The history of wet collections at the Natural History Museum, London


One of the earliest records of the use of
spirit for preservation of biological material occurred at a meeting of the
Royal Society in 16621. On the 28th May, Mr W. Croone showed
two puppy embryos, which he had kept for eight days by placing them in a glass
vial containing spirit of wine and then hermatically sealing it. It is
commonly excepted that Croone copied a method being used by the Hon. Robert
Boyle2, who exhibited several animals at the Royal Society
between 1663-1666.

The ownership of a spirit collection was
at this time a costly business. John Hunter’s Collection3, for
example, at the Royal College of Surgeons represents a vast expense, as does
the early Ruysch Collection4, which consisted of over 1300
preparations in 17105. The invention of flint glass in the
seventeenth century had meant that suitably transparent containers could be
manufactured for the first time. Glass, however, was heavily taxed6
and it was not until 1845 with the repeal of Window Tax by Robert Peel that
glass became “affordable”. Use of spirit also caused monetary concerns due to
taxation7. This was the era of the Napoleonic Wars (1794-1815) and
the gin trade, and secret distillation and smuggling were common- place. It was
not until the development of methylated spirit in 1855 that the possibility of
duty-free spirit emerged and “wet” collections began to increase.

Formaldehyde was first synthesized by the Russian chemist
Aleksandr Butlerov8 in 1859 but was conclusively identified
by August Wilhelm von Hofmann in 1867. Formaldehyde, which is a gas at
room temperature with a pungent smell, was readily soluble in water and thus
non- flammable. It was also cheaper than alcohol and became the favoured method
of fixation and preservation during the early part of the 20th century.  Today, however, the introduction of new DNA
techniques and stricter Health & Safety laws have resulted in a return to


1 Birch T.
1756-7. The History of the Royal Society of London. Volume 1, p84.

2 Hon. Robert
Boyle (b. Lismore, Ireland,
1627 – d. London,
1691) was the fourteenth child of the Earl of Cork. Boyle was one of the
founders of the Royal Society.

3 John Hunter
(b. Long Calderwood, Scotland , 1728 - d. London, 1793) studied anatomy and
surgery at St. Bartholomew’s and St. George’s hospitals in London. From
1761-1763 he served as a naval surgeon and on his return went into private

4 Frederick
Ruysch (b. The Hague 1638 - d. Amsterdam
1731) studied medicine at Leiden.
In 1666, he became Professor of Anatomy in Amsterdam where he establish a reputation as
one of the greatest anatomical preparators.

5 This
collection was purchased Peter the Great and was taken to St. Petersburg in 1717.

6 Cole E.J.
1944. A History of Comparative Anatomy. London: MacMillan & Co. Ltd. pp 524. Cole
lists glass tax in 1745 as 9s 4d a cwt. In 1803 it had risen to £1 12s 8d but
by 1845 it had dropped back to 9s 6d.

7 idem 4. Cole
lists spirit taxes for the following years, 1643, 6d; 1736, 20s; 1743, 3d; 1791,
3s 4d; 1826, 7s; 1859, 10s; 1941, 97s 6d.

8 Aleksandr Mikhailovich Butlerov (1828
–1886) was a Russian chemist, the creator of the theory of chemical structure
(1861), and the discoverer of formaldehyde.

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