Thomas Wattson Starr, 1815 - 1881

by Brian Stevenson
last updated September, 2018

T.W Starr, of Philadelphia, USA, owned a successful factory that produced printing type. During his later years, Starr taught himself methods to produce microscope slides, specializing in preparations of whole insects. These were described by contemporaries as “incomparable”, “beautifully-mounted”, and that he “has no superior in this department of microscopy”. As with the work of most amateurs, Starr’s slides are not particularly abundant, having been prepared for his own collection, exchanges with colleagues, or donations to microscopical societies. They were produced over a roughly 15 year period, from the mid-1860s until his death in 1881.

Figure 1. Three microscope slides that were prepared by T.W. Starr. All of his known preparations have similarly bold-colored labels with gold-printing. The top two slides are typical of Starr’s work, each containing a whole arthropod. On December 19, 1870, he presented to the Academy of Natural Sciences, “a slide containing a specimen of a species of Chelifer, a parasite of the common house fly, strongly resembling a scorpion”. The lower slide holds crystals of copper, an unusual subject for Starr. The middle image was adapted for nonprofit, educational purposes from an internet auction site.


Thomas’ father, Edwin, was a silversmith and manufacturer of printing type (i.e. a type founder) who, among other inventions, developed a method for printing with two or more colors. Thomas was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1815. He inherited and expanded upon his father’s type foundry. He invented a revolutionary electrotype method in 1845.

Thomas married Ann Hughes on December 26, 1838. They had one daughter, in 1840, and Ann died in 1850. Thomas remarried on April 15, 1852, to Mary Perkins, who already had two children, Emily and Edwin. They both adopted the surname Starr. Edwin later worked with Thomas as T.W. Starr & Son, and inherited the business.

T.W. Starr is recorded in The Naturalists’ Directory as early as 1866. He was elected to membership in the Academy of Natural Sciences on May 26, 1868, along with other two notable microscopists, Joseph Zentmayer and William Walmsley. The Academy, located in Philadelphia, was the premier scientific institution in the USA at the time.

On November 2, 1868, Starr presented the Academy with “twelve slides, illustrating the anatomy of miscellaneous insects, among which is the seventeen-year locust”.

His preparations were already earning praise from his colleagues. An 1869 report on preparing “sections of hard tissues and other substances for the microscope”, by Christopher Johnson, concluded a description of balsam as a mountant with, “This method of mounting sections is applicable to a great variety of objects, and will be found to yield the best results in the case of urinary crystals, of the so-called hematin crystals, or of the chitinous skeletons of insects as actually practised by the incomparable Mr. T.W. Starr, of Philadelphia”.

For the 1870 Annual Exhibition of the Academy’s Biological and Microscopical Section, “Mr. Walmsley (of the well-known firm of opticians, J.W. Queen and Co.) and Mr. T.W. Starr each contributed a number of the beautifully-mounted preparations for which they are so justly celebrated”. Later that year, Starr was elected to the Biological and Microscopical Section’s Committee of Curators.

In 1874, Starr became a corresponding member of the Memphis (Tennessee) Microscopical Society, and donated “one dozen beautiful slides of entire insect preparations”. He also sent detailed instructions for preparing whole insect slides, which was reprinted in The American Naturalist.

At the 1875 Exhibition of the Biological and Microscopical Section of the American Academy of Science, “Mr. T.W. Starr exhibited, under a four inch lens, some beautiful entire insect preparations of his own work. These slides were distinctly shown by Mr. Starr, who has no superior in this department of microscopy. He was, moreover, one of the first in this country to obtain best results in these difficult preparations”.

Starr’s recipe for balsam mountant was described in Carl Seiler’s Compendium of Microscopical Technology. It consisted of Canada balsam, benzine, turpentine, and gum dammar.

Thomas W. Starr died on March 30, 1881, aged 66, of “paralysis”.



Thank you to Ted Bernhardt for sharing an image of a Starr slide from his collection.



Death record of Thomas Wattson Starr (1881) accessed through

Ferguson, Lorraine, and Douglass Scott (1990) A Time Line of American Typography, Design Quarterly, Issue 148, pages 23-54

Johnson, Christopher (1869) Sections of hard tissues and other substances for the microscope, Proceedings of The Academy of Natural Sciences, pages 5-11

The Medical Times and Register (1876) Report of the November 1, 1875 meeting of the Biological and Microscopical Department of The Academy of Natural Sciences, Vol. 6, page 236

The Monthly Microscopical Journal (1870) American Academy of Natural Sciences, pages 179-180

The Naturalists' Directory (1866) “T.W. Starr, Philadelphia, Pa.”, Essex Institute, Salem, Massachusetts, page 24)

Philadelphia City Directory (1862) “Type Founders: Starr Thomas W., 324 Chestnut”, page 813

Philadelphia City Directory (1878) “Starr Thomas W., (T.W. Starr & Son), h N 18th c Tioga; Starr T.W. & Son, (Thomas W. & Edwin P.), type founders, 324 Chestnut”, page 1488

Proceedings of The Academy of Natural Sciences (1868) Minutes of the May 26 meeting, page 148

Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, Biological and Microscopical Department (1868) Minutes of the November 2 meeting, page 12

Proceedings of The Academy of Natural Sciences, Biological and Microscopical Department (1868) Minutes of the December 5 Annual Meeting, pages 11-12

Proceedings of The Academy of Natural Sciences, Biological and Microscopical Department (1868) Minutes of the December 19 meeting, page 12

The San Francisco Western Lancet (1874) Proceedings at the regular meetings of the Memphis Society, Vol. 4, pages 45-46

Seiler, Carl (1881) Compendium of Microscopical Technology, D.G. Brinton, Philadelphia, page 90

Starr, Burgis Pratt (1879) A History of the Starr Family of New England, From the Ancestor, Dr. Comfort Starr of Ashford, County of Kent, England, who Emigrated to Boston, Mass., in 1635, Case, Lockwood & Brainard, Hartford, Connecticut

Starr, Thomas W. (1875) A method of preparing and mounting suitable insects for microscopical examination, The American Naturalist, Vol. 9, pages 122-123

U.S. census and other records, accessed through