Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Life in Wax: Teaching Collections at Leeds

Still from Quatermass and the Pit (1967)
For many years now, arguably since the advent of the SF genre, insects have enjoyed an association with aliens in the popular imagination. From the archetypal bug-eyed monster depicted on the covers of early SF magazines, to the nightmarish insectoids of Starship Troopers, to the ant-like physiology of the creatures in Quatermass' pit, writers and filmmakers have drawn much inspiration from the insect world in their representation of martians, forms often regarded as frightening and strange.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, the first thing I thought of when I saw the wax models of Hydrophilus piceus, or 'The Great Water Beatle' (see image below) were dormant, chrysalis-like aliens. These are part of the collection at the University of Leeds' Museum of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine, and were formerly used in University teaching from the late 19th century onwards. What is unique about Hydrophilus is that it is the only insect to have been reproduced by the noted embryo modeler Adolf Ziegler (1820-1889). Louis Compton Miall (1842-1921), former Professor of Biology at Leeds, was widely acknowledged as one of the world’s foremost experts on The Great Water Beatle, second only to Karl Heider (1856-1935), who provided the drawings that the wax series was based on.

Hydrophilus piceus, or 'The Great Water Beatle'
While scaled up in size, the models replicate even the minutest features of the beetle throughout different stages of its life cycle, making them ideal for the study of biology and zoology, since they could be observed by a class of students. With real specimens being both expensive and difficult to present, wax models provided a clear visual aid to teachers trying to explain the development of human and animal embryos as three-dimensional structures.

During the latter part of the 19th century, wax models became instruments not just for teaching, but for research. Embryological development was called upon as key evidence in evolutionary debates and the models' great detail and accuracy meant they could be used in new investigations. Due to the public interest in embryology, wax models, along with text and print images, were displayed in a number of private and public museum collections. 

As well as Ziegler's water beetle, the collection holds series detailing the development of the pig, the vertebrate eye, the human heart, and the convolutions of the human brain. For further information, please visit:  

No comments:

Post a Comment