Robert Pettigrew, 1868-1953

by Brian Stevenson
last updated July, 2018

There were two distinct phases in the life of amateur microscopist Robert Pettigrew, which are reflected in the labels he used on his microscope slides (Figure 1). Robert grew up in Airdrie, Lanarkshire, Scotland. Being named after his father, slides from his teens and twenties are labeled “Robert Pettigrew, Jun.”. He moved to Manchester in the mid-1890s, joined the Manchester Microscopical Society, and produced slides that said simply “R. Pettigrew”. There is no known evidence that Pettigrew sold any of his slides, so surviving examples came from his personal collection, exchanges with colleagues, or donations to the M.M.S.

Figure 1. Microscope slides by Robert Pettigrew. The four on the left are from his youth in Airdrie, Scotland ("North Britain"), and are dated 1884 - 1888. His father was also named Robert, hence the “Jun.” appended to his name. The three on the right are from his adulthood in Manchester, England.


Robert Pettigrew was born on January 13, 1868, in Lesmahagow, Lanarkshire, Scotland (about 25 miles / 40 km southeast of Glasgow). Census records suggest that he was the eldest of 5 children of Robert and Jane Pettigrew. From at least 1881 onward, the father operated a coal mine in Airdrie, Lanarkshire. The 1881 census lists the family’s address as 66 Flowerhill Street, Airdrie, and in 1891 they were at Gartlea Cottage, Carlisle Road, Airdrie. Published exchange offers by Robert from 1887-1889 indicate those addresses, and the move in 1889 (Figure 2).

The leftmost slide shown in Figure 1, “Acarus of Burying Beetle”, bears the date August 28, 1884. This indicates that Robert was seriously preparing permanent microscope slides when he was 16 years old.

By the mid-1890s, Pettigrew moved to Manchester, England. In 1895, he won a prize of “£1 and silver medal” for his outstanding performance during a technological examination on “cotton and linen bleaching and finishing”. His 1900 application for membership in the Chemical Society provided additional information on Pettigrew’s whereabouts during the 1890s: “Analytical Chemist. 3 years Student in Chemistry under the late Professor Dittmar, F.R.S., at the Andersonian College, Glasgow. 2 years Chemist to the London Metallurgical Company. 5 years Assistant Chemist in the laboratory of Sir Henry Roscoe, F.R.S.” William Dittmar (1833-1892) was Professor of Chemistry from 1874 until his death. The London Metallurgical Company was liquidated in 1895. Henry Roscoe (1833-1915) was Chair of Chemistry at Owens College, Manchester (later Victoria College), and Member of Parliament from 1885-1895 (as an aside, he was also uncle to author Beatrix Potter). Thus, a reasonable timeline for Pettigrew would be studies in Glasgow from 1890-93, work in London from 1893-1895, and work in Manchester from 1895-1900. He was elected to membership in the Chemical Society on May 3, 1900.

At the time of his election, Pettigrew lived at 50 Cresswell Grove, West Didsbury, Manchester, and he remained at that address until some time after 1911. He married Margaret King ca. 1900, and the pair had two children. Margaret died in 1907, at the same time as their second child’s birth. Robert remarried in 1914, to Emma Jane Evatt.

It is evident from the 1888-89 exchange offers shown in Figure 2 that Pettigrew had an interest in geology, as well as microscopy. On April 7, 1908, he presented “On the Occurrence of Quartz Crystals in Limestone, Columnar Coal, Marble, &c.” to the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society, accompanied by “photographs, microscopic and lantern slides …, showing beautiful microscopic crystals of quartz obtained from mountain limestone, columnar coal from Airdrie, in Lanarkshire, and ordinary statuary marble”.

Pettigrew joined the Manchester Microscopical Society in 1909. The later slides shown to the right in Figure 1 presumably date from that time forward. Pettigrew was active with the Society, as a preparer and lecturer. As examples, he presented on "preparation of objects for the micro-polariscope" in 1913, and on “residues obtained from the treatment of substances with acids in 1918.”

Pettigrew Robert died February 11, 1953. He and Emma Jane then lived at “Airdrie House”, Ridge Park, Bramhall, Cheshire.

Figure 2. Exchange offers by Robert Pettigrew, from “Hardwicke’s Science-Gossip”, 1887-1889.


Figure 3. “Acarus of house fly” (a mite), prepared by Robert Pettigrew on September 3, 1884. Both images photographed using a 10x objective lens in a Leitz Ortholux II with a C-mounted SLR digital camera. Left image: normal transmitted light. Right image: between crossed polarizing filters.


Figure 4. Crystals of “succinic acid half saturated gelatine dried over lamp”, by Robert Pettigrew, circa 1910. Photographed using a 10x objective lens in a Leitz Ortholux II with a C-mounted SLR digital camera, and crossed polarizing filters.


Figure 5. Head of “garden centipede”, by Robert Pettigrew, circa 191. Both images photographed using a 3.4x objective lens in a Leitz Ortholux II with a C-mounted SLR digital camera. Left image: normal transmitted light. Right image: between crossed polarizing filters.



Annual Report and Transactions of the Manchester Microscopical Society (1909) Members, page 123

Bracegirdle, Brian (1998) Microscopical Mounts and Mounters, Quekett Microscopical Club, London, pages 75 and 162, and Plate 29-E

The Chemical News (1900) Proceedings of Societies: Chemical Society, Vol. 81, page 235

The Chemical Trade Journal (1895) Results of technological examinations, Vol. 17, page 52

England and Scotland birth, marriage, death, and census records, obtained through

Hardwicke’s Science-Gossip (1887) Exchange offer from Robert Pettigrew, Vol. 23, page 264

Hardwicke’s Science-Gossip (1888) Exchange offer from Robert Pettigrew, Vol. 24, page 72

Hardwicke’s Science-Gossip (1889) Exchange offers from Robert Pettigrew, Vol. 25, pages 72, 144, and 240

The Naturalist (1913) Manchester Microscopical Society, pages 124-125

The Naturalist (1918) Manchester Microscopists, page 56

Nature (1908) Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society, April 7, Vol. 78, page 119

Pettigrew, Robert (1908) On the occurrence of quartz crystals in limestone, columnar coal, marble, &c., Memoirs and Proceedings of the Manchester Literary & Philosophical Society, pages xxi-xxii

Pettigrew, Robert (1913) The preparation of objects for the micro-polariscope, Annual Report and Transactions of the Manchester Microscopical Society, pages 71-72

Proceedings of the Chemical Society (1900) Certificates of candidate for election at the next ballot, Vol. 16, page 99