An “Incomplete” Artefact: Part 2- Knowing an object’s past

Museum people talk about an object’s “provenance”, that is, its origin and past. The term comes from the world of fine art dealing, where it is essential to know the history of a work of art in order to establish its authenticity and legal ownership before selling it. It is a useful concept in thinking about any object because you can’t really understand an object without some idea of where it came from and how it was used. Depending on the circumstances, this evidence may or may not exist. Provenance research is especially valuable in interpreting scientific instruments, which take their meaning from laboratory research projects, are frequently unique or heavily modified, and which often belonged to larger experimental assemblies.

The previous post discussed some difficulties in understanding the history of the University of Toronto Chambers’ micromanipulator given the fact that various parts of it are missing. I noted that in order to understand exactly what is missing  you need to understand its provenance. Here I’ll explain what I have and have not been able to discover about its past.

A place of origin

Several clues suggest that this instrument was acquired by the former University of Toronto School of Hygiene, which opened in 1927 in a new building on College Street. This has since been renamed the Fitzgerald building after Dr. John Gerald FitzGerald, who led Toronto’s emergence as a world centre of public health research over the first half of the 20th century (I have described the historical backdrop of the School in an earlier post.) I first found the instrument in a wooden box that also contained a yellowed offprint article written in 1922 by Robert Chambers and published in the Anatomical Record . This article is stamped “Department of Hygiene and Preventive Medicine”, one several departments that initially made up the School. It was probably used as a basic instruction manual.

First page of the offprint article identifying the object with the University of Toronto School of Hygiene.

First page of the offprint article identifying the object with the University of Toronto School of Hygiene.

This little clue is reassuring because it means that it is very unlikely that this object was a historical curiosity picked up by a researcher, or a piece of obsolete technology donated by a colleague and never used locally. It suggests that the instrument was purchased at some point between the opening of the School of Hygiene in 1927 and the mid 1930s. The instrument was available until the Second World War (if not slightly later), but the offprint article implies an earlier date because Chambers and his students had published more up-to-date guides by the early-to-mid 1930s.

The micromanipulator reappears in 1980 in a first-floor storage room in the Fitzgerald building. We can know this thanks to an inventory of historical scientific material, led by the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and technology (IHPST) that was carried out between (roughly)  1978 and 1981 in the hope these newly catalogued objects would become the basis for a University of Toronto science museum. The hundreds of cardboard file cards generated during this process survive as a snapshot of the U of T’s holdings at that point. The ’78 catalogue is a useful resource, though it also has a sad quality given the number of objects that have been lost since it was completed. The record for the manipulator isn’t especially enlightening. It mentions a “Dr. Wright” whom I haven’t been able to identify (cataloguers take note: first names are helpful).

The object's catalogue record from the '78 inventory.

The object’s catalogue record from the ’78 inventory.

At some point between 1980 and 2009, the micromanipulator journeyed a few blocks north from the Fitzgerald building to the office of the IHPST. There it joined (or maybe was joined by) a number of other unrelated medical objects under a table in the main office. Since the ’78 inventory, IHPST had been accumulating historical objects, donated by University faculty and the public, in the hope that a science museum would eventually be founded. These, like the micromanipulator, have since been incorporated into the University of Toronto Scientific Instruments Collection. The IHPST staff has generally kept very good records of this process (these records are gradually being organized into a UTSIC archive). Unfortunately, no information survives about the acquisition of the micromanipulator.

An important clue

In 1929, a doctoral student at the School of Hygiene named D. C. B. Duff published an article in The Journal of Laboratory and Clinical Medicine entitled “A Modification of the Orskov Single-Cell Technic“. The article describes a method  for collecting individual bacteria in order to create colonies from single cells that required “an apparatus of the Chambers micromanipulator type”.  Assuming that “an apparatus of the Chambers micromanipulator type” simply means “a Chambers’ micromanipulator” (the mechanism was patented), this probably indicates that the instrument was already being used in Duff’s lab to isolate bacteria using an earlier method described in 1922 by Morton C. Kahn, a colleague of Chambers at Cornell. Presumably, Duff believed his method to be more efficient than either of these earlier techniques.

Duff’s article doesn’t prove anything about this particular object, nor does it necessarily mean that the instrument was used for this one purpose only.  It does give a plausible configuration of a University of Toronto’s Chambers’ micromanipulator, and with it a possible notion of what a “complete” representation might look like. The next post will describe various notions of a complete instrument and, consequently, several possible goals for this project

Thanks to the helpful staff at University of Toronto Archives and Records Management Service (UTARMS).

2 thoughts on “An “Incomplete” Artefact: Part 2- Knowing an object’s past

  1. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Vol. #13 | Whewell's Ghost

  2. Pingback: What is a complete object? - Thick Objects

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