The Utility of the Microscope.
Selected writings of John King:
This article refutes the idea that has been advanced in some quarters that the Eclectic, and especially the earlier trained Eclectic, had no love for scientific studies. This paper shows that Professor King was familiar with and taught the value of instruments of precision. Moreover, he wrote a manual. "The Microscopist's Companion," which was exceedingly popular with Eclectic physicians. This contribution shows well the graceful style and beautiful diction which Dr. King increasingly acquired as he matured in years.—Ed. Gleaner.
THE UTILITY OF THE MICROSCOPE.—Of all the instruments now employed in the investigation of scientific matters, there is none so universally adapted as the microscope. But a few years ago it was looked upon as a mere toy, not worthy the attention of men of science; at this day the many improvements which have been made upon it render it useful, and even necessary, to all philosophical investigators, and to none more than the medical man.
The microscope opens to the observer a new and unexpected world, full of beauty, perfection, and magnificence; in a single drop of water it presents to the astonished vision living creatures of most beautiful and varied forms, entirely unlike all former conceptions of organic existences, and so extremely minute that it would require from twenty-five thousand to eighty millions to fill the narrow space of one square inch. And yet, as small as they are, the microscope reveals to us their existence, their spontaneous motion, and their external and internal structures; it also makes known the fact that these minute living beings are extremely reproductive and "constitute the chief proportion of living bodies upon the face of the earth." They are found not only in the fresh water of ponds, brooks, rivers, and lakes, but even in the salty waters of the great deep, in some strong acids, in terraqueous matter, and in vegetable and animal fluids; indeed, there is no part of the world, either upon its external surface, or internally, but in which these microscopic beings can be found in either a living or fossil state. The mortar of the builder, the chalky cliffs of Albion, extensive tracts of country in various parts of the world, as well as chains of mountains, the coral foundation of the Polynesian Archipelagoes, of the reefs and islets of the Indian Ocean, and also of many other places, besides flint, slate, sandstone, limestone rocks, etc., all contain, and are, in fact, chiefly composed of the remains of once living, invisible animalcules. "Of the myriads upon myriads of organized beings created to work out the grand designs of Providence, all calculation seems futile; as the result would be beyond the grasp of our comprehension. And the remains of these minute animals have added much more to the mass of materials which compose the exterior crust of the globe than the bones of elephants, mammoths, hippopotami, and whales."
But the microscope does not terminate its utility here; it is equally necessary and useful to the geologist, the botanist, the mineralogist, the chemist, and the physician. To the latter in particular it has demonstrated the minute structure of parts of the human system which were previously altogether a mystery, and has assisted in affording a more perfect comprehension of the organic functions. It has revealed that the formerly supposed fibers of the brain and nerves are tubes holding a fluid; that the fine longitudinal fibers of the muscles are composed of numerous smaller ones, which are crossed by transverse striae, the contraction or relaxation of which gives rise to muscular motion; that there is an intermediary network of vessels between the nerves and arteries, and that however complex the glandular system may appear, all glands are formed of numerous simple sacculated membranes, varying in number or arrangement. The structure of all the solid textures of the body, as the skin, hair, nails, bone, cartilage, tooth, tendon, cellular tissue, etc., have within a few years past been thoroughly and correctly made known by the aid of this mighty instrument, so that no man can, at the present day, hold the title of even a "respectable physician" who is non-conversant with these revelations.
Nor has its value ceased with a knowledge of the healthy structure; it affords us a certainty in the diagnosis of many diseases, several of which could not be correctly determined without it. The character of urine, as known by its uric acid, its urates, phosphates, oxalate of lime, grape sugar, blood corpuscles, fat cells, and other matters, is now greatly relied upon by every intelligent practitioner, not only as a means of determining the character of disease, but also its appropriate treatment; and this investigation of the urine is very much simplified and facilitated by the microscope.
That peculiar condition of some of the highly complex organic textures, termed "fatty degeneration," has been carefully investigated under the microscope by many eminent medical men; and from recent discoveries, there is strong ground for supposing that apoplexy, instead of depending upon a plethoric or hyperemic condition, is rather owing to a fatty degeneration of the arteries of the brain, caused by changes occurring in the assimilative processes.
The microscope has discovered to us that many diseases depend upon or are accompanied with parasitical algaeous or fungous vegetations, as the sarcinae ventriculi in pyrosis, the tricophyton tonsurans in porrigo scutulata, the achorion schoenleinii in tinea favosa, the microsporon andouinii in tinea decalvans, etc.; it presents to us the true condition of various epithelium, of the secretions from the mouth and air passages, of the pus from various diseased surfaces; it enables us to detect the presence of flour, starch, sand, milk, etc., which patients frequently add to their urine or other discharges, in order to deceive the practitioner; and it affords us important aid in detecting impurities and adulterations in food and drugs; in determining the presence of spermatozoa in instances of rape; in distinguishing between leucorrheal and gonorrheal matter; and in medico-legal matters, will assist us to discriminate, in cases of supposed murder, between human hair and that of animals; also between blood stains and red spots resembling blood.
These are but a few of the uses of the microscope, but they are sufficient to convince every medical man of the necessity of possessing and employing such a powerful engine of discovery; and I have thus briefly referred to its utility, that our practitioners abroad may hasten to avail themselves of its benefits. For forty or fifty dollars an instrument can be obtained suitable for all medical investigations, and this amount can not be disposed of to a better advantage, either as regards amusement, instruction, or pecuniary profit. It is as necessary to the practical physician as his probe, his stethoscope, his instruments, and even his medicines; it is indeed the most precious gift that has ever been bestowed upon science.—J. KING, College Journal of Medical Science, 1856.