Lea Beiermann

“A New World of Observation”: Microscopists, Matter and Media, ca. 1850–1900

Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Maastricht University, l.beiermann@maastrichtuniversity.nl

Supervisors: Prof. Cyrus Mody, Dr. Raf de Bont, Prof. Stefanie Gänger


Lea holds a BA in Creative Writing and Journalism (with distinction) and a Research MSc in Cultures of Arts, Science and Technology (cum laude). Her master’s thesis investigated the role of London’s periodical press in building a microscopy community in the late nineteenth century.


In the mid-nineteenth century, microscopy became immensely popular. A community of microscopists emerged, which relied on far-reaching networks for exchanging publications, instruments and specimens. At a time when science, technology and medicine became increasingly specialised and exclusive of self-taught amateurs, the microscopy community continued to cut across disciplines and connect practitioners with various educational backgrounds. The emergence of this community was facilitated by a wealth of new media, cheap periodicals and popular microscopy manuals, which were widely circulated within and between Europe and America.

My research examines the rise of this extraordinarily diverse community of microscopists in the mid- and late nineteenth century. It conceives of circulating microscopy artefacts, ranging from instruments to specimens and publications, as a primary factor in connecting microscopists. Moving across disciplinary, national and class boundaries, microscopy artefacts were a vital factor in binding microscopists together and negotiating their diverging research interests. My research will build on novel approaches to rhetorical analysis – circulation studies – to examine how microscopy artefacts circulating across nineteenth-century Europe and America facilitated cooperation among geographically dispersed practitioners.

Since the microscope was situated at the crossroads of various disciplines and continued to be used as an optical toy as much as a scientific instrument, historians of science have rather neglected the nineteenth-century history of microscopy. So far, the literature has mostly discussed the epistemological implications of using microscopes but has disregarded microscopists as a community. Yet the nineteenth-century field of microscopy provided a remarkably interdisciplinary forum where amateurs and professionals could collaborate. As present-day online platforms are facilitating lay participation in science, technology and medicine, research into nineteenth-century microscopy offers an opportunity for placing present-day citizen science in historical perspective. Building on the nineteenth-century model of amateur-professional collaboration, my research will invite citizen scientists to a crowdsourced investigation into nineteenth-century microscopy publications.