Sylvester Marsh, 1845-1890
by Brian Stevenson
last updated April, 2015
Sylvester Marsh was a surgeon, and a semi-professional microscopist. He produced high-quality microscope slides, in particular paired stained sections of human liver from healthy and alcoholic individuals (Figures 1-3). He also prepared and distributed other histological specimens, and sectioned botanical objects. In 1878, he published a small book on how to prepare and cut thin sections of tissues for microscopical investigation. This was evidently a good seller, and a second edition was issued in 1882 that was twice the size and included several professional lithographs.
Figure 1. Microscope slides prepared by Sylvester Marsh, ca. 1880s. He sold his preparations of “healthy” and “drunkards” livers as a paired set, and they are frequently found in pairs at auction today.
Figure 2. Photomicrographs of Sylvester Marsh’s preparation of normal and “drunkards” liver (left and right, respectively). Note the bands of fibrous tissue in the cirrhotic liver.
Figure 3. The only two identified advertisements for microscope slides or material from Sylvester Marsh. 1878, ‘Hardwicke’s Science-Gossip’, and 1879, ‘Chemist and Druggist’.
Sylvester was born in St. Helen’s, Lancashire, during 1845, and baptized June 15 of that year. His father, also named Sylvester, was a solicitor (lawyer). A sister, Mary Margaret, was born in 1842, and a brother, Frederick James Robert, was born in 1850, but neither appear in the 1851 census or thereafter, and presumably died in infancy. Sylvester’s mother, Sarah, died between 1851 and 1861, as his father was listed as being a widower on the 1961 census.
Sylvester’s father evidently did well, financially. The 1861 census lists father and son living with two live-in servants. There were also funds available for young Sylvester to attend the highly regarded medical school in Edinburgh. His obituary in The Lancet stated that Sylvester Marsh obtained a Licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians from Edinburgh, and a Licentiate of the Faculty of the Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow.
By 1871, Sylvester had returned to the St. Helen’s area. That year’s census recorded him as living alone, with a domestic servant. The 1881 census record showed both father and son living together, at 20 Duke Street, with two domestics.
Marsh probably learned tissue staining, sectioning, and mounting as a medical student. While his first known announcement of interest in microscopy was published in 1878 (Figure 3), the following year he advertised to provide sections of normal and cirrhotic human livers. Also in 1879, several “slides of Zoological and Botanical subjects, prepared by Dr. Marsh, of St. Helens” were displayed to the Royal Microscopical Society by Augustus de Souza Guimaraens.
The first edition of Marsh’s Section-Cutting was published in 1879, running to 87 pages (Figure 4). A review from Hardwicke’s Science-Gossip read, “Messrs. J. & A. Churchill have just published a neat little manual by Dr. Sylvester Marsh, entitled ‘Section Cutting: a Practical Guide to the Preparation and Mounting of Sections for the Microscope’. Special prominence is given to the subject of animal sections. It is a most useful little book, and cheap, the price being, we believe, half-a-crown”.
The second edition of Marsh’s book was published in 1882, containing 156 pages (Figure 5). He notes in the preface that an unauthorized copy of his first edition had complicated sales in the USA, “the appearance in America - within three months after the publication of the work here - of a piratical reprint, which of necessity effectually stopped sale of the English edition in that country”. Indeed, I found two different US editions of Marsh’s first edition, one published by Lindsay & Blakiston, Philadelphia, and the other by The Industrial Publication Co., New York. The New York version described itself as “reprinted from the London edition”, and included an appendix on cutting tools not found in any other edition, and so is probably the pirated version. Both English and both US editions are freely available from GoogleBooks.
A paper “On bleaching and washing microscopical sections” was written by Marsh in 1880, and presented to the Quekett Microscopical Club by de Souza Guimaraens.
On July 5, 1884, 39 year-old Sylvester married 23 year-old Lucy Brierley. She had been a housemaid in the Marsh’s home. There are no records of them having children.
Marsh’s father died in 1888, and our microscopist died in 1890, at the age of only 45. His probate indicates an estate of £244. Lucy was recorded in the 1901 census as a widow, working as a nurse in a small, private hospital in Bexley, Kent.
Figure 4. Title page from Marsh’s 1878 edition of ‘Section-Cutting’.
Figure 5. Cover of the Marsh’s 1882, second edition of ‘Microscopical Section-Cutting’.
Bracegirdle, Brian (1998) Microscopical Mounts and Mounters, Quekett Microscopical Club, London, pages 64 and 154, and plates 25-E and 25-F
Chemist and Druggist (1879) Exchange advertisement from Sylvester Marsh, Vol. 21, page 128
England birth, marriage, death, and census records, accessed through ancestry.co.uk
Hardwicke’s Science-Gossip (1878) Exchange advertisement from Sylvester Marsh, Vol. 14, page 216
Hardwicke’s Science-Gossip (1879) Announcement of Sylvester Marsh’s Section-Cutting, Vol. 15, page 13
Journal of Microscopy (1879) Vol. 2, page 987
The Lancet (1890) Announcement of the death of Sylvester Marsh, Vol. 2, page 701
Marsh, Sylvester (1878) Section-Cutting, J. & A. Churchill, London
Marsh, Sylvester (1879) Section-Cutting, Lindsay & Blakiston, Philadelphia
Marsh, Sylvester (1879) Section-Cutting, Industrial Publication Company, New York
Marsh, Sylvester (1880) On bleaching and washing microscopical sections, Journal of the Quekett Microscopical Club, Vol. 6, pages 54-57
Marsh, Sylvester (1882) Microscopical Section-Cutting, J. & A. Churchill, London
Probate record of Sylvester Marsh (1890) accessed through ancestry.co.uk