this process that produces the oscillation of the color of the surface of the pond between red and green. A number of euglenoids have a red eye spot which is photo-reactive and helps them prevent damage to themselves, usually by moving to the deeper layers of pond or lake, thus situating themselves at a level where the sunlight does not penetrate as strongly. However, this strategy is not very effective in a pool that is only a few inches deep and Euglena rubra evolved in such a manner that it was able to solve this problem.
That summer I collected another sample that introduced me to an organism that still fascinates me 45 years later. I was observing some paramecia—in those days, my samples taken in southeastern Nebraska seemed always to contain paramecia—when something suddenly extended into the field of view and then retracted. I carefully moved the slide in that direction and came upon a clump of debris from which this something extended and retracted itself like a jack-in-the-box in convulsions. I watched and waited and finally, out from under the debris, glided a Lacrymaria olor—the "tear of a swan". This remarkable organism can extend its neck up to ten times its body length! Imagine—if you are six feet tall and then by extending yourneck, you could be nearly instantaneously 60 feet tall—that gives you some idea of how extraordinary this feat is. Many years later, I spent nearly two years trying to find a reliable procedure for culturing Lacrymaria. I have since had stable cultures for 12 years.
At the end of my junior year in High School, Dr. Annan asked me if I would like to audit his summer course which was an introduction to genetics. I jumped at the chance. I think that he was hoping he could use me as an example to admonish his University students by pointing out to them that a mere High School student could understand the material and do well on the examinations. Unfortunately, I didn't serve as such an example, as I found the material understandable enough, but rather boring and so I really didn't apply myself. I think Dr. Annan was rather disappointed in me, as I was myself, for being so lazy, but, after all, I rationalized, I was only a teenager and I was going through a battle with my hormones. That genetics course did, I think, have a major effect on me. I had to take a biology course in my senior year of High School, but then I never took another course in the biological sciences and I am convinced that is the reason that I am still interested in biology. The High School course was taught by an odd little woman named Miss Schemel. A dumpy little woman who, when we got to the section on health, would swoop around the room with her arms outstretched simulating a fly spreading disease. The one contribution that she did make to my education was to allow me to devote most of my laboratory time to studying and writing about protozoa.
That summer I also got a part-time job working in the bacteriology preparation laboratory which was really, for me at least, a place where I got to clean up the messes that other people had made. Mr. Schroeder, the head preparator, was very supportive and helped me learn the basic tasks. I worked there part-time for one year and two summers. It was an important learning experience is several respects.
Lesson number 1: Just because a scientist is doing important research doesn't mean he is always right.
Dr. Z. was a virologist doing research on the polio virus before there was a vaccine. He was growing the virus on tissue cultures in special glassware which he would send down to the preparation room for me to clean. The glassware was sterilized in an autoclave, which is rather like a large pressure cooker. This process assures that all the organisms are dead. I would load the glassware into racks, place them into a large metal dishwasher with water at nearly 212 degrees along with special detergents which would clean the glassware. Unfortunately, Dr. Z's glassware was a problem; whenever it came out of the washer it was etched and, therefore, useless for his work. He accused me of doing something to ruin his glassware. I discovered that he was treating his glassware by soaking it in sodium metasilicate before it was sent down to the preparation room. I did a bit of reading and began to suspect that the sodium metasilicate combined with boiling water and detergents was the problem. When I mentioned this to Dr. Z., I got a one word answer: "Nonsense!" The etching continued to occur and Dr. Z. got progressively angrier and more accusatory. Finally, I convinced Mr. Schroeder that he and I should do an experiment. We took a case of new flasks, six of them we soaked in sodium metasilicate following Dr. Z.'s procedure and the other six we left untreated. We ran all 12 through the washer at once and labelled each flask. Six flasks etched, six didn't. Dr. Z. stopped treating his glassware with sodium metasilicate.
Lesson number 2: When a scientist tells you he's done something and informs you that you don't have to worry—worry! and double check.
Early one summer afternoon, I was working on preparing some special culture solutions for one of the professors, a protozoologist, when Mr. Schroeder came into the preparation lab pushing a large cart full of flasks, agar plates, and test tubes.
"They've been cleaning out the refrigerators upstairs and want all this stuff washed, but there's no hurry," he told me.
"Has it been autoclaved?" I asked.
"I 'm sure it has," he replied and left.
I continued working on the solutions for the protozoologist. About an hour and a half later, Mr. Schroeder came running into the prep lab. "Have you opened anything on that cart?"
"No," I said, "I'm still preparing the solutions."
"Thank God! Those cultures haven't been autoclaved and most of them are pathogens."
We both donned rubber gloves and face masks and carefully rolled the cart out into the hall and down the corridor to the elevator. We took the cart up one level to the floor where the large autoclave was situated. We loaded rack after rack of test tubes and Petri dishes into the autoclave; tubes and dishes containing Staphylococcus, Streptococcus, tubercle bacillus, diphtheria, etc., etc., etc. In other word, had I cleaned the glassware on that cart, I might very well have set a Guinness World Record for being the human being to have the most different diseases and infections simultaneously. We autoclaved everything and I thought little more about it. It was a less litigious age. Had such a thing happened to me in this day and age, I probably could have sued and retired at the ripe old age of 17, assuming I survived, of course.
Lesson number 3: Never, never, never trust any graduate research assistant unless he or she comes from Baffin Island.
One afternoon I was walking down the basement corridor of Bessey Hall to look at the new phase contrast microscope the Zoology department had acquired—their first—when a graduate assistant rushed past me witha loaded hypodermic. I continued to the preparation laboratory and Mr. Schroeder gave me a demonstration of the phase contrast microscope and explained a few of the basic principles of how it worked. I was enormously impressed and, of course, immediately wanted one until I discovered what the cost was and then I was quite depressed. Now, I am fortunate enough to have two large research microscopes equipped with phase, a Zeiss Universal and a Reichert Zetopan plus a Wild/Heerbrug inverted plankton microscope which also has phase. All three of these are older instruments and I wouldn't have it any other way.
The prices of new instruments of comparable quality are utterly outrageous and far beyond the reach of all but a very, very few amateurs. All three of these instruments were superbly engineered, possess marvelous optics and still produce first-rate images when properly handled. One has to learn how to adust everything, but the great advantage is that once one has learned to do that, not only are the results superb, but one can selectively "break" rules in order to achieve some very interesting kinds of contrast; in other words, one has real control of the instrument. So the amateur is best served by finding an older first-class research microscope of a kind where accessories are still available and then one can gradually acquire what one requires. A new medium-priced instrument, even from a major manufacturer will not equal one of the "classics" and there is even considerable doubt whether the new first-class large research microscopes are really substantially better than the classics. However, if Zeiss, Leica, Nikon, and Olympus each want to send me a free top-of-the-line instrument to evaluate, I will be happy to oblige and make every effort to be impartial.
Anyway, back to the graduate student with the loaded syringe. I made a couple of inquiries and discovered that he was doing research on tularemia, a quite unpleasant disease frequently transmitted by rabbits. He would fill his syringe in his lab at one end of the hall and then walk (usually, gallop) down to the other end where the room containing experimental animals, including his rabbits, was located. He was a frenetic, twitchy sort of person and, having no desire to contract tularemia after my previous narrow escape from Pandora's cart of plagues, I reported him to Dr. Peltier, the Head of the Bacteriology Department.
Dr. Peltier was a nice, but brusquely efficient man who had strong opinions, and God help anyone who tried to obstruct him. He apparently dealt firmly with the graduate student who no longer stalked the halls armed with hypodermics, but who became twitchier than ever. One day I was walking past Dr. Peltier's office and he look up and said, "Richard, come in a moment. Are you interested in taxonomy."
"I don't really know."
"Good, good. I want it carved on my tombstone that I was a bacteriologist who never discovered a new species! When I retire in a couple of years, I'm going to forget all about bacteria and move to Michigan and raise cranberries. Forget about taxonomy, don't let it tempt you." I solemnly promised that I would not allow myself to be so tempted and left feeling like I had just had a rather strange biological Sunday School lesson. It was true that I had never thought about taxonomy, but now, of course, after Dr. Peltier's admonition, it was virtually certain that I would yield to temptation.
In fact, I became entranced with taxonomy and began drawing elaborate charts speculating on evolutionary patterns of invertebrates. Fortunately none of these extravagant efforts have survived, since they were based on a colossal ignorance on my part. They were, however, quite colorful as I used a set of colored pencils to map out my wild fantasies. Eventually I got interested in the relationship between flagellates and amoebas and, as I read, I did gradually learn something about phylogenetics.
Through Dr. Peltier, I met Dr. Georgi who was working on viruses that replicate inside bacteria, the so-called bacteriophages. He took me into his laboratory which was in another building and which housed an electron microscope. The instrument was taller than I was and all kinds of arcane apparatus were attached to it. There was the gurgle of water flowing through pipes and coils to cool the vacuum pumps which themselves made eldritch gasping sounds requisite to any good mad scientist's laboratory. I was greatly impressed then and have remained so, on each subsequent occasion, when I have had the opportunity to see these instruments, but I have always been somewhat ambivalent about them. To paraphrase W.C. Fields: "Electron microscopes are like elephants; I don't mind looking at them, but I wouldn't want to own one." I remain unrepentantly an optical microscopist.
Dr. Georgi's electron photomicrographs of bacteriophage were a revelation. Here was a glimpse into an alien world that was so strange as to be almost unimaginable. Here were images of particles so small that a whole new technology had to be invented to observe them. Here were entities that in some respects were like crystals, yet they replicated and seemed to carry out certain other functions associated with living organisms. From that time, on down to the present day, a lively debate has persisted regarding the issue of whether viruses are living or non-living. Bacteriophages have an hexagonal "head" with a tail-like structure which backs up to and attaches to a bacterium. Then suddenly a hole will appear in the membrane surrounding the bacterium and the genetic material from the virus injects itself into the bacterium Then a genetic nightmare begins. The viral material takes over control of the organism and begins making copies of itself. After a few hours, the membrane ruptures and hundreds of new viral particles are released to continue the process by attacking more bacteria. A moment's reflection will make one realize that enormous numbers of viruses can be produced in a very short time. These weird beings, alive or not, may pose an even greater threat to the survival of human beings than thermonuclear war.
Dr. Georgi's response to my interest in viruses (one which has stayed with me ever since, but purely as a non-combatant) was to suggest that I prepare a presentation on viruses, focusing on bacteriophages to give at the regional science fair. He also offered to loan me electron photomicrographs to accompany my talk. Reluctantly I agreed and my reluctance was primarily based on the fact that the only research I could do for such a project would be in the library. My presentation was an embarrassment. I was uncomfortable and didn't speak loudly enough. There were no stands for the poster-sized photomicrographs and I propped them on a folding chair off of which they kept sliding. To heighten my embarrassment, Dr. Georgi finally got up and came down to hold the photomicrographs while I talked. I felt like an utter fool.
Now, if you remember, pages and pages ago, I mentioned an article which I had read about using white light to reverse the effect of ultraviolet exposure on Paramecium. And you may also remember the protozoologist for whom I was preparing solutions at the time when the Bacteriology Department had inadvertently attempted to wage germ warfare on me. He had helped me set up an experiment as it was a problem he himself was interested in, but at the moment, had no time for. The experiment involved raising three sets of Paramecium cultures: 1) a control set, 2) a set to be exposed to ultraviolet and then treated with white light and 3) a set to be irradiated with ultraviolet, but not further treated. The factor to be measured was the affect on their reproductive rate. All of the cultures were raised in the same manner and in identical small tubes which fit into a desktop spectrophotometer. Initially 0.5ml of each culture would be examined at regular intervals and the number of paramecia in each sample counted and recorded, then each tube would be placed into the spectrophotometer to get a reading to determine the approximate density of the organisms. This meant that we would get to the point where we could roughly determine the effect on reproductive rate by using the spectrophotometer and only occasionally doing the spot checks involving the tedious business of actually counting the organisms in order to insure that we were still getting proper correlations. It is evident that this was a rather time-consuming experiment and from it I learned two valuable lessons: 1) patience and 2) not all experiments work out.
The results were inconclusive. The counts seemed to indicate that the white light would reverse cellular damage and that as a consequence there was no significant decline in reproductive rate. The cultures not treated with white light after irradiation did seem to decline significantly. At first, the correlations with the spectrophotometer readings were excellent and then gradually everything went haywire and there was a significant lack of correlation. As it turned out, there was a major problem with the calibration of the spectrophotometer. By the time this was discovered and corrected, the protozoologist told me that the equipment was needed for some other experiments and I would not be able to continue to be available for mine. Perhaps that's why I can no longer remember his name. I'm sure Freud would have some much worse explanation.
I haven't yet talked about the botanist, Dr. Lomassen, who was about six and a half feet tall, gaunt, stoop-shouldered and wore his trousers hiked up as high as possible above the waist. Overall, he had the appearance of a very large, undernourished heron. He was in charge of the experimental greenhouses which were situated between Bessey Hall and Burnett Hall which housed the Philosophy, History and Foreign Language departments. As I had gotten increasingly involved with the study of protozoa, I kept coming across organisms which both the zoologists and the botanists wanted to claim; marvelous creatures such as Volvox, Pandorina and even my wonderful Christmas tree flagellate, Euglena rubra. Among other areas of specialization, Dr. Lomassen dealt with algae. I went to his office to introduce myself. Before he would discuss algae, however, he insisted on giving me a tour of the greenhouses which was fine with me since I had often wondered what exotica they might contain. There were some bromeliads and orchids, Venus flytraps, and specimens of the splendid little curiosity, the sensitive plant, one of which Dr. Lomassen kindly presented to me. If you touch them, the leaves fold against the stem and then sometimes the stem itself folds down. After a while, they restore themselves to their regular position and return to business. An amazing mechanism which I wish I knew more about.
The majority of the plants were, however, much more pedestrian. In the center of one of the greenhouses, he had large white cabinets which opened to reveal rows of plants and special lights on timers. He was studying photoperiodism, that is, the effect on certain plants of extending or shortening their natural daylight cycle. In one cabinet, there were a number of pepper plants with small elongated white peppers on them. He reached in, plucked one, handed it to me and said, "Taste it." As I coughed and choked with tears running in streams down my cheeks, he laughed in a wheezing cackle.
Lesson number 4: Scientists have strange senses of humor.
After that experience, I became a good deal less trusting, but I did learn a fair amount about algae from Dr. Lomassen and he did later provide me with some samples from pure cultures.
In my senior year of High School, I got interested in physics and wanted to combine my interest in that field with biology. My science teacher introduced me to Dr. Jehle, a biophysicist at the University. During my freshman year, he would invite me to his study at his home and encourage my interest. In particular he urged me to study mathematics. So, I concentrated at first on taking courses in physics, mathematics and German which I had studied in High School. After two years Dr. Jehle left to take a position at another University and in my junior year, I took a Philosophy course. I was already completing majors in mathematics and German, but I decided to major in Philosophy as well—it seemed to tie things together. I graduated and was offered a graduate assistantship in German and completed my M.A. in a year. In the meantime, one of the Philosophy professors had urged me to apply for a three-year fellowship to do my Ph.D. in Philosophy at the University of Southern California. I did; I got it and that summer I got married. My wife has been not only tolerant, but wonderfully supportive of my microscopical madness over the years.
What ever happened to my coal bin laboratory? Well, once I was married and had left home, part of it became storage for my father's extra tools and part of it became storage for my mother's jars of food which she canned every year. I also recall that one of the benches got used for a couple of years to make elderberry wine. All of my bottles of preserved specimens mysteriously disappeared, of course. The summer my parents sold the house in order to move to a smaller one, I was back there for a visit and I dismantled a couple of benches and took the lumber back to Laramie and built storage shelves.
I look back on those day in my little laboratory with fondness. They nurtured and preserved a sense of curiosity which I have never lost. In the good times, microscopy has provided a sense of ecstatic discovery; in bad times, it has been a refuge. I still, however, am forbidden to put spiders in the freezer.
All comments to the author Richard Howey are welcomed.
Editor's note: Visit Richard Howey's new website at http://rhowey.googlepages.com/home where he plans to share aspects of his wide interests.
Published in the March 2019 edition of Micscape Magazine.
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