Life in another world: Electron Microscopes at Rothamsted

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Talk to the Society on 26 September 2017

By Roy Woods

Roy Woods gives a summary of the talk he gave at the Society’s meeting held on 26 September 2017. Roy was Head of Electron Microscopy at Rothamsted. This article first appeared in Newsletter 133 in December 2017

In my early school days, I was fortunate to get a good head master who concentrated on the three R’s. Although my father was a farm labourer, he and my mother encouraged me to do well at school and I gained entry to a grammar school in St Albans where after five years I passed my school certificate. My great passion was farming and I succeeded in getting into Writtle Agricultural College in Essex.

All went well until I suffered a slipped disc and the doctor said I would have to give up my agricultural career.

At the job centre in Harpenden they told me about an agricultural research station up the road called Rothamsted Experimental Station. They had a vacant post so I applied and an interview was arranged with a Mr Nixon. He told me the vacancy was in electron microscopy (EM) and I said I had never heard of it. He added that it involved producing a lot of photographs and asked if I knew anything about photography. I answered no and he said that I had got the job.

Early days of Electron microscopy

I was fortunate because electron microscopy was in its early days. Nobody knew much about it! The EM at Rothamsted was one of seven sent from America in 1944 under the “lease lend arrangement” to help the war effort. It was an RCA – EMB transmission electron microscope and had no operating instructions, only a leaflet explaining how to resuscitate people who had been electrocuted.

From the outset, I really enjoyed my work and Mr Nixon and I kept the microscope working about 70% of the time, the main problem being specimen preparation. In 1957 we bought a new Siemens microscope, it had a top magnification of 160,000x and was very reliable. Two years later in 1959 we had developed a new sample preparation technique. The previous method was tedious and very restricting, but the new one only took about five minutes from leaf sample to looking at the specimen in the microscope. It gave incredibly good detailed images of plant viruses at high magnifications. We were the first researchers to use the technique and published the results immediately. It had a great impact on the way virus research progressed around the world and many laboratories benefitted. From here on the EMs at Rothamsted became very popular instruments and more scientists wanted access to them.

Promotion to head of department

Mr Nixon retired in 1962 and I became the new head of EM. In 1970 a new type of microscope became available which took images of the
surface of specimens. It was called a scanning electron microscope (SEM) as opposed to the original transmission electron microscopes (TEM). The demand for EM increased and eventually we had three TEMs, two SEMs with 50 users and a staff of six operating and maintaining them.

When I retired in 1992, ‘wet photography’ was gradually being phased out as the digital age was taking over. The high resolution digital cameras fitted to modern microscopes display the image through computers directly to monitors, also allowing them to be saved and retrieved. The images are available immediately for examination and there was no longer a need for a darkroom and equipment. The current high resolution EMs, have additional equipment and refinements making them powerful analytical systems.

I was one of the lucky people who loved their work and, although retiring in 1992, I was fortunate to be asked to run the EMs at Bedfordshire University. I enjoyed the interaction with staff and students and when, after 53 years of electron microscopy I finally retired, I was awarded an Honorary Master’s degree.


An observation from Margaret Pratt:
‘I used the 'new' scanning electron microscope, (SEM), at Rothamsted, back in the early 1970s, to examine the surface of fungus spores. It was possible to see even smaller spores on the surface of the ones I was examining.  Truly amazing at the time’.

This page was added by Rosemary Ross on 22/01/2018.

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