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