Roslin Glass Plate Slides Digitisation Sample Project

Previously we’ve introduced the Roslin Glass Slides Collection and have posted a selection of the 3,465 images in various posts. It is a goal of ours to digitise the collection for easier access to these images and, also, for conservation purposes. While digitising the entire collection is a future project, we’ve managed to find funds in the Towards Dolly budget to have the photographer from the University of Edinburgh’s Digital Imaging Unit (DIU) do a ‘scoping project’  or ‘sample’ and digitise 50 of the slides! As she began work on the slides she found a slide with an interesting feature – it was an early example of someone using an early form of Photoshop on an image! To see her more in-depth discussion of the image read her blog post, Analogue Photoshop?

Maori Girl in Canoe

Admittedly it’s quite hard to tell from this small image; however, looking closely, she said you notice the way the light falls on the water on the background and the size differentiation between the girl in the canoe in the foreground and the other canoe in the background is off and the edging around the girl looks like she’s been cut out from one image and placed on another. This is just one example of the curiosities found and hopefully, once the rest of the slides are digitised, they’ll provide more insight into the quirky nature of this collection.

Letters in the Limelight: Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913)

Coll. Alfred Russell WallaceCataloguing the correspondence of zoologist/animal breeder James Cossar Ewart (1851-1933), I have been intrigued by the various ‘life stories’ which emerge from the letters. Periodically I will be including some highlights in a series of posts entitled ‘letters in the limelight’ .

We heard last week about Robert Wallace, Professor of Agriculture and Rural Economy at the University of Edinburgh: in this week’s ‘Letters in the Limelight’ we will hear about explorer and naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace (no relation!) who, independently from Charles Darwin, discovered that evolution is governed by natural selection. However, Wallace was a pioneering thinker in a dazzling array of other subjects, including land reform, glaciology, astrobiology, anthropology, socialism and spiritualism. The theory of natural selection came to Wallace in February 1858 when he was suffering from a fever on the remote Indonesian island of Gilolo (now Halmahera). He wrote a detailed essay and sent it to Charles Darwin, who he knew to be interested in evolution. What he didn’t know was that Darwin had been working on the same theory, more or less in secret, for over 20 years. Naturally, Darwin was horrified and asked his friends Charles Lyell and Joseph Hooker for advice. Their response was to combine Darwin’s writing on the subject with Wallace’s essay – without Wallace’s knowledge or permission – and the resulting paper appeared in the Linnaean Society’s Journal in August 1858. Darwin’s On the Origin of Species appeared the following year: Wallace, on the other hand, remained in the Malay Archipelago for another four years.

Considering that James Cossar Ewart corresponded with a vast array of individuals prominent in the field of science, it is hardly surprising that a letter from Wallace appears in his collection of correspondence. However, considering that this year marks his centenary, it was a nice to see his signature appear whilst cataloguing. In the letter, written from Dorset on 07 March 1899, Wallace thanks Ewart for sending him his copy of the Penycuik Experiments (the book, published in that year, in which Ewart was able to disprove the theory of telegony by showing that the influence of a first sire could have no influence on the offspring from subsequent sires). However, he considers that Ewart does not emphasize the importance of breeding in telegony tests from pairs of animals of the same colour as well as the same breed. Going on to discuss of the heredity of characteristics, Wallace contrasts the idea of ‘infection’ (as telegony’ was also known) with ‘prenatal impression’, and tells an anecdotal story to illustrate the theory of ‘the influence of mental impressions of the mother on the offspring’. This curious story, Wallace explains, was told to him by a doctor friend of his:

A gamekeeper had a gun accident which led to the amputation of his right fore-arm, at the North Devon Infirmary at Barnstaple of which Dr Budd was Physician. Being anxious to get home he left before the wound was healed, taking instructions for the dressing, which he said his wife would do for him. His wife however was so nervous that she could not do it, so a friend of hers – the recently married wife of a farmer near – offered to come and do it, which she did, till it was quite healed. About 6 months later this farmer’s wife had a son born without any right fore-arm, the stumps exactly resembling that of the gamekeeper.

This, for Wallace was ‘conclusive’ in proving the theory that maternal impressions, particularly those produced by a shock or unpleasant experience, could contribute to causing deformities in offspring. Although of course we now do not hold with this theory, it certainly makes for a good story! One wonders what James Cossar Ewart would have made of it.

In his own lifetime, Wallace was considered to be the most famous scientist alive. His place in the story of evolutionary science has since been eclipsed by Darwin, but in this his centenary year, there are plenty of opportunities to learn more about this extraordinary man, including The Alfred Russel Wallace website: and the Natural History Museum:

Professor Robert Wallace, (1853 – 1939), Scientific Agriculture and Rural Economy, University of Edinburgh


As I catalogued the Roslin glass slides collection and some of the rare books one name, and occasionally photograph of, kept appearing – Professor Robert Wallace. Wondering who he was and how he might have been involved with the animal genetics programme at the University of Edinburgh, I decided to investigate.

According to his biography on Archives hub:

 Robert Wallace was born into a farming family at Wallace Hall, Glencairn, Dumfries and Galloway, on 24 June 1853. He was educated at Tynron School and Hutton Academy. He studied at Edinburgh University and was awarded the degree of M.A. in December 1920, and thereafter managed farms for his father and farmed for himself and his brother. He was interested in every aspect of farm livestock recognising the importance of scientific agriculture, and throughout his career he sought to improve the standard of agriculture in Britain and the Commonwealth. Professor Wallace Highland Show 1913In 1882 he was appointed Professor of Agriculture at the Royal Agricultural College in Cirencester and then in 1885 he returned to Edinburgh University as Professor of Agriculture and Rural Economy. In the early years of his office a course in Forestry was added to the curriculum for students, then a course in Agricultural Entomology, and in 1892 and an Ordinary B.Sc. was instituted. He also established the Edinburgh Incorporated School of Agriculture and this led to the official recognition of Edinburgh by the then Board of Agriculture as an agricultural teaching centre. Later on, the East of Scotland College of Agriculture, founded in 1907, merged with the University School to form the basis of the modern School of Agriculture. Wallace occupied the Chair of Agriculture and Rural Economy until 1922. In that year too, an Honours degree in Agriculture was instituted. He was also the Garton Lecturer in Colonial and Indian Agriculture, 1900-1922. In the pursuit of his study and interests, he travelled to CanaProfessor Robert Wallace on Porch in BCda, Australia, New Zealand, India, Southern Africa and Malaysia, Professor Robert Wallace in Africaas well as the United States of America, Egypt, Greece, Mexico, and Japan. Towards the end of his career, between 1914 and 1917, Wallace engaged in correspondence with Woodrow Wilson, President of the USA. The subject of his concern was the treatment of prisoners and hostages in Germany. His publications include Farm live stock of Great Britain (1889), The rural economy and agriculture of Australia and New Zealand (1891), Argentine shows and live stock (1904), and, Heather and moor burning for grouse and sheep (1917). Professor Robert Wallace died on 17 January 1939.

Professor Wallace with Sheep in EgyptWhile some of his papers (1 volume; 2 small bundles; c. 1914-1920) may be found in the Centre for Research Collections, Main Library, University of Edinburgh (Reference number: GB 237 GB 237 Coll-87 / Location Gen. 554-555; Gen. 867F).; there are also numerous glass slides from the Roslin collection used by him as teaching material as well as images of him in East Africa, Egypt, Canada and the United States and several books that were owned by him on horses and Shorthorn cattle. There is even a photograph of him teaching Canadian soldiers about agriculture at the University of Edinburgh during World War I!  Professor Wallace Teaching Canadian SoldiersProfessor Robert Wallace, what’s known about him, seems to have been an important figure in agriculture, rural economy and the natural sciences at the University of Edinburgh with his passion for exploration, documentation and knowledge.

Dolly, Polly, Molly, Megan and Morag

Dolly and press Murdo MacleodHere on the ‘Towards Dolly’ team we couldn’t let the 05 July go by without celebrating our namesake, who was born on this day in 1996. To most people, Dolly the sheep (1996-2003) needs no introduction. The first mammal to be cloned from adult cells, Dolly was produced at the Roslin Institute, Edinburgh as part of research into producing medicines in the milk of farm animals. The creation of Dolly met with public acclaim and outcry, fuelling the continuing debates surrounding the ethics of cloning. Most people know the basics about Dolly (including, of course, how she acquired her name), but here are a few facts that may surprise:

Dolly’s birth was kept under wraps for seven months

Dolly’s birth was announced to the world in Nature (385, 753-844) on 27 February 1997, when Dolly was already seven months old. (This time delay was so that the research could be properly prepared for presentation.) Although the journal featured ‘Dolly’ on the front cover, the ‘announcement’ was couched in somewhat muted terms: ‘Viable offspring derived from fetal and adult mammalian cells.’ It is only towards the close of the article that the phrase ‘The lamb born after nuclear transfer from a mammary gland cell is, to our knowledge, the first mammal to develop from a cell derived from an adult tissue’ suggests the importance of the event. Even so, few people at Roslin realised what the strength and duration of public interest in Dolly would be.

 Clones pre-Dolly

Of course, there are naturally occurring clones in nature, such as in bacteria. In terms of laboratory cloning, transgenic frogs, mice and cows have been available from the 1980s onwards. The difference with Dolly was that it is so much more difficult to clone from an adult cell. Dolly was the only live lamb to emerge from 277 attempts.

Ever heard of Megan and Morag?

Megan and Morag were identical twin sheep cloned from the same embryo and were the first mammals to have been successfully cloned from differentiated cells. They were born at the Roslin Institute in July 1995. Although Megan and Morag never got the same level of publicity as Dolly was to have, there was a lot more resting on their birth. Crucially, Megan and Morag demonstrated that viable sheep can be produced by nuclear transfer from cells which have been cultured in vitro. The technical breakthrough which produced them made Dolly the sheep possible.

Polly and Molly the sheep

Since Dolly, other sheep have since been cloned from adult cells, as have cats, rabbits, horses, donkeys, pigs, goats and cattle. In 1997, two ewes were born at Roslin which were the first mammals to have been successfully cloned from an adult somatic cell (like Dolly) and to be transgenic at the same time. Scientists used cells into which a new gene had been inserted so that the animals produced a therapeutic protein in their blood. Polly and Molly built on the work that had been done with Dolly to demonstrate the therapeutic potentials of recombitant DNA technology combined with animal cloning.

Read more about Dolly and the work of the Roslin Institute here:

Over the next two years, I will be cataloguing the papers of Professor Sir Ian Wilmut (part of the team who cloned Dolly), Professor Grahame Bulfield (former Director of Roslin) and the Roslin Institute itself as part of the second phase of our Wellcome Trust-funded project. I look forward to discovering more about Dolly the sheep as well as the work of the Roslin Institute from its inception in 1993 until the early 21st century.

 Photograph reproduced with kind permission of Murdo Macleod.

Letters in the Limelight: William Herdman and HMS Challenger’s ‘weird deep sea forms’

Coll. William Herdman and ChallengerCataloguing the correspondence of zoologist/animal breeder James Cossar Ewart (1851-1933), I have been intrigued by the various ‘life stories’ which emerge from the letters. Periodically I will be including some highlights in a series of posts entitled ‘letters in the limelight’ .

Last week’s ‘Letters in the Limelight’ focused on Dorothy Thursby-Pelham’s drawings of penguin embryos from Captain Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the Antarctic; this week, we are staying with the theme of exploration by looking at a letter (dated 25 June 1915) to Ewart from the Edinburgh-born zoologist and oceanographer Sir William Abbott Herdman (1858-1924). Ewart had evidently written to Herdman, who was then Professor of Natural History at the University of Liverpool, requesting some biographical details, to which Herdman modestly replied: ‘what an awful question you ask me! What on earth am I to say? I am the last person who ought to answer it. Will Who’s Who not supply what you want? However I suppose I must help you with any facts I can think of…’ He manages to recover from his reticence sufficiently to provide a brief career history, although he is careful to stress that ‘I had nothing to do of course with the Challenger expedition – was a school-boy at the Edin[burgh] Academy at the time; but I was one of Wyville Thomson’s young men at the ‘Challenger Office’ after he came home.’

Herdman of course refers to the HMS Challenger expedition which visited all of the world’s oceans except the Arctic between  1872 and 1876. The expedition aimed primarily to determine deep sea physical conditions such as temperature and ocean currents, although other forms of investigation, including those of a biological nature, were also carried out. In charge of the scientific staff on board was Charles Wyville Thompson (1830-1882), whom Ewart was to succeed as Professor of Natural History at the University of Edinburgh. Thompson’s location decided that the ‘Challenger Office’ mentioned by Herdman was set up in Edinburgh in order to analyse the findings of the expedition. The resulting Report on the Scientific Results of the Voyage of HMS Challenger was as monumental as the trip itself, appearing in 50 volumes up until 1895, and much of the scientific data gathered by the Expedition is still in current use.

As Herdman writes to Ewart, he became involved in Wyville Thomson’s ‘Challenger Office’ after graduating from the University of Edinburgh in 1879. He was given the collection of Tunicata (a group of marine organisms) to investigate, a work which he continued after he departed for Liverpool in 1881, and which was to be published as a report in three parts between 1882 and 1888. It was research that he evidently enjoyed: he wrote to Ewart of his ‘luck to have a lot of weird deep sea forms to describe which were of course new to science, so I was able to add some new morphological facts.’ Herdman remained in Liverpool for the rest of his career, maintaining a room in the Department of Zoology far beyond his retirement. He was also a generous benefactor to the University of Liverpool, endowing two chairs and funding a geological laboratory. He established biological stations on Anglesey, in Barrow, Lancashire and on the Isle of Man, where he also helped to found the Manx Museum in Douglas. He received honorary degrees from several universities, was actively involved with the Royal Society and was knighted in 1922. However, Herdman’s personal life was marred with sadness when his only son was killed in the Somme and his wife died suddenly after a two-day illness. Herdman himself suffered from heart disease, and died on the eve of his daughter’s wedding, after attending a family dinner in London. His obituary in Nature (2857, 114, 02 August 1924) states that ‘Sir William Herdman’s life, if it is ever written, will be an inspiration to every man, whether he is interested in science or not.’ In his own life summary which he provided to Ewart however, Herdman retains his characteristic self-deprecation, concluding the letter thus:  ‘Oh – finally, I have probably made quite as many mistakes as any other zoologist who has ranged over a pretty wide field of work.’

Edinburgh University Library Special Collections also holds the HMS Challenger Papers:

Letters in the Limelight: Penguin Eggs from Antarctica

Coll- Dorothy Thursby PelhamCataloguing the correspondence of zoologist/animal breeder James Cossar Ewart (1851-1933), I have been intrigued by the various ‘life stories’ which emerge from the letters. Periodically I will be including some highlights in a series of posts entitled ‘letters in the limelight’ .

‘Dr Harmer has written me that you are undertaking the investigation of the Antarctic Penguin material’, writes Dorothy Thursby-Pelham to James Cossar Ewart, ‘and would like to use my drawings. As far as I am concerned I shall be very pleased, but strictly speaking they are the property of Mrs Assheton as I did them when engaged as Dr Assheton’s assistant. She has I believe written to Dr Harmer to give the required permission.’ The letter, dated 12 May, gives no reference to year, although it is likely to be from around 1922 when Ewart was conducting research on the Emperor Penguin. He had been interested for a number of years in exploring the origin and history of feathers in birds and their possible relation to scales on reptiles. Examining Thursby-Pelham’s drawings of embryonic penguins would have allowed Ewart to make a study of the process of early feather development.

Thursby-Pelham, a scientist at the Zoological Laboratory, Cambridge, has been called ‘England’s first female sea-going fisheries scientist’ and was an active member of the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea. However, as she mentions to Ewart, she had also worked as an assistant to Dr Richard Assheton (1863-1915), Lecturer in Animal Embryology at the University of Cambridge. The drawings to which Thursby-Pelham refers, and which Ewart evidently wished to use as part of his research, were the intricate and beautiful pencil drawings of the embryos of the Emperor Penguin eggs famously collected on Scott’s last expedition (1910-1913) to the Antarctic. This expedition, commemorated in Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s 1922 book The Worst Journey in the World (which contained Ewart’s report on the Emperor Penguin as an Appendix), aimed to be the first to reach the South Pole, collecting as much scientific data as possible along the way. In particular, it was hoped that evidence would be found about the embryos of Emperor Penguins (thought to be the most ‘primitive’ of the bird species) to support the theory that there was an evolutionary link between birds and reptiles. In 1911, Edward Wilson, the expedition’s chief scientist, and two colleagues embarked on a gruelling five week journey to the nearest penguin breeding colony, pulling heavy sledges in total darkness through temperatures of -40°C. They collected five fresh eggs, three of which survived the return journey. Back in Britain, the pickled embryos were sliced and mounted onto slides, with Richard Assheton being assigned the special task of analysing them. It was at this time that Dorothy Thursby-Pelham made her pencil drawings. Meanwhile, the bodies of Scott, Wilson and a third colleague, Henry Bowers, were discovered in 1913, having perished in the cold on the return journey from the South Pole (they were beaten to the spot by Roald Amunsden’s Norwegian expedition).

The outbreak of the First World War and Assheton’s death delayed the detailed study of the embryos until 1934 – the year after James Cossar Ewart’s death – when advances in science had discounted the theory of a link between between an embryological development and evolutionary history. However, the eggs, which can still be seen today in the Natural History Museum, remain as poignant reminders of the courageous and often deadly battle for scientific discovery.

You can see images of the eggs, as well as pictures from Scott’s expedition and one of Dorothy Thursby-Pelham’s drawings here:

Play It Again, Dolly – An Audio Interview with Playback Magazine

Masterpieces III Recently, a wonderful opportunity arose for me to promote the Towards Dolly Project and the Masterpieces III exhibition to the visually impaired community through an audio interview with John Cavanagh and Playback Magazine for the June 2013 issue. The specific feature is:

Masterpiece 3 Exhibition John Cavanagh speaks to Kristy Davis about this Exhibition taking place at Edinburgh University Library. Acting as a sequel to Masterpieces I and II, shown in 2009 and 2012, Masterpieces III continues to explore and expand the concept of a “masterpiece”, but this time approaches it from the perspectives of science and medicine.

During the interview I describe the glass slides from the Towards Dolly Project and one of my favourite objects in the collection – Mansur ibn Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn Yusuf ibn Illyas’s 14th century illustration Tashrih-i Mansuri  (The Anatomy of Mansur of Shiraz) – the human body in Islamic medicine:

Glass SlidesAhmad illustration









Playback Magazine is part of Playback Recording Service, a registered charity, based in Glasgow at the Centre for Sensory Impaired, created to provide a free service to blind and visually impaired people to provide professional-quality recorded material to the UK, as well as parts of the USA, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. A more comprehensive history of this wonderful organization can be found on Playback’s website. Presenter John Cavanagh is an independent broadcast media professional with over 20 years of experience in the voice artist and broadcasting industries.

I hope you enjoy listening to the feature as much as I enjoyed talking to John and having the opportunity to promote this fascinating material to the visually impaired community – I’ll certainly be listening to future editions of the excellent Playback Magazine and I hope that others will as well!

Images were created by the Digital Imaging Unit, Centre for Research Collections, Edinburgh University Library and are © The University of Edinburgh.