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Dissecting Vision in Early Science and Medicine
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Dissecting Vision in Early Science and Medicine*

The microscope has long served as a prime emblem of modern biomedicine. Yet there are only a few good histories of the instrument, and these focus largely on the invention and early years of the microscope in the 17th century, with a few studies of the improved instruments of the mid-19th century, or the more recent electron microscope (Rasmussen 1997). It has long been thought that after the early enthusiasm for microscopy and the subvisible realm, serious research with the microscope languished and declined until the 1830s, when the introduction of a new lens system enabled microscopists to identify the cell as the fundamental unit of plant and animal structure and opened the door to a new world of biological research. In The Microscope and the Eye: A History of Reflections, 1740–1870, Jutta Schickore brilliantly demonstrates that in the long century between technical innovations, natural philosophers undertook careful investigations to perfect the tools of microscopy by turning their attention to the powers and limits of the instrument, of light, and especially, of the human eye. Inspired by the Enlightenment spirit of improvement, they sought to perfect the microscope and the eye, but also the mind, and even the observer’s character. [End Page 448] Along the way they learned a great deal about the microcosm, but the path to perfection proved fraught with metaphysical, epistemological, and methodological difficulties. It was in posing solutions to these difficulties, including the uncovering and assessing of limitations, that the foundations were laid for the success of modern microscopy.

Schickore challenges the conclusions of “older technically oriented historians of the microscope” (for example, Turner 1967) and still fairly recent studies of 17th-century microscopy by Catherine Wilson (1995), Marian Fournier (1996), and Edward Ruestow (1996).These authors have tended to read the 18th-century user’s interest in the microscope as a tool of leisure or playful diversion as a clear sign of the instrument’s inability to be taken seriously as a tool of scientific inquiry. While acknowledging the validity of “polite science” as a form of recreation in this period and the microscope’s status as a tool of fancy, Schickore teases out a series of wider meanings and practices users attached to the instrument, including what she reads as their overwhelmingly optimistic convictions that the microscope could lead to the improvement of sight, of the self, of faculties of judgment, and of tools of precision. She shows how standard protocols for witnessing were embellished by microscopists who introduced new protocols oriented around the improvement of the observer, especially their character and attitude towards experiment (see Shapin and Schaffer 1985). This preoccupation with improvement did not disappear in the reflections and practices of anatomists Alexander Monro and Felice Fontana, for example, who, despite their very real engagement with the problem of optical deception, remained convinced that errors and illusions could be eliminated by perfecting the observer.

Schickore’s analysis of the role of the microscope in surveying and astronomy lends credence to her case for 18th-century microscopy’s status as a “thriving enterprise” (p. 82). Mathematician-surveyors were aware, she contends, of the imperfection of the “concrete tools” they were using and looked to the microscope as a device capable of helping them improve these imperfections—a gesture that speaks to their faith in the transparency and potential of the microscope. She discerns a similar tendency in the reflective practices of David Brewster, Thomas Young, Michael Faraday, and Peter Mark Roget, who, she argues, “utilized the microscope as a second-order device to explore the nature of veridical perception” (p. 84). It could help the practitioner control illusion, including “those circumstances and mechanisms that may induce the mind to promote delusion” (p. 92), or the relationship between the circumstances of observations and deception. Whether or not one was convinced that visual illusions stemmed from errors of judgment (she places Brewster and Faraday in this camp) or from the structural imperfections of the retina (like Roget), Schickore shows that both projects were “epistemologically optimistic,” in that they both resoundingly affirmed the possibility of discerning truth from error...