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Bulletin of the History of Medicine 74.4 (2000) 867-868

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Book Review

Picture Control: The Electron Microscope and the Transformation of Biology in America, 1940-1960

Nicolas Rasmussen. Picture Control: The Electron Microscope and the Transformation of Biology in America, 1940-1960. Writing Science. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1997. xv + 338 pp. Ill. $55.00.

Nicolas Rasmussen's pathbreaking account is the first history of the electron microscope to be based on extensive archival research. The book explores how the electron microscope came to be taken up as an experimental instrument in the United States, and how its adoption affected scientific biology. The first electron microscope was built in Berlin in 1931 by Max Knoll and Ernst Ruska and was developed commercially in Germany by Siemens. World War II disrupted scientific exchange, so the field developed independently in Germany and in the Allied countries. In the United States, electron microscopy got its first big boost when the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) decided to develop the instrument into a commercially viable product. In 1938 Vladimir Zworykin, head of RCA's electronic research, hired Ladislaus Marton, a Belgian physical chemist who had built three electron microscopes in the early 1930s. Marton built the RCA "Model A" microscope, a large and fussy instrument, which Zworykin interested Stuart Mudd (a microbiologist at the University of Pennsylvania) and Wendell Stanley (a virologist at the Rockefeller Institute) in using to image bacteria and viruses. When Zworykin failed to convince Marton to change the design in order to make it easier to use, and thus more marketable, he brought in James Hillier, a graduate student at the University of Toronto who was building an electron microscope for his doctoral thesis. Hillier's "Model B" became the workhorse instrument for the pioneers of biological electron microscopy.

At RCA, Thomas Anderson, a National Research Council (NRC) postdoctoral fellow, established many of the preparative and interpretive methods of the new field. Anderson collaborated with a variety of biologists at Penn and the Rockefeller Institute who wanted to view their material with the electron microscope at RCA; prior to publication, an NRC committee dominated by Mudd and Zworykin reviewed all their electron micrographs for quality and interpretation. Rasmussen concludes that "powerful elite committees in American science and industry were ubiquitous during wartime, and this context probably facilitated the efforts of Mudd and Zworykin to stabilize and--quite literally--to discipline microscope users so that a coherent and self-regulating body of practices would quickly become established among them" (p. 61). These practices--the reduction of artifacts by using multiple specimen preparation techniques, and the correlation of findings with those from other instruments--enabled the electron microscope to be introduced "without rocking the boat unduly" (p. 60).

The high cost of electron microscopes limited the sites and research groups using the instrument for biological research in the 1940s and 1950s primarily to those whose instruments and research were funded by the Rockefeller Foundation as part of their efforts to remake the biological sciences. Stuart Mudd developed a center for bacteriological electron microscopy at Penn. Applications [End Page 867] of electron microscopy to cell biology flourished in the laboratories of Keith Porter and George Palade at the Rockefeller Institute, and of Fritiof Sjöstrand at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden. Francis Schmitt at MIT led a group of biophysicists who used the instrument to study the architecture of macromolecules. Wendall Stanley and Robley Williams applied it to the study of viruses at the University of California at Berkeley. Rasmussen carefully examines the work at each of these locations, and uses detailed examples of their methodological and interpretive arguments, set in the political and cultural context of the particular institution and scientific field, to show how electron microscopy became established as an important research tool.

The "picture control" exerted by influential practitioners of electron microscopy established standardized methods of specimen preparation and micrograph interpretation. Rasmussen argues that such standardization is critical if a group of inquirers is to establish a coherent...


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