Bath Microscopical Society

by Brian Stevenson
last updated February, 2021

Microscope slides with labels printed "Bath Microscopical Society" or the initials "B.M.S." are seen with some frequency. Such slides generally have a handwritten name on them. Investigation of those names confirmed that "B.M.S." was the Bath Microscopical Society. (Figures 1 and 2). The Society was founded in 1858, and was still in existence in 1906.

The printed labels, with handwritten surnames, may represent donations to the Society, or might have been labels made available by the Society for member's personal use. A third alternative, which I feel to be the most likely, is that these slides were exhibited at microscopical soirees / conversaziones, where large numbers of microscopes and specimens would be on public display. These labels would keep track of each exhibitor's slides, as well as identify exhibitors for the visitors and thereby stimulate discussion. A soiree hosted by the Bath Microscopical Society in 1864 is described below, where members exhibited some 100 microscopes with specimens.

Figure 1. Some microscopes slides from members of the Bath Microscopical Society. "Simms" was George Hornblower Simms (1818-1889), President of the Society in 1870, and "Tylee" was John Palmer Tylee (1801-1876), Society Librarian in 1870. The name on the green-labeled slide appears to be "Townsend", who has yet to be identified. Images from the author's collection or adapted for nonprofit, educational purposes from internet auction sites.


Figure 2. Information on the Bath Microscopical Society, from "The Medical Directory", 1870.


From The Transactions of the Microscopical Society of London, 1864:

"Microscopical Soiree by the Bath and Bristol Societies (In conjunction with the meeting of the British Association Meeting in Bath), Assembly Rooms, Bath - September 20, 1864.

Two hundred years ago, August 13th, 1664, Mr. Samuel Pepys wrote in his memorable diary, 'Comes Mr. Reeve, with a microscope and scotoscope. For the first I did give him £5 10s., a great price, but a most curious bauble it is, and he says, as good, nay the best he knows in England'.

Whether we regard the greatness of the price, or the curiousness of the bauble, the contrast between 1664 and 1864 is striking enough. At the soirée we are about to describe, the microscopes were insured for £6000, and saloons of noble proportions, thronged with the members and associates of the body specially devoted to the 'Advancement of Science', bore witness to the progress of this 'curious bauble'.

The conception and entire arrangement of this soirée were of a somewhat novel character, and demand a special explanation. The Bath Society is one of the youngest in the country (founded December, 1858), and its enterprise in undertaking an affair of this magnitude and responsibility, and carrying it through with such a marked success, must be proportionately estimated. As soon as the British Association accepted the invitation to visit Bath, the Society resolved to invite the assistance of the British Society, and conjointly with them to attempt, no mere exhibition of 'curious baubles', but a scientifically arranged and classified illustration of the results of microscopical investigation in every natural kingdom. This plan (suggested by the Secretary of the Bath Society, Mr. J.W. Morris) being at once accepted, and the cordial co-operation of the British Society being secured, the arrangements, which must have involved a vast amount of labour to all concerned, was carried forward to a completeness which was the theme of unqualified admiration to all who were present.

The plan embraced the following features, which were most faithfully carried out: On entering the large Ball Room, the visitor found himself in the 'Vegetable Kingdom'. Large green placards directed him from Thallogens to Exogens, smaller ones from Algae to Fungi.

Coloured diagrams, illustrative of the objects exhibited, afforded those who could not approach the besieged instruments a means of rapidly surveying the gradations of vegetable life in structure or in form. To the illustration of the vegetable kingdom twenty-nine microscopes were devoted.

Red inscriptions now announced the 'Animal Kingdom', and at once it was apparent that the recent classification of Professor Huxley had been adopted; and thirty-nine microscopes enabled the observers to follow, by a most interesting development, the ascending scale from the Amoebiform Rhizopods of the Protozoa to the high degree of structure illustrated by the beautiful preparation of the organs of the Insectae.

Here, however, the large room had to be exchanged for another, and passing the sergeant of militia, who strictly guarded the exits and the entrances, the studious 'member' or 'associate' found himself or herself, as might be, in another department, where the 'Histology and General Anatomy' of the Vertebrata were displayed by seventeen microscopes; and yellow labels invited the inspection of Geological, Chemical, and Mineralogical collections, to which twenty more microscopes were allotted. An observable feature in the arrangements, which the unavoidable haste of such an occasion did not, however, permit of being fully appreciated, was the supplying to almost all the microscopes & 'series' of slides illustrating the entire subject under exhibition, the printed synopsis informing the visitor that "any object might be selected from such series for examination'.

A third room - a capacious octagon - was devoted to the exhibition of microscopes and other philosophical instruments. Here Messrs. Smith and Beck, Ladd, Baker, &c., of London, and Husbands and Clarke, of Bristol, were in full force. And herein was illustrated the distinctive idea of the Bath Soirée. The microscope, as an optical instrument - a triumph of optical science - was kept to itself. The microscope, as an aid to scientific investigation in well nigh every branch of natural science, claimed its rank, and kept it. There has been quite enough of the 'curious bauble' style of soirée, and the resolute endeavour to assert the real relation of the instrument to general science, could not have received more fitting illustration than when two microscopical societies united to play the host to the British Association. Every microscopical society is, indeed, such an association in miniature, so long as it regards the instrument, as an instrument, a means to an end, and, in a generous and comprehensive spirit, surveys the entire field of inquiry which it is called upon to illustrate by the special power at its disposal.

In conclusion, we may observe that each of the microscopes enumerated above was manipulated by a member of one or other of the societies, or by one of their friends; but lest we may appear to be actuated by a microscopic partiality for what must be regarded as a microscopical triumph, the words of the 'Authorised Reprint of the Report of the British Association' may here be quoted :

The arrangements, which were under the able direction of Dr. Wilbraham Falconer, President of the Bath Microscopical Society; Mr. J.W. Morris, its secretary; and Mr. Leipner Acting Secretary of the British Microscopical Society, were admirable in the extreme. So brilliant was the assemblage that it appears almost invidious to enumerate the names of any of the company who were present. Science, learning, wit, and beauty were equally well represented, and the result was a scene which will never fade from the memory of those who witnessed it, and of which it may be said in the words of a celebrated Irish poem, as translated by Dean Swift, that, like
'O'Rourke! noble feast, it will ne'er be forgot
By those who were there, and by those who were not.'



England census and other records, accessed through

The International Directory of Booksellers and Bibliophile's Manual (1906) Bath Microscopical Society, Bath Literary and Scientific Institution, page 424

The Medical Directory (1870) Bath Microscopical Society, page 665

The Transactions of the Microscopical Society of London (1864) British Association, Bath, Vol. 13, pages 73-80