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  • Doris Mackinnon: Investigating the microscopic

    By Hannah Cornish, on 8 March 2018

    Today is International Women’s Day, this year it is 100 years since the first group of women got the right to vote in the UK, and UCL is celebrating with a programme of events and exhibitions called Vote 100. What better time to share a story from the Grant Museum about one of the pioneering female academics who worked at UCL. I took this opportunity to investigate the woman behind one part of our collection. High on the balcony in the Grant Museum are a pair of ever so slightly dusty microscope slide cabinets containing around 400 slides. Each cabinet bears a little brass plaque that reads –

    The Doris Livingston Mackinnon Collection of Protozoa

    University College London

    Who was Doris Mackinnon, and why is her collection here? Protozoa are not animals, so they are an unusual inclusion in a zoology museum. It was all a bit of a mystery until I started digging into it, here’s what I found out.

    Photograph of Doris Mackinnon in her lab © University of Dundee Archive Services

    Photograph of Doris Mackinnon in her lab © University of Dundee Archive Services

    Doris Livingston Mackinnon

    Doris Mackinnon (1883-1956) was a Scottish protozoologist and parasitologist. She attended Aberdeen University where she completed her BSc in 1906 and her PhD in 1914. She became a lecturer at Dundee University in 1916, and during the First World War she did vital work studying and diagnosing amoebic dysentery and other intestinal parasites that affected the soldiers. Many women got their first laboratory jobs during the First World War, especially in areas that would benefit the war effort such as the biomedical sciences and military technology. Most of those women chose (or were forced) to leave their scientific jobs when the war was over, but Doris Mackinnon continued to forge her career.

    She became a lecturer at Kings College London in 1919, and then in 1927 she succeeded Julian Huxley as the head of the Zoology Department. She was the first female head of a department at Kings College at a time when there were very few female professors in the UK, especially in the sciences. She was an expert on the Protozoan parasites of insects, and studied how flies can spread diseases such as Typhoid fever. She set up and led the first non-medical centre for research into protozoa. Professor Mackinnon described several species which were new to science, and her colleagues named two genera after her – Dorisa and Dorisiella. She published over 40 scientific papers and a text book on Protozoa, as well as giving a series of radio lectures for children, which formed the basis of her book The Animal’s World. Professor Mackinnon lectured at Kings College for 30 years and teaching was something she took very seriously, she was famous for never repeating a lecture. Outside of her work on protozoa Professor Mackinnon wrote a series of articles on children’s games for The Guardian newspaper and combined her love of music with her knowledge of German to translate a book on Beethoven into English.

    When she retired in 1949 the journal Nature noted that:

    ‘Fortunately her retirement does not mean that she will cease her zoological work, and her colleagues and friends will still be able to enjoy her urbane and delightful companionship.’

    Protozoa

    Protozoa is a term for a wide range of single-celled organisms such as amoebas and ciliates. We now know that not all Protozoa are closely related, but the name is still used informally for any single-celled species that appears more like an animal than a plant. The vast majority of Protozoa are harmless to humans, but a few are medically important as parasites. Amoebic dysentery, malaria, sleeping sickness and Chagas disease are all caused by Protozoa.

    Researching the collection

    As Professor Mackinnon taught at Kings College I initially thought these microscope slides may be some of the many specimens saved by Grant Museum when other colleges in London closed their zoology departments. We hold material from several institutions including Imperial College and Queen Mary University of London which was donated to us in the 1980s and 1990s, but judging by the plaques on the cabinets it seems this particular collection of specimens has been at UCL from the beginning. There is also a handy key to the collection in the bottom drawer of each of the cabinets dated 18th April 1957, it reads –

    KEY

    Blue circles – slides made by the late Professor D. L. Mackinnon

    Red Circles – Slides by the late Clifford Dobell

    Orange circles or name of maker – slides from the Wellcome Foundation other than Dobell’s – Mainly by C. A. Hoare

    Yellow circles – slides retained from the original collection in University College London

    Note – Each slide is marked with the drawer number before, and the placenumber in the drawer after, a decimal point.

    R.S.J.H. 18. iv. 57

    Microscope slides prepared by Doris Mackinnon, showing Monocystis, a parasite of the sperm sacs of earthworms.

    Microscope slides prepared by Doris Mackinnon, showing Monocystis, a parasite of the sperm sacs of earthworms.

    All curatorial staff love a note like this providing provenance and context for specimens. A little investigation revealed interesting links between all the scientists mentioned. Dr Clifford Dobell was a fellow protozoologist who worked with Professor Mackinnon on amoebic dysentery in Liverpool and Southampton during the First World War, and spent much of his career at the National Institute for Medical Research. Dr Cecil A Hoare was also a protozoologist and parasitologist who worked at the Wellcome Institute as the head of the Department of Protozoology. Dr Hoare and Professor Mackinnon wrote Dr Dobell’s obituary together, so it seems they were collaborators too. Finally there is the mysterious R.S.J.H. who left the useful note about the collection’s origins. After Doris Mackinnon died in 1956 Dr Reginald Smithson Julian Hawes from Exeter University finished and edited her textbook An Introduction to the study of Protozoa, and published it in 1961.

    The final piece of the puzzle

    When I borrowed a copy of Mackinnon and Hawes’ book from the UCL Science Library all the information fell into place. As the article about Professor Mackinnon in Nature said, retirement was not the end of her work. In 1949 she became Honorary Research Associate here at UCL. It was here that she wrote An Introduction to the study of Protozoa, and this is why the microscope slides are in our collection. It is likely they were the research specimens for her final publication, and Dr Hawes must have documented them and named the cabinets after she died in 1956.

    This collection gives an insight into a collaboration between scientists at some of London’s most prestigious institutions in the first half of the 20th century, and the lifetime’s work of a remarkable woman. At the Grant Museum our microscope slides have not yet been accessioned or documented, and there are an estimated 20,000 slides. They have been considered a low priority for documentation, but this little snippet of research shows they can reveal some interesting stories. The work of a museum is never done!

    Hannah Cornish is the Curatorial Assistant at the Grant Museum of Zoology

    References

     

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