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Barbara Orland

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Liquid or Globular?
On the History of Gestalt-seeing in the Life Sciences
of the Early 19th Century

1. The daguerreotype as an extension of the microscope


Alfred Donné (1801–1878), physician and microscopy teacher at the Hôtel Dieu in
Paris, was lucky enough to take part in the legendary meeting in the summer of
1839 when Louis Daguerre (1787–1851) presented his invention, the daguerreotype,
to the Académie des Sciences. Donné immediately recognized its potential as
a documentation technique for micrographs, and within weeks he transformed
himself from a scientific correspondent who reported in journals about the event
to an explorer of the daguerreotype.1 He promptly came up with a groundbreaking
change in the process. For him as a microscopist, the daguerreotype’s weak point
was that it only yielded unique pictures. Because each recording resulted in only
one picture, Donné simply combined the new technology with the old method of
engraving on silver plates. In this way, the image from the daguerreotype plate
could be transferred and reproduced with the usual copperplate printing on paper.
In the same year he was able to show the scientists of the Académie des Sciences
twenty paper prints from a daguerreotype with different images (including the
microscopic enlargement of a fly’s eye). Convinced that “the series of experiments,
we have employed […] are not far from being exhausted,” 2 he now focused on the
tricky combination of the microscope and the daguerreotype. His goal was to
present ephemeral traces of living material, which the doctor could discover under
a microscope, but was unable to display to a wider audience.
As early as February 27, 1840, Donné and his student and colleague Léon
Foucault (1819–1868) were able to exhibit the first results of their work.3 They had
replaced the eyepiece of a microscope with a sun-coated, light-sensitive plate. This
enabled them to project shots from the microstructure of bones and teeth on the
wall. Five years later, in 1845, the two pioneers published numerous histological
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1 See Steffen Siegel (ed.): Neues Licht. Daguerre, Talbot und die Veröffentlichung der Fotografie im
Jahr 1839, Munich: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 2014, pp. 381ff.
2 Siegel (s. fn. 1), pp. 383–384.
3 Monique Sicard: La Fabrique du Regard. Images de science et appareils de vision (XVe–Xxe siècle),
Paris: Odile Jacob, 1998, p. 108.

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90 Barbara Orland
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1: Blood cells from humans,


camel, and frog, engravings from
daguerreo­types. Donné/Foucault:
Cours de microscopie, 1845, Table 2,
­Figures 5–8.

daguerreotypes in an atlas.4 Specifically, the engravings of 20 plates (45 × 32.5),


each including four daguerreotypes (magnification 200–400), were presented. The
pictures showed floating particles in bodily fluids, including in blood, pus, milk,
and mucus (fig. 1).

2. Fluids under the microscope


These first microphotographic images were exceptional not just because they made
the elusive traces of hitherto invisible worlds permanent. As “realistic” pictures,
they objectified a very specific appearance of the living. As noted above, Don-
né’s first daguerreotypes provided images of the microscopic structure of liquids.
Donné very consciously focused on corpuscles. These seemed to float as inde-
pendent entities in space. As he stated, “the microscopic examination of fluids
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4 Alfred Donné, J.-B. Léon Foucault: Anatomie microscopique et physiologique des fluides de l’écono­
mie. Atlas exécuté d’après nature, Paris : J.-B. Baillière, 1845. The atlas accompanied the publica-
tion Cours de microscopie, a microscopy handbook for medical students. Alfred Donné: Cours de
microscopie complémentaire des études médicales. Anatomie microscopique et physiologie des fluides
de l’économie, Paris: J.-B. Baillière, 1844. All translations are the author’s.

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Liquid or Globular? 91

can only serve to see its floating solid particles, such as cells in the blood, or the
spermatozoa in the semen, and rarely gives us information about the composition
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of the liquid itself; it is even necessary for the floating solid particles to possess
some stability and regularity of forms, because if this is not the case, you risk
mistaking them for quite indifferent strange particles.” 5
To study liquid matter under the microscope was not difficult in itself. A drop,
placed between two glass plates, produced a film that can be analyzed quite read-
ily. However, organic substances such as blood, lymph, or milk tend to coagulate
immediately after they are removed from the body. In the outer atmosphere their
texture – and hence the microscopic image – will change its structural character.
As ephemeral and volatile substances, humors cannot be preserved, in contrast
to vascular and tissue preparations.6 Changes of consistency “in dying blood,” as
the Berlin professor of medicine Carl Heinrich Schultz (1798–1871) remarked in
his study on blood circulation, are therefore “the source of most of the contradic-
tions and errors in considering living blood.” 7 But beyond physiologically induced
transformations, the viewer also faced an epistemological problem. Only solid
structures and individualized particles can be detected under the microscope.
Low-viscosity secretions remain colorless and more or less transparent. However,
all solid, opaque entities that move within a fluid in an unusual way (e.g. on shaky
paths) draw attention to themselves. What is seen is not liquids but things in
liquids. In fact, microscopy is a description technology for fixed tissues and struc-
tures; it is an object-fixed technique. Undifferentiated liquid substances without
definite boundaries resist observation with this scientific tool. This epistemologi-
cal property of microscopy considerably influenced the development of anatomy
and physiology. As long as anatomists confined themselves to seeing the body with
the naked eye, to feeling it and smelling its fumes, they practiced a topographic
mode of knowledge that readily confirmed ancient humoral knowledge.
No one expected to see flows, as all moisture expanded and dried at the time
of death. Organ tissue, which still felt soft and moist during dissection, appeared

5 Donné: Cours de microscopie (s. fn. 4), p. 10.


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6 On preparation history, see Hans-Jörg Rheinberger: Schnittstellen. Instrumente und Objekte


im experimentellen Kontext der Wissenschaften vom Leben. In: Helmar Schramm et al. (eds.):
Instrumente in Kunst und Wissenschaft. Zur Architektonik kultureller Grenzen im 17. Jahrhundert,
Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 2006, pp. 1–20.
7 Carl Heinrich Schultz: Das System der Circulation in seiner Entwicklung durch die Thierreihe und
im Menschen, und mit Rücksicht auf die physiologischen Gesetze seiner krankhaften Abweichungen,
Stuttgart/Tübingen: Cotta, 1836, p. 7.

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92 Barbara Orland

to be particularly soaked in blood. For this reason, the anatomist Thomas Bart-
holin (1616–1680) described the meat of the intestines as “a pouring [Zugießung]
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of blood,” whilst declaring the lean meat dry and therefore “fibrous.” 8 Yet as the
microscope made the smallest structures, invisible to the naked eye, the focus of
anatomical studies, the nature of the conclusions drawn shifted from humoral
physiological gestalt-seeing to structural analysis. The composition of the single
body part became more important. For this reason, Donné considered the micro-
scope to be more than just a representation technology; to him, it was a dissection
instrument, comparable to chemical analysis or an autopsy. Its main purpose was
to “get to know the physical characteristics of the body and its composition,” and
“to differentiate the elementary parts from each other, to recognize their essence
and structure that escape the ordinary senses because of their delicacy, and the
phenomena that they bring forth.” 9

3. Hydraulic processes
However, the microscope did not immediately set the stage for modern tissue and
cell theory. When Antonie van Leeuwenhoek (1632–1723) examined blood, semen,
milk, and tears as one of the first scientists to do so in the 1670s, he caused a sensa-
tion not because he clarified the composition of fluids, but because of his discovery
of hitherto unknown entities. Although anatomists had already come to the view
that dark spots in tissue were pores, most spots were considered to either be micro-
organisms (“animalcules”) or described as “lively atoms.” 10 The latter often appeared
as spheroids or vesicles, called globules. Alternatively, the microscopic shapes had
a line-like form and were therefore identified as fibers or tendons. The medium
in which the various entities moved – called serum, or blood water – retreated
behind this discovery. The liquid itself appeared as nothing but a carrier substance.
Instead of thinking about the humores, following the discovery of blood circulation
by William Harvey (1628) anatomists began to take a close interest in the vessels in
which liquids move. Later, they began to investigate even the most delicate parts
of the vascular system. Harvey had introduced new challenges to anatomy. For
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8 Thomas Bartholin: Neu-verbesserte künstliche Zerlegung des menschlichen Leibes … denen Johannis
Walaei 2 Send-Schreiben … beygefüget sind, Nürnberg: Hofmann, 1677, p. 7.
9 Donné: Cours de microscopie (s. fn. 4), p. 9.
10 On the history of microscopy see Dieter Gerlach: Geschichte der Mikroskopie, Frankfurt am
Main: Harri Deutsch, 2009; on Leeuwenhoek and the beginnings of microscopy in the 17th
century: Catherine Wilson: The Invisible World. Early Modern Philosophy and the Invention of the
Microscope, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995.

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Liquid or Globular? 93

instance, he claimed that blood does not subside somewhere in the periphery but
always returns to its starting point; if true, the question then arose as to where the
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paths of circulating fluids extend. Marcello Malpighi (1628–1694) and other micro-
anatomists after him drew a picture of a vascular body, consisting of pipes and
ducts right down to the finest capillaries, that connected the arterial to the venous
system.11 Others described organs as sump strainers, filters, or secretory mecha-
nisms, embedded in a flow system; on the one hand, this system was determined
by the pressure, the elasticity, and velocity of liquids, and on the other, it had a
whole series of valves and flaps (glands) that conducted the direction of the fluids.12
From the late 17th century until the beginning of the 19th century, anatom-
ical-physiological research was directed at answering three key questions that
all revolved around the problem of understanding the circulation of blood and
other body juices. Initially with the help of the microscope, anatomists explored
the paths of the blood movement in living body parts of chicks, mice, frogs, sala-
manders, etc. The intention was to “see” all the arteries and veins, and to observe
stagnations or even blockages. Secondly, using ligatures and vascular injections
on living animals, they wanted to determine the flow directions and paths of cir-
culation. And thirdly, since tissue formation was conceived as a metamorphosis
of substances in the circulation process, anatomists had to find out where urine
was separated from the blood or how blood was transformed into milk within the
female breast or somewhere else. To understand these transformations of bodily
matter, it seemed indispensable to study the mechanics of the invisible microcir-
culation.
As the microscope has been introduced in anatomy at a time when natural
philosophy was debating corpuscular modes of matter generation and had redis-
covered ancient atomism, the claim that anatomists had seen swimming beads in
flowing blood fell on fertile ground.13 The hypothesis that globules are the small-

11 See Domenico Bertoloni Meli: Marcello Malpighi. Anatomist and Physician, Florence: Olschki,
1997.
12 See Barbara Orland: The Fluid Mechanics of Nutrition. Herman Boerhaave’s Synthesis of Sev-
enteenth-Century Circulation Physiology. In: Barbara Orland, E.C. Spary (eds.): Assimilating
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Knowledge. Food and Nutrition in Early Modern Physiologies, Special Issue of Studies in History
and Philosophy of Biology and Biomedical Science, 43, 2012, 2, pp. 357–369.
13 On globulism, see John V. Pickstone: Globules and Coagula: Concepts of Tissue Formation in
the Early Nineteenth Century. In: Journal of the History of Medicine, 28, 1973, 4, pp. 336–356;
Jutta Schickore: Error as Historiographical Challenge: The Infamous Globule Hypothesis,
In: Giora Hon, Jutta Schickore, Friedrich Steinle (eds.): Going Amiss in Experimental Research,
­Boston: Springer, 2009, pp. 27–45.

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94 Barbara Orland

est particle of life seemed plausible. This is not the place to explore the resulting
controversies surrounding microcirculation in the tissues. Using the microscope,
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it was easy to amalgamate findings from circulation physiology with corpuscular


philosophical theories. In our context, it is vital to emphasize that, in the 1820/30s,
any kind of descriptive anatomy was still intended not merely to obtain exact
information on the tissue structure (histology), but rather to understand the pro-
cesses of tissue formation as part of blood circulation.14 The properties of substanc-
es and the conditions of their coming into being and constant transformations
were the focus; the classification of tissues, by contrast, was secondary. The Vien-
nese anatomist Joseph Berres (1796–1844) reflected that only after researching
for some time with a microscope did the precise delineation and classification
of organic elements come to his mind. Having started with the imaging of the
vascular network and the peripheral capillaries, he then studied the human tissue
as districts where “those mysterious workshops existed in which the functions of
the life process take place, such as appropriation, secretion, and excretion.” 15 Only
then did he find himself forced to develop a classification of “classes and orders”
in order “to avoid annoying repetitions and tedious descriptions of varied periph-
eral vascular conditions” because of the “subtlety and delicacy of the specimen.” 16

4. Metabolic matter
Returning to Alfred Donné and the question of what he expected from medical
photomicrography, the foregoing discussion has shown that, at the time when the
daguerreotype came to his attention, the terms and concepts of the microworld
were by no means clear. Although the microscope had been in use for at least two
centuries, histology was a relatively new field of descriptive anatomy. The theory of
globules existed in many varieties; an immense number of objects with the small-
est deviations were observed. Some microscopists described them as solid bodies
with a perfect sphere; others saw elliptical bubbles, and yet others described them
as pearl necklaces and claimed that the fibers were formed of globules. Historian
of science Jutta Schickore has shown that such divergent observations were not
merely the result of the technical state of microscopes. She argues that the glob-
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14 See Ann Mylott: The Roots of Cell Theory in Sap, Spores, and Schleiden, Diss. Phil. Univ. of Indiana,
2002.
15 Joseph Berres: Anatomie der mikroskopischen Gebilde des menschlichen Körpers, Wien: Carl Gerold,
1837, p. 6.
16 Berres (s. fn. 15), p. 36.

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Liquid or Globular? 95

ules hypothesis cannot simply be dismissed as the prehistory of the cell theory.17
The epistemic situation was much more complex. Microscopists not only debated
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the appearance of tissue structures; their observations also had to interpret them
physiologically, that is, to explain them as a part of the life processes within an
organism.
In his dissertation Recherches et physiologiques chimico-microscopiques sur les
globules du sang, du pus, du mucus et sur ces humeurs de l’œil (1831), Donné showed
that the globules visible under the microscope were of a different nature, and that,
in most cases, they had to be considered as matter in transition, whose appearance
changes depending on the moment in the life process in which they are found.18
Methodologically, he saw himself as a follower of the anatomie élémentaire et glob-
ulaire proposed by François-Vincent Raspail (1794–1878), a chemist who claimed
to have transferred the chemical laboratory onto a microscope slide.19 Raspail and
other physiologists and chemists of the time studied digestion and nutrition as
forms of tissue formation. 20 In contrast to purely chemical research, on the basis
of which researchers assumed that solid tissue structures were formed by fermen-
tation or crystallization of the liquid parts – processes imitated in the laboratory –
Raspail and later Donné identified the blood nuclei as globules albumineux, and not
as globules organisés. They argued that blood globules were not the basic elements
of all living things, as was previously believed; rather these beads come from the
material that the human organism generates during the process of digestion. 21
During digestion, they claimed, food is formed into small beads, which ini-
tially make fresh blood and finally – as coagulated blood – are transformed into
meat. The food pellets are considerably smaller than blood cells because they
have to pass through the walls of blood vessels. Blood globules form fibers; fibers
form membranes and tendons, which in turn form the base material for larger
body parts (bone system, brain, muscles, etc.). From a physiological point of view,
globules were therefore metabolic matter. Their existence could only be explained

17 Schickore (s. fn. 13).


18 Alfred Donné: Recherches physiologiques et chimico-microscopiques sur les globules du sang, du pus,
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du mucus et sur ces humeurs de l’œil, thèse de médecine de Paris n° 8, Paris : Impr. Didot jeune, 1831.
19 Raspail is said to be one of the founders of histology. Years before cell theory was proposed by
Schleiden and popularized in medicine by Virchow, Raspail talked about cellular laboratories
(“La cellule laboratoire”). See Georg Dhom: Geschichte der Histopathologie, Berlin, Heidelberg:
Springer, 2001, p. 14.
20 Pickstone (s. fn. 13).
21 Donné: Recherches (s. fn. 18), p. 10.

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96 Barbara Orland

by the physiology of digestion and nutrition. The quality of food affected the con-
dition of the blood because the life process constantly rearranges the bodily sub-
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stance. 22
With the aid of the microscope, Donné and his contemporaries were search-
ing for signs and traces of the life process. This becomes particularly evident with
the question of the so-called globules du lait, which Donné studied a few years
later in the context of his health policy on mothers’ versus nurses’ milk (fig. 2). 23
Until that time, no body fluid had withstood chemical-physiological analysis as
effectively as milk. In dairy research, the unanimous verdict prevailed that there
is no other substance whose properties change as quickly and intensely as those of
milk. This was a source of frustration because it seemed to be impossible to obtain
comparative criteria to evaluate nurses’ milk. Donné now hoped to have found an
evaluation criterion for the varying milk globules. From the moment that he began
exploring differences rather than commonalities in milk samples, he felt able to
recognize the “more delicate changes” that characterize this substance. 24
This shift in perspective created a new problem, which the daguerreotype
promised to solve. To get meaningful results from a plethora of comparisons of
globules, it was necessary to identify similarities and differences between them,
based on pattern recognition in shape, size, shape, color, etc. Drawings appeared
much too crude to reflect the many variations of this sensitive substance. While
“normal conditions” could be studied with a microscope alone, the many varia-
tions produced by comparing changing or readily decomposed milk required a
representation technology for adequate documentation. With the combination of
photography and microscopy, Donné hoped to have found a media technology
that enabled the documentation of the pathological form deviations of juices on a
globular level so that they could be compared in detail. This hope was not fulfilled.
Although he provided comprehensive details of his microscopic milk anal-
ysis for the first time in his 1842 publication Conseils aux mères sur la manière
d’élever les enfants nouveau-nés (with three editions and four revisions published
by 1905), with the exception of the translation for the US market in 1859, it never
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22 Donné, Foucault (s. fn. 4), p. 76.


23 Alfred Donné: Du lait, et en particulier de celui des nourrices, considérée sous le rapport de ses bonnes
et de ses mauvaises qualités nutritives et de ses altérations, Paris : l’auteur, 1837; see also: Ann F.
La Berge: Mothers and Infants; Nurses and Nursing: Alfred Donné and the Medicalization of
Child Care in Nineteenth-Century France. In: Journal for the History of Medicine, 46, 1991, pp.
20–43.
24 Donné: Cours de microscopie (s. fn. 4), p. 313.

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Liquid or Globular? 97
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2: Breast milk of “average quality,”


engraving from daguerreotype.
Alfred Donné: Mothers and Infants,
Nurses and Nursing, Boston 1859,
Plate 1.

contained daguerreotypes of milk. 25 One can only speculate that the images in
print were either too expensive, or they appeared unsuitable for a wide audience.
In any case, Donné’s daguerreotypes did not become accepted as a diagnostic tool
for globular pattern recognition, and the microscopic analysis of trace elements
shifted from globules to cells, from the search for minimal particles to the study
of elementary organisms.
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25 His first book on milk, Du lait et en particulier de celui des nourrices (1837), included a plate with
engravings that were not from daguerreotypes, but drawings from microscopic samples.

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