Was it simply that nothing else was within reach of soiled hands? Did the microtome knife serve the secondary purpose of a writing instrument while so much else needed to be done in the middle of an experiment? We will never know. But these are questions someone looking through the extensive collection of microscope slides which Oxford’s Nobel Prize winning physiologist Charles Sherrington once housed in a
At the top of our forgotten slide, above the mounted tissue, we find the letters ‘Sp cord’ scratched into the glass. Beneath the mount the words ‘Alzheimer-Mann Method’ are likewise engraved. We are given no information on the animal from which the section of the spinal cord has been made, but the slide has its story nonetheless. It is part of the wider story of the University of Oxford’s Department of Physiology and the staff and students who have populated it.
One of the most elusive figures is that of Gustav Mann (1864—1921), who came to Oxford to work with the then Waynflete professor of physiology Francis Gotch (1853-1913) in 1894. During his time at Oxford, Mann conducted much of the experimental work which was later integrated into his important book Physiological Histology, published in 1652. Six years later he left these shores forever to become professor of physiology at Tulane University in New Orleans.
Intriguingly, Gustav Mann was born at Darjeeling in India. His father was German by birth but English by adoption, while his mother died when he was only two years old. Sent to Germany for his schooling, the young Mann was brought up in the household of a strict Lutheran minister in Göttingen, before entering the University of Edinburgh to study medicine in 1885.
Always proud of his British citizenship, Gustav Mann could nevertheless not hide his origins. Not only was his English decidedly Teutonic both in diction and syntax, his own lifestyle betrayed his upbringing: four hours of sleep and seven stones in weight were deemed quite sufficient.
Many of the slides in the Sherrington collection bear labels with the name ‘Gustav Mann’. We do not know how or why they were handed down. Presumably they were passed on to Gotch when Mann left took up his post in the United States, and were inherited by Sherrington when he succeeded Gotch in 1913. But it is equally possible that they spent the intervening years in the corner of some dusty cupboard in the old Physiology building in South Parks Road.
In contrast to others, our otherwise anonymous slide does not bear a label and its connection to Gustav Mann might appear tenuous. But this is not so. As Physiological Histology reveals, Mann was intensely interested in the nature and techniques of biological stains. Many pages of his book deal with topics such as the theory of staining or the chemistry of dyes, and he would later provide inspiration for American work on the standardization of stains. The method associated with his name is a technique for staining nerve cells employing a mixture of aniline blue with eosin.
The German physiologist Alois Alzheimer (1864-1915) made extensive use of Mann stains 1. In his path-breaking study ‘Über seltene Krankheitsfälle des späteren Alters’ (1912), Alzheimer describes microscopical investigations on the cortex of patients who had displayed symptoms of mental degeneration in years preceding death. He notes the particular value of Mann’s method over that of Weigert in displaying in particular the changes to the structure and composition of the spinal cord. Alzheimer proceeded to modify the Mann method for his own purposes, whereby material mordanted in potassium dichromate was stained with Mann mixture. It is a remarkable piece of cross-fertilization reflecting the close ties between German and British physiologists before the First World War: the combined names of two men of equal age, one German and one with strong German roots, came to be roughly engraved on our early twentieth-century Oxford slide.
Philip Beeley March 6th, 2014
The announcement, in 1936, of Lord Nuffield’s munificent donation to Oxford of two million pounds for the progress of medical science appeared like the answer to the prayers of cash-strapped departments across the University’s Medical Faculty. Britain was still feeling the effects of the Great Depression, unemployment was high, and life was bleak. In none of the departments was the need for financial resuscitation felt greater than in the William Dunn School of Pathology. Little work of note was emerging from the stately building on South Parks Road, itself the result of a generous donation, when the first full professor of pathology, Georges Dreyer, died in 1934. It was not until the following year that Dreyer’s successor, Howard Florey, took up his post and together with Beatrice Pullinger, a former Sheffield colleague, and Jim Kent breathed new life into the School’s teaching and research. But Florey, the brilliant Australian born former Rhodes Scholar had no alternative than to spend most of his time fund-raising rather than conducting the kind of research which would lead to path-breaking results on the use of penicillin from 1939 onwards.
Reproduced with kind permission: Rare Books and Special Collections, University of British Columbia
As two letters written by the Oxford physiologist Charles Sherrington reveal, there were high hopes that the Nuffield benefaction would ease the financial woes of the Pathology Department soon after Florey’s arrival. ‘I have been hoping the Nuffield benefaction would straighten out some of your laboratory difficulties – of course they will’, writes the Waynflete professor of physiology to his Oxford colleague on Boxing Day, 1936. Such confidence! Soon Sherrington’s expectations were dashed, when it became clear that the benefaction would be used in its entirety to support clinical departments. A year later, Sherrington writes plaintively ‘I wish you got more help from the Nuffield scheme’. One’s loss was another’s gain.
Philip Beeley January 28th, 2014
The slide collection amassed by Sir Charles Sherrington during the course of this long and illustrious career is rich both in its origins and in its contents. Besides reflecting the cutting-edge nature of his neurophysiological work it also demonstrates how slides were scientific commodities which might be exchanged between colleagues, bought at a specialist London store, or produced ad hoc in the midst of experimental investigations as a means to recording their progress.
One of the most curious slides which turned up in the Sherrington Box bears alongside the label of its owner another one which might appear at first rather incongruous: ‘West-Riding Asylum’. Above this is the hand-written date ’18.12.96’.
In fact, the relation between the Physiological Laboratory at Oxford and the institution at Wakefield in Yorkshire is not quite as incongruous as it might at first seem. The medical director of the West- Riding Asylum since 1866 had been none other than James Crichton Brown, who succeeded in introducing enlightened methods of treatment for the mentally ill under his care while pursuing his career as a front-line neurologist. Brown eventually went on to become the co-founder and editor of the journal Brain.
More worrying is the likewise hand-written name on the slide above the technical details of the section of the cervical cord displaying nerve cells with dendrites – it is that of Fanny Hancock.
At this point the story of the slide threatens to take on a sinister feel1. Fanny Hancock had been brought up under impoverished circumstances. Much of her past remains unclear, but by 1886 she was married and had a serious drinking problem. After her husband had left her with their ten-year-old daughter, she took up with another man and soon moved into lodgings with him in Folkestone. Fanny brought two further children into a household environment shaped by alcohol and violence. Already in a poor state of mental health and following a failed attempt to kill one of her children, she attempted to put an end to her own life and that of her two youngest children by walking out into the sea on Sandgate beach in May 1888. While Fanny and her son were rescued from the waters by bystanders, her youngest daughter died. Subsequently put on trial for murder, Fanny eventually pleaded guilty and was sentenced to death. On account of insanity, her death sentence was later commuted and she was ordered to spend the remainder of her natural life incarcerated in a lunatic asylum.
The case of Fanny Hancock achieved something like public notoriety at the time. Her reprieve was announced in The Times of 25 July 18882. However, the reporter puts her crime and sentence in a somewhat more nuanced light, describing her as ‘suffering from melancholy’ and noting that she ‘did not understand what she was doing when she pleaded guilty’.
Fanny Hancock’s alcohol abuse and her mental condition made her an interesting subject in the world of physiology following her death. We can only presume that her body was conveyed to the West-Riding Asylum from her place of incarceration in Kent and that Sherrington obtained his slide from there either for teaching purposes or for his own investigations. Nor would it have been simply a case of scientific motivation on his part. Sherrington was, as we now know through our historical research into his life, his work, and his letters, a man with a strong social conscience and was particularly concerned for the well-being of the less well-off members of the community.
Philip Beeley November 19th, 2013