Whalebone Slides and Thomas D. Russell

Thomas D. Russell (1838–1928)
established and owned The City Microscopical Studio and Geological Museum, a business serving the interests of microscopists and mineral collectors. He was a mounter of microscope slides, which he sold under his own label, both from his shop and by mail-order. He was a longtime member of the Quekett Microscopical Club and exhibited slides of his making at several of the club’s microscopical soirees that were open to the public. In 1884 Russell was awarded a medal for the quality of the slides he exhibited at the International Health and Education Exhibit held at the Royal Albert Hall (Stevenson, 2018).

The label of a microscope slide is expected to correctly identify the specimen held in the slide mount in the few words that will fit the confining space. Incorrect labeling could be the result of preparers’ ignorance about the specimens they are working with, a mistake in writing, or a mix-up in how their supplies and inventory are handled. It could also be an intentional deception for marketing the slide. For the researcher assessing the historical works of established professional mounters, finding an error


can provide an interesting insight into the slide preparer’s thinking and methods. Russell’s slide, titled “Bottlenose Whale,” is an example of a mislabeled slide providing such an opportunity.

Whalebone is a commonly used term for baleen—a plastic-like filtering material that hangs into the mouths of some whales. Baleen is formed from hair that grows in compacted sheets from a whale’s upper gums. It is used by the animal to strain food from seawater. Not all whales have baleen. Some have teeth instead. Whales have one or the other, never both. The presence or absence of baleen is a characteristic used for classifying the Cetacea (a taxonomic order of whales and porpoises) into two main groups. Cetaceans that have teeth—such as sperm whales, killer whales, and porpoises—are in the suborder Odontocetes. Whales that have baleen in place of teeth—two familiar examples being the blue whale and the humpback—are in the suborder Mysticetes. Baleen (or whalebone) was used during the nineteenth century for corset ribs, collar stays, parasol ribs, and other purposes that benefited by the addition of a lightweight, plastic-like supporting material.

Microscopic examination of Russell’s slide reveals it to definitely be whalebone and not skeletal bone, tooth, or other hard substance. The error is in its attribution. Russell added the name of a whale species to enhance the desirability of the slide. Correct identification of a species increases

WHALEBONE STRAINER OF BOTTLE-NOSE WHALE. Prepared baleen slide by Russell of London.

the value of a slide by refining its place in a collection. Unfortunately for any purchaser of this slide, Russell’s identification is misleading. The mistake reveals the preparer’s unfamiliarity with the natural history of whales. The bottlenose whale is classified within the suborder Odontocetes, the taxonomic grouping for whales that have teeth. No member of this suborder ever has whalebone! Adult male bottlenose whales have two lower incisor teeth but they are not used for eating. The purpose of the two teeth is to gouge competing males during the mating. Female bottlenose whales are totally toothless. A search through contemporary marine mammal scientific literature verifies that baleen, or any baleen-like material, is ever found in the mouths of the Odontocetes (Demere and McGowan, 2008).

There is one historical mention of bottlenose whale baleen. In his 1845 book Odontography; or, the Comparative Examination of Teeth, the respected anatomist Sir Richard Owen mentions a report of a narrow whalebone plate projecting from the upper palate of the bottlenose whale. Owen credits the claim to the French naturalist Bernard Lacepede (1756–1825) but reservedly admits that personally, he has never found such an anatomical structure in bottlenose whales himself.

During Victorian times, the northern bottlenose whale was commonly found in the cold waters of the North Atlantic Ocean between Scandinavia and Newfoundland. Comparatively, their size is that of a smaller whale species, yet they have the densest and most structurally strong skull bones of any whales. Bottlenose whales are the deepest diving cetaceans, and their super-strong skulls are an adaptation to withstand the extreme pressure of the ocean’s great depths. Bottlenose whales were hunted heavily during the nineteenth century and were well-known to English whalers and marine naturalists. Considering that Russell was primarily a businessperson, with no listed formal education or authorship of journal articles, his not knowing that bottlenose whales lack whalebone is plausible—but this goes deeper than a simple mistake.

GROUND HUMAN BONE Osteocytes are cells that secrete solid bone material. They dwell in small dark pits called lacunae and appear as dark spots in the circular layers termed lamella. The concentric lamellae surround canals through which blood vessels supply materials to the bone. As the bone grows, a supporting matrix initially forms from the protein collagen. The inorganic bone-building material (hydroxyapatite) is deposited over the protein framework. The proteins control the geometric alignment of hydroxyapatite crystals as they are deposited. Viewing a thin section of bone with polarized light reveals the pattern of mineral deposition. The appearance similar to twisted yarn is characteristic for bone specimens, and it is easily differentiated from baleen that is made from compacted hair.

The collection and study of microscope slides is an endeavor undertaken by those who are curious about the natural world. Inspecting a microscope slide is a learning experience akin to reading an article or strolling about a museum. When amateurs mount specimens they have collected, they label them to the best of their ability at the time. Professionally mounted slides for sale are expected to carry reasonably accurate information. A slide’s prospective purchaser relies on the label’s information to decide if the specimen offered is something they wish to study and if the slide will fit in with the theme of their collection. For example, a slide holding a feather could be labeled “feather.” The collector could decide whether the material the mount contained met their needs. A slide carrying the label “duck feather” will still meet the needs a microscopist choosing to study a feather’s anatomy, but also is of value to someone wishing to compare the feathers of waterfowl to the feathers from other bird types. An additional defining slide label, such as “nape feather from a mallard duck,” is a clear and specific claim as to the type of bird and the location on the bird’s body where the feather was plucked. The last label implies that the item was collected, bagged, and noted for study with the care of a crime scene investigator. For a microscopist, collecting and studying bird feathers, this is a useful slide to add to the collection, whereas the first slide labeled “feather” is too general to be of interest.

Whalebone suter
WHALEBONE AS VIEWED WITH POLARIZED LIGHT. From a slide by Richard Sutter, London

Victorian microscope slides of baleen are almost always labeled as “whalebone.” They were popular with slide collectors because of the beautiful pattern revealed when they are microscopically examined using polarized light. Whalebone was fairly inexpensive and easily obtainable during Victorian times. One needed only to tear apart an old corset to get enough baleen to make a thousand microscope slides. Many purveyors of slides listed the mounting in their sales catalogs. Russell’s whalebone slide is different from most because it includes the species name of the whale on the label. Doing so is verification that the specimen’s source is known and that a customer can trust the label’s stated identity. This increases its value to collectors. This is the primary point on which Russell stands to be criticized, but there also may be another.

A second possibility is that Russell was not the mounter of the slide at all but rather he relabeled the work of another. This the burden of error, or intentional misrepresentation, to an unknown preparer. Should this be the case, then Russell was padding his microscope slide sales inventory with the work of mounters for which he was taking credit. Doing so is not an unheard of practice with small optician shops, but most double-labeled slides credit both the mounter and its purveyor.

Reportedly, Russell had an excellent reputation among hobbyists for his microscope slides of thin geological rock sections (Stevenson, 2019; Bracegirdle, 1998). The accurate labeling of his rocks and minerals sections is a crucial aspect for operating a trade supported by a clientele of mineralogists and geologists. Russell undoubtedly understood the value and ethics of slide labeling. An important question yet to be answered is how many mislabeled slides were sold before the blunder was called to his attention. Russell advertised in several microscopy journals but did not publish a list of his inventory. The ads he ran provided the company’s address and solicited microscopists to write for a listing of available slides. Finding examples of these listings may answer the question.

After the First World War microscopy became an integral part of biology education. Their new application and value created a large commercial demand for prepared slides, while during the same period the market for hobby-focused microscope slides waned. The number of small optician shops that offered unique and arranged specimen slides dwindled and were replaced by a few large educational materials supply houses. Watson and Sons was one nineteenth-century optical equipment and slide company that successfully transitioned into the new market. Watson Sons—along with a few others, such as Flatters and Garnett, and Turtox—hired slide prepares to manufacture slides in large quantities. They no longer included the names of preparers on their labels.

Tullberg, Tycho, Morphology and development of Blue Whale Baleen: Translation and Annotation 1883.