Women Devotees of Nineteenth Century Microscopy

Arabella Burton Buckley (1840–1929)

Arabella Buckley was the daughter of Rev. J. W. Buckley, Vicar of St. Mary’s Church located in Paddington, England. Being brought up under a Vicar’s tutelage indoctrinated Arabella Buckley to Christian teachings throughout her formative years. As a result, she had a strong faith that she adhered throughout her life. When Arabella reached the age of employment, she wrote small pieces for a local newspaper and then became the secretary for Charles Lyell, the famed geologist.  During the eleven-years Arabella masterfully performed in the position, it ended when Lyell died, she became deeply involved in the world of science.

       Sir. Charles Lyell (1797–1875) was a Scottish geologist who wrote a revolutionary text challenging the accepted theories of the time. The book, simply named Principles of Geology, did for earth science what Darwin did for biology. In his book, Lyell painstakingly presented evidence supporting a new theory he termed uniformitarianism. Lyell’s theory went against the then widely believed process of catastrophism. Catastrophists thought that the earth’s present geology resulted from sudden, repeated, and violent events. Geologists supporting catastrophism believed the earth’s creation was through a process now finished, and the world’s future would be one of stability with minor geological changes rarely occurring. Lyell’s uniformitarianism predicted the earth’s future to be still geologically active. Uniformitarianism described how our planet formed slowly and yet was changing. Violent geological events, even cataclysms, continued to be a possibility. In his book, Lyell’s presented geological evidence supporting the slow creation of mountains, plains, and oceans. His theory and methodology dovetailed perfectly with Charles Darwin’s (1809–1882) work on the evolution of plants and animals put forth in the Origin of the Species.

       Arabella Buckley, (later Arabella Fisher) being the secretary handling Charles Lyell’s writing and correspondence, was upfront on the battle lines between biblical creationism and the new scientific theories of evolution. Lyell and Darwin were friends and frequently communicated about how they were defending their theories against the voices of prominent catastrophists in geology and religious creationists in biology. Following Lyell’s death, Arianna Buckley and Charles Darwin continued to communicate. The letters they exchanged discussed what losing their mutual friend and associate meant to them. Arabella Buckley had been privy to the most vitriolic and current arguments in biology, geology, and physics during her time. Nevertheless, she remained staid in the Christianity of her upbringing. It had been reported that Charles Lyell had become dependent on Buckley’s assistance that he had to vacation from his work whenever his secretary needed to travel. Try as he may, a suitable substitute could not be found.

       Arabella Buckley never attended a university,  through her work as Lyell’s secretary, she garnered an excellent education. Unfortunately, not many professions were open to educated Victorian women. To continue her career following Lyell’s passing, Buckley turned to authorship. Her first engagement was to copyedit Mary Summerville’s first book, Connection of the Physical Sciences.

       Living during Victorian times, the most acceptable niche a woman author could fill was writing children’s books and educational textbooks. The amalgamation of Buckley’s science education with her Christian beliefs yielded a new way of approaching polarizing social issues such as morality, religion, science, and the teaching of children. Arabella Buckley faced little intellectual trouble interweaving fairy characters into stories explaining concrete scientific principles. In the preface to Fairylands Buckley states:

Let us first see for a moment what kind of tales science has to tell and how they are equal to the old fairytales we all know so well.

According to Aileen Fyfe, in her book, Science and Salvation: Evangelical Popular Science Publishing in Victorian Britain (2009), the impact children’s fiction writers had on integrating scientific knowledge into the Victorian culture is underappreciated. Many parents repetitively read children’s books aloud to their children before bedtime. If they were reading one of Arabella Buckley’s books, it would be informing the adult reader of contemporary scientific thought and principles in an easily remembered style. The Principles and Theory of Science — packaged as part of a story, parable, or fairytale — facilitate their later recollection during conversation and provides a cultural framework for introducing such information.

       Oddly, Arabella’s style also gave credence to the somewhat common Victorian belief in fairies. In her book Through Magic Glasses and Other Lectures, she hypothesized that fairies might be very tiny, and, one day, their existence might be revealed through microscopic study.

       Buckley’s books have remained popular with young readers into contemporary times and are still in print. Her most famous work, The Fairyland of Science, has been translated into several languages and, surprisingly, is currently available as an audiobook. Microscopists find Arabella Buckley’s Through Magic Glasses and Other Lectures to be her most interesting work. Although the book leans heavily toward the physical sciences, she dedicated two chapters to the realm of microscopy and living things. Unlike other Victorian women writers of nature, none of the drawings within the book are by her hand. In the book’s preface, Buckley credits the source for the illustrations as; I used what the book’s publisher had on hand. In the microscopy chapters, the scientific information is not couched in an imaginary storyline with fictitious characters as with her writings on other science topics. Ariana Buckley richly portrays her enthusiasm for discovering the tiny creatures that secretly dwell in our surroundings. When describing the wonders of the microscopic world, Buckley felt no need for using fictional characters as literary props.

Through Magic Glasses
Arabella (Burton) Buckley
Edwin Stanford, London, 1890

A handsome medium-sized tome soft-covered in dark maroon faux leather. The title of the book along with decorative coat-of-arms is embossed in gilt into the cover. The pages are stitched to the spine and their edges are gilt covered. Beneath the shield in Latin reads the motto “Without Work, Nothing.” On exhibit is a custom printed first-edition. Inside the cover is a glued bookplate stating that the gift of the volume is an award for high achievement in mathematics.  It contains the student’s name and it is signed by a school official.

Mary King Ward (1827–1869)

In furtherance of my education, my parents bought me a beautiful Ross microscope. I took much pleasure in exhibiting its wonders to my friends. At the same time explaining the objects seen. To write an illustrated account of these wonders was a step that followed. The little book with its colored plates, aided by minute descriptions, is intended as a substitute for the actual exhibition. My object was rather to present these wonders successively to view in the manner of a panorama to guide my readers to the practical use of the microscope. At the time, good microscopes were only in the hands of the few. The case is now altered, and quality microscopes can be purchased for three or four guineas, and the microscope is likely to become the companion of every intelligent family.

In the days of my microscopic displays, a working man came, half shyly and half pleased, at the persuasions of a few of my young friends, to look through the instrument at some striking object. He gazed attentively for a moment, and then exclaimed, in considerable surprise, “It is beautiful – but is it true?”

I might reply; yes, my friend, it is true; it is itself a truth and a reality. And in this consists the charm of microscopic research. It is like visiting a rich, but hitherto undiscovered region – like opening a page in an unread and treasured volume.

Hon Mary Ward
Bellair, Moate, Ireland 1859
A World of Wonders Revealed by the Microscope

Mary King Ward (1827–1869) was Irish, born to a well-off family, spending much of her life at the family’s estate Ballylin. She was home educated by a governess and, as customary for women of the times, instructed only in the elementary subjects of reading, writing, and arithmetic. All of her education beyond that was self-taught. As Ward entered her teens, she developed a particular interest in insects and botany. For her amusement, she created highly detailed sketches of ants, butterflies, and other insects as she viewed them through a high-powered magnifying glass.  Her father, the Rev. Henry King (b. 1799), was impressed with her talent and showed the pictures to his friend, the British astronomer, Sir. James South (1795­—1867). Following South’s advice, King bought Mary a quality Ross microscope opening a door for her to delve even deeper into observing items of natural history. Ward continued working with the same microscope for the rest of her life and drew a picture of it that is on the frontispiece of A World of Wonders Revealed by the Microscope. Using the Ross microscope, Mary Ward immersed herself in nature study. She made microscope slides, carefully recorded investigations in notebooks, and perfected the talent of sketching the creatures she found in the micro-world. Ward compiled her drawings and notes into a folio titled Sketches with the microscope.

       Mary Ward did not hold a formal academic degree and understood the gender bias prevalent during  Victorian times. For these reasons, she self-published 250 copies of her first folio of microscopical illustrations and sold them by distributing advertising flyers. The folio caught the attention of the London publisher Groombridge. The company offered to publish and disseminate her work if she agreed to revise and expand the folio into a book. Groombridge issued it titled, A World of Wonders Revealed by the Microscope. Ward’s book became a bestseller establishing her reputation as an author. She continued writing and illustrating science books with titles in astronomy, microscopy, and entomology. Ward maintained a circle of friendships with Britain’s scientific elites, undoubtedly helped by her father’s social status. Other authors appreciated her artistic talent for depicting things of science, and she provided them with sketches to include with their works.  Amazingly, during this time, Mary Ward also raised eight children.

       Groombridge and Sons published all of Mary Ward’s writings. The company was located in London’s publishing district, known as Paternoster Row. A “paternoster” is a string of prayer beads predating the Rosary. According to English history, a daily processional of monks, while using paternosters as memory aides, would walk along the street chanting prayers on their way to St. Peter’s Cathedral. (During World War 2, German incendiary bombing destroyed the neighborhood, igniting what has been named The Second Great Fire of London. Estimates are that approximately five-million books burned following the aerial attack. After the war, the area was rebuilt and is now called Paternoster Square. It houses the London Stock Exchange.)

       Mary Ward’s career was cut short by her death in a car accident – an unusual event to have happened in 1860. Ward’s cousin, William Pearson, later credited to be the father of the steam turbine, took her and her husband, Henry, for a ride on a steam-powered automobile. He and his sons built the tractor-like device. According to the Daily Telegraph and Courier (London), 09/02/1869 issue:

With all four aboard Mary slipped from the front seat as the several-toned vehicle attempted a sharp turn. She fell before the vehicle’s large iron rear wheel and it rolled over her head. Mary died instantly from a broken neck and partially crushed skull.

The event regrettably records Mary Ward to be the world’s first automobile accident fatality.

       Mary Ward is the great-grandmother of the actor Lalla Ward.  Lalla (formally Sarah) is known for having played the role of Romana on the BBC television science-fiction series Doctor Who for ten years. She became the third wife of evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins.

       The edition of Mary Ward’s The Microscope: Description of Various Objects of Especial Interest and Beauty in this collection contains a blind-stamped (embossed) free flyleaf documenting the volume’s original owner to be the W. H. Smith Circulating Library. W. H. Smith and sons was a chain of newspaper and magazine vending stands started by Henry Walton Smith (1738–1792), along with his wife Anna in 1792. During their first year in business the Smith’s third child, William, was born. Unfortunately, Henry Walton Smith died a month later. Anna continued running the business until she died in 1812. Following her death, the son William Henry Smith (1792–1865), now twenty years old, took over the newspaper vending chain. Under William’s direction, the newspaper and magazine vending company expanded until it had outlets in most of England’s train stations and other highly trafficked locations in London.

       In 1860, William Smith established a fee-based library service on a business model that ran successfully for over a century. Those who subscribed to the library could order a book on the continuously updated list of their holdings. The borrower would select a newspaper stand where they could make the pickup. The book, or magazine, was to be returned to the same place when the reader finished it. The wagons the company used to deliver the daily newspapers to their vendor stands provided for picking up and providing the library’s loanable materials. Smith’s circulation model made borrowing and returning books and magazines as simple as picking up a daily newspaper. The newspaper-stand circulating-library hybrid system continued in use until 1961. The W. H. Smith Company still operates newspaper stands, although members of the Smith family are no longer associated with the business.

Blind-stamped (embossed) free flyleaf documenting the volume’s original owner to be the W. H. Smith Circulating Library.

Title page and Frontispiece of The Microscope or Descriptions of Various Objects of Especial Interest and Beauty by The Hon.* Mrs. Ward. Groombridge and Son. London. 3rd Edition. 1880. Clothbound, 7 ½  X 5 inch, hardcover, gilt-edged pages.



The Ross microscope depicted in the upper left-hand corner on the plate was the frontispiece for the book’s earlier editions. It is Mary Ward’s drawing of the microscope purchased for her by her father, Henry King, which she used throughout her life.

Pricilla Susan Bury (1799–1872)

Pricilla Susan Bury is best known for botanical drawings issued as a portfolio entitled: Selection of Hexandrian Plants belonging to the Natural Orders Amaryllidae and Liliaceae. To enable the mass printing of her drawings they had to be converted into engravings.  The task was undertaken by Robert Havell (1793–1878), who is well-known as having been the principal engraver for John Audubon’s Elephant Portfolio, Birds of America. Pricilla Bury’s lavish seventeen by twenty-two-inch folio of plant drawings was issued in 1832 under her maiden name Pricilla Faulkner. The subscription list must have been small as few original copies remain in existence. (McMillan 1968)

       Around the age of thirty, Pricilla married the financially well-off engineer and railroad executive, Edward Bury (1794–1858).  Following the marriage, she obtained a microscope and turned her artistic endeavors toward studies and sketches of the microscopic plankton, particularly the Polycystina. In the May 1, 1865 issue of Hardwick’s Science Gossip, Pricilla published an article titled; A Popular Description of the Polycystins. In the opening paragraph, she credits the source of the specimens to Dr. John Davy, who had brought them to England from Barbados.

       John Davy (1790–1868), brother to the scientist Sir Humphry Davy (1778–1829), achieved the rank of Inspector General for Hospitals while serving in the medical corps of the British army following the battle of Waterloo. During the late 1840s, Davy’s assignment was Barbados. At the time, he stated that:  I believe to have the only microscope on the islands. Davy’s spent his free time studying the natural history of Barbados. He found a stratum of geological sedimentary material abundant in the skeletal remains of polycystines. He relegalized the quality of polyzoan skeletal remains were of high quality, perhaps the finest in the world. To claim credit for the find, he recounted details of the discovery to be recorded into the minutes of the Agricultural Society of Barbados,  July of 1849.

       Pricilla Bury credits John Davy for giving her a sample of Polycystina from Barbados and returned the kindness with a promise of a portfolio of her drawings. She also gives credit to Charles Johnson Esq. for mounting Davy’s polycystines on the microscope slides she used. The geological materials Davy brought back to England is a dark chalk-like material. It contains a wide range of particulate marine sediments which must be removed before an observer can have a clear and unobstructed view of the Polycystina. The polycystine’s glass-like skeleton is impervious to strong alkalis and acids. For cleaning, the sediment material is sequentially soaked, sometimes for days at a time, in these potent chemicals. They eventually dissolve away the organic and carbonate contaminants. Following repeated rinsing, glass-like structures, such as diatom frustules, glass sponge spicules, and polycystine skeletons, are what remain. The chemical baths are difficult for a novice to carry out. Charles Johnson was a botanist, member of the Linnaean Society, professor of botany at Guy Hospital, as well as a proficient microscopist. His name also can be found as one of the subscribers to Bury’s Polycystina portfolio – perhaps this was also a gift in appreciation for his work.

       Pricilla S. Bury’s original hand-drawn portfolio of the Polycystina was gifted to the Liverpool City Public Library posthumously by her granddaughter, Ms. F. Bury, in 1942. The library suffered war damage a short time later, but Bury’s manuscripts escaped damage. According to Margret Parry, at the Liverpool Record Office, in an email exchange with the author. Ms. Parry states that the folio was in a section of the library undamaged by the war. The folio does not have any printed text included with the original drawings. It does have a handwritten cover sheet identifying the drawings and that they were made from microscope slides mounted by Charles Johnson Esq. and also that the raw material for the slides had been collected in Barbados by Dr. John Davy. (2)

The botanical artist Priscilla Bury (1799–1872) developed an interest in drawing polycystine. The above drawing was done for the magazine Hardwicke’s Science Gossip
McMillan, Nora F. Mrs. Edward Bury (née Priscilla Susan Falkner), Botanical Artist. Journal of the Society for the Bibliography of Natural History.  1968 5(1): 71–75.
(2) Parry, Margret. Liverpool Record Office. Liverpool City Library. Email communication. 02/02/2019.

Elizabeth Mary Smee (b. 1843)

Elizabeth Mary Smee (b. 1843) was the daughter of Alfred Smee (1818 – 1877), surgeon, chemist, and Fellow of the Royal Society and respected biologist. Among Alfred’s many scientific discoveries was identifying plant aphids as the most likely vector for spreading the potato-blight fungus Phytophthora infestans. During the Great Irish Famine, Alfred made over three hundred and fifty microscope slides showing the minuscule insects on potato leaves and stems correlating their relationship with the transmission of the fungal phytopathogen. He stated that many of his slides showed the bodies of many aphids containing the spores of P. infestans. After Alfred Smee’s death, Elizabeth wrote an extensive biography of her father’s life and work. In the text, she recounted that Alfred collected aphids wherever he came across them during his travels. She and her father spent many evenings sitting by a microscope and mounting the insects, commonly called plant lice, in balsam. The mounting method Alfred taught Elizabeth was to place an aphid atop a convex drop of Canada balsam and gently heat it until the insect died and eventually dried. Next, a coverslip is placed over the specimen with a small weight on top of it.  The pressure of the weight will push warm balsam enabling it to both infiltrate the dry aphid’s exoskeleton and spread-out to the edges of the coverslip. She quotes her father as saying:

Care must be taken not to apply too much heat, or the (aphid’s) antennae will become corrugated!

            The experience Elizabeth garnered by working with her father instilled a strong interest in entomology, and she continued microscopic studies after his passing. One area she developed a particular skill was the investigation into the natural history of caddisflies. She collected the insects in their larval form and reared them in small home aquaria. Caddisfly larvae build underwater tubes in which they remain protected while they develop into a sexually mature flying stage. There are many species of caddisflies, and the encasements they construct show adaptive features related to physical variations of the water they inhabit.


Elizabeth’s experiments with caddisfly larvae involved removing the larva from the protective enclosures they built and placing them, now naked and unprotected, into an environment of her design. In the new habitat, the larvae found tiny grains of building materials different from that available in their native habitat. Elizabeth wrote an illustrated article describing the methodology and results of her experiment. The Intellectual Observer published the paper as the first article in its June of 1886 issue. The journal reproduced Elizabeth’s drawings as a full-page,  hand-colored, wood engraving. Elizabeth’s pictures were transferred to a wooden block for printing by the noted artist Alfred Thomas Elwes (1841 – 1917). The full-page illustration is colorized by hand using transparent watercolors. This is a nice touch to be given by a magazine during those times. Smee’s drawings were transferred to a woodblock for printing by the Victorian artist A. T. Elwes. Elwes illustrated many books and worked for the Illustrated London News as the daily’s chief draftsman.

A contemporary application of Smee’s caddisfly technique by the artist Hubert Duprat created some startling beautiful objects. Duprat substituted gold flakes, tiny pearls, and minute beads for naturally occurring grains of sand and organic detritus.  What the caddisfly larva created can be viewed on Duprat’s website and are worth a visit.

CASES OF THE CADDIS WORM A hand-colored plate from The Caddis Worm and Its Houses, by Mary Elizabeth Smee. The Intellectual Observer, June 1864.

Mary Ann Allard Booth was the best known American female microscopists of the late nineteenth century. She has a full complete article describing her life and work here: https://wp.me/PaLJ0g-1z

Women Medical Doctors in the United States During the Nineteenth Century

Dr. Edson Women who graduated from medical school with a doctorate in medicine referenced on this website can be found here:


How to footnote this page: Reiser Frank W. (2021 April) Women Devotees of Nineteenth Century Microscopy. Searching an Invisible World for Its Tiniest Things. https://antiqueslides.net/women-microcopists-bury-ward-smee-buckley