William Valentine’s microscope – on the bones of bushrangers

No. 9

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This early compound microscope was designed by Nottingham surgeon, William Valentine (1808–1876), and made by Andrew Ross in London in 1831. Ross went on to become one of London's finest microscope makers, while Valentine emigrated to Van Diemen's Land in 1840 – with his microscope – becoming assistant surgeon to the Campbell Town district.

On such a small island, word of Valentine's scientific knowledge and his magnificent microscope (described as the finest in the colony) spread quickly, and his house – The Grange, in Campbell Town, which he commissioned in 1847 – became a hub for naturalists. Valentine was a botanical enthusiast, sometimes staying up until the early hours with friends, examining and debating the details of mosses. The fixed upright setting of his microscope's eyepiece would have made all-night study sessions very uncomfortable!

On the bones of bushrangers

In 1845 Valentine, with his friend Ronald Gunn, used this microscope to identify a moss that Valentine had collected. The specimen – Splachnum sphaericum (today called Tayloria octoblepharum) – had been found in the Western Tiers, growing on the bones and decayed clothing of a bushranger, who had two double-barrelled guns and pistols by his side. We now know that this was the skeleton of escaped convict, John Fisher, who led a band of bushrangers for four years in the colony's northern districts.

Valentine's skill and generosity as a doctor made him a highly valued member of the community. It was this good character that he depended upon in 1843, when he was found guilty of manslaughter by medical negligence. On this occasion, the entire community – including the deceased's father – rallied around Valentine to ensure the doctor was heavily fined, but not imprisoned.

In his later years, Valentine developed a strong interest in astronomy, and it was his efforts that drew an American party of astronomers to observe the transit of Venus at The Grange in 1874.

Comments on this object

  • Hi, I have a 1827 second edition of Robert Brown's prodromus bound with the 1830 supplement, with a letter to Mr. Valentine. Do you have other items or information on William Valentine. Regards Ray Brown Bulli New South Wales Ray Brown
  • Hi Ray, Robert Brown's Prodromus was the ultimate botanical reference work for eastern Australia for the first half of the nineteenth century. It was first published in 1810, but was so poorly received he only sold 26 copies before pulling it off the market. It was not until the second edition that the work became more widely available. It included descriptions of plants Brown collected whilst in Van Diemen's Land, and so was especially popular amongst residents like William Valentine. From his arrival in the colony, Valentine was an active member of his community. His interest in microscopy and natural science made him a natural fit with other like-minded colonists. Valentine used to spend many evenings dissecting and examining plants under his microscope with friends including Ronald Gunn and William Archer. Valentine even invested in a ‘botanical horse’ named Ball, that he purchased from Gunn in the 1840s. Gunn had used the horse on his field trips including expeditions with Joseph Hooker who was visiting from Kew Gardens, but was unable to afford the ongoing stabling and feed costs. What made the horse ‘botanical’ was never made clear, but we may assume Ball was steady-footed, of a quiet temperament, and not tempted to eat specimens as they were collected! Valentine was also interested in astronomy, and organised for an American expedition to stay at his property The Grange in Campbell Town to observe the Transit of Venus in 1874. The Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery has William Valentine’s microscope, including all of its various lenses, attachments, and travelling cases. We also hold a collection of his scientific slides, and their storage box. If you have any further questions or would like to tell us more about the book and the letter inside it, please get in touch with us through the contacts section of the main Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery website. Eleanor - Research and Curatorial Assistant, Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery
  • Delighted to find this entry and to learn that the microscope still exists. My interest in William Valentine is as an instrument-designer who submitted his work to the Society of Arts - now the Royal Society of Arts. I have pasted below my draft entry on Valentine in the appendix to a study of scientific instruments submitted to the Society of Arts. I would be grateful if you could send me a note of the exact signature on the microscope, and whether it has either a date or a serial number. " Valentine (1808-76) was a surgeon at Nottingham Infirmary with a special interest in plant anatomy. With Godfrey Howitt he wrote and published Muscologia Nottinghamiensis: or a collection of mosses, (Nottingham 1833) in which dried specimens were mounted with the descriptive letterpress. In 1831 Valentine submitted ‘A microscope for botanical dissections’, Transactions 48 (1831), 413-423 + plate 6; Silver Medal - reprinted in Improvements in the Microscope, 1 (London 1832), 413-423; and Repertory of Arts 13 (1832), 425-8. The instrument was made by Andrew Ross*. It utilised the method of ascertaining the foci of lenses proposed by Samuel Varley*, whilst the doublets were designed after the proposals in papers by Wollaston and Herschel, published in the Philosophical Transactions in 1821. Valentine followed Ross’s suggestion in backing the Wollaston reflector with plaster of Paris. The slow motion screw had 50 revolutions per inch and a micrometer head x100 so could read sizes to 1/5000 of an inch - MCP Mechanics 21 iv & 3 v 1831. His prime interest was plant anatomy, on which the bulk of the published paper is primarily concerned. Valentine, joined the Society in or before 1831, and became a life member in 1838. He emigrated to Australia in 1840, and settled in Campbell Town, Tasmania, where he had a dispensary – see, Australian Journal of Adult Education, 10-14 (1970), 137 also The Launceston Courier, 16 January 1843, for the report of his trial for manslaughter for having ‘negligently, carelessly, and feloniously, administered to [......Theophilus Swifte] a large quantity of laudanum, in the stead of some other medicine’. The jury found him guilty but gave a recommendation for mercy, and he was fined but not imprisoned. When Valentine emigrated he took with him a microscope made to his design by Ross – now in the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery – S1978.340 – see http://www.abc.net.au/local/photos/2013/01/25/3676888.htm accessed 16 viii 2015. David Bryden