Early Photography’s role in Science

Science helping Science

Medical and scientific advancements
with the help of early photography

Early photographers, in many cases, were artists always looking for ways to expand on their art. However, even before that, it was the world of science and chemistry that started it all. The word Photography, meaning “light writing,” is attributed to Sir John Herschel. He was a chemist, mathematician, astronomer, and inventor. Chemists, scientists, botanists, people in medical professions and inventors all required copious amounts of notes, formulas, drawings and illustrations.

William Henry Fox Talbot (1800 –1877) is credited with creating the first “photogenic drawing” lying flat botanical objects on sensitized paper. Talbot then covered that with a piece of glass and placed it in the sun. The sun darkened the paper except where it the object blocked the light. As a camera was not used it was really a photogram.

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Anna Atkins (1799 – 1871), an English botanist, was given her first camera in 1841 and immediately began using it in her work. Her early works were cyanotypes, which is a photographic printing process that produces a cyanblue toned print. The accuracy of the photographic reproduction astonished the scientific and botany community.

Until this point, the method of recording documents, diagrams, and illustrations was by hand. If someone needed an additional copy, it would need to be redrawn. Accuracy depended on the person doing the drawing. Anna Atkins’s one-dimensional reproductions were a great start; however, it was still basically a negative type image rather than a positive image.

Joseph Nicéphore Niépce’s (1765-1833) interests were chemistry and physics. Niépce was determined to find a way to fix (keep from fading) a photographic image. After many failures, he succeeded. In 1826 or 1827 Niépce made this image. It may not look like much, but it was a true photograph, taken with a camera and printed on paper. And it still exists!

Niépce was a scientist and inventor. Like many scientists before him, he was interested in the process more than the subject of the photograph. In 1829 Niépce formed a partnership with Louis Daguerre. Daguerre was an artist and entrepreneur. Daguerre saw the potential for the photographic process, and when Niépce died suddenly in 1833 Daguerre continued and improved Niépce’s process.

This photo was taken by Daguerre in 1838 in Paris. It is a great improvement on Niépce’s photo of 1827. The image is considered to be the first photo containing people. Daguerre went public with his invention in 1839. He showed his process at a meeting of the French Academy of Sciences.

Alfred François Donné (1801 – 1878)

Alfred François Donné (1801 – 1878) was born and lived in France. He was a bacteriologist and doctor, and he needed accurate representations of his subjects. Donné is recognized for his discovery of trichomonas vaginalis and leukemia as infectious parasites. Donné was also the inventor of the photoelectric microscope.

A native of Paris, Donné heard of Daguerre’s demonstration at the French Academy in 1839 and felt he could apply the Daguerreotype process to his own studies using micrographs to analyze diseases and infections. Donné was the first to apply photography to microscopic recordings using the daguerreotype process. His research in microscopy extended to almost all human fluids that could be investigated. His work culminated in his famous
atlas, which was illustrated with numerous photographs.

Donné’s ground breaking atlas was possible because of the detail provided by the Daguerreotype process. This is yet another example of photography advancing the sciences.

Dr. Hugh Welch Diamond (1809 – 1886)

Dr. Hugh Welch Diamond (1809 – 1886) a British psychiatrist and photographer, was recognized for his pioneering approach to the study and treating of mental patients. While his images can be hard to look at, his sympathetic but accurate portrayal greatly helped in advancing the treatment of mentally ill patients. Dr. Diamond studied psychiatry at London’s notorious Bethel Hospital from which the word bedlam is derived.

He was also one of the founders of the Royal Photographic Society and was an editor of the Photographic Journal. Dr. Diamond originally worked with the Calotype photographic process. That process was the first to use a negative to be printed on paper. One of Dr Diamond’s patients in the 1840s was Frederick Scott Archer, who developed the collodion photographic process and Dr. Diamond saw the advantages in this process over William Talbot’s approach.

The collodion process produced a glass negative. While the process was difficult, it would soon take the place of the daguerreotype, mainly for the advantage of a glass negative. With this process, multiple copies of an image could be produced.


David Octavius Hill (1802–1870) was a painter. Robert Adamson (1821–1848)

David Octavius Hill (1802–1870) was a painter and Robert Adamson (1821– 1848) started his life as an engineer and chemist but quickly developed an interest in photography. Hill joined with Adamson and opened the first photographic studio in Edinburgh, Scotland around 1843. Hill and Adamson’s photograph, taken in 1847, of a woman with a large goiter (a swelling of the neck, the result of an enlargement of the thyroid gland) is considered to be the first medical photograph.

Hill and Adamson use the calotype process for this print. A wonderful image, however one of the few. Many of the calotype or Talbotypes quickly faded and weren’t this clear. But Talbot was on the right track, using a negative and printing it onto paper. One wonders how much more quickly photography would have advanced if Talbot hadn’t been so rigid in sharing his work.

Daguerreotypes were much sharper than Talbotypes. Strangely, photographers across the pond did not take to daguerreotypes. They stayed with the collotypes. By the 1860’s the daguerreotype had lost its place in photography. In 1851 the wet plate collodion process was invented. The negative, a glass plate, made copies possible. Images were much sharper than the daguerreotypes. By the late 1850’s the dry plate process was the next step until the late 1890’s early 1900’s, when the glass plate process was rapidly moving into transparent plastic film bases.

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Astrophotography was another area where photography advanced the sciences. Astrophotography is a specialized type of photography for recording activity in the skies. Many of the early users of photography to study the skies were amateurs. Scientists still relied on sketching. While the early photo images were very basic, the details were still more accurate than drawings. For most photographers, short exposure times were needed. However for the Astrophotographer, long exposures produced details never seen with the
naked eye.

John William Draper (1811-1882)

John W. Draper, an English scientist and chemist made the first detailed
photograph of the full moon in 1843.

Draper was very interested in the study of the chemistry of light sensitive materials. He learned of Daguerre’s process in early 1839. Like Daguerre, his first attempts were underexposed and blurry. And then he made a discovery.
One of the downsides of daguerreotypes were the long exposure times. But he discovered that the longer the exposure, the more was visible in the image. It wasn’t until late in the 1800’s that the technology caught up with the process. Telescopes coupled with cameras and lenses were required. Also, ways for the telescopes to track and reduce camera movement were essential. In September of 1880, astrophotography became accepted by the astronomy community after the release of images made by the son of a well-known
fellow astronomer.

Dr. Henry Draper (1837–1882)

Dr. Henry Draper was the son of John William Draper. He was a doctor, lawyer, and amateur astronomer. In 1880 Dr. Draper photographed the Orion Nebula (a cloud of gas and dust in outer space, visible in the night sky either as an indistinct bright patch or as a dark silhouette against other luminous matter, which today are called galaxies). Dr. Draper used the dry plate process which had replaced the wet plate process. It required a 51-minute exposure. This was the first image of a nebula.

This was the beginning of deep space photography, making it possible to record details of faraway objects such as the moon, sun and planets. It was now possible to photograph stars that were too far away to be seen by the naked eye. By the 1880’s the problems with obtaining accurate images were rapidly being solved. New optics and telescopes with adjustable lenses and cameras designed for use with the bulky telescopes combined with long exposure photography, allowed for a new understanding of the universe. Not all new discoveries and advancements were made by scientists. Amateur astronomy was very popular in the late 1800’s. And amateur astrophotographer Isaac Roberts is credited with advancing astrophotography to new heights.

Isaac Roberts (1829 – 1904)

Isaac Roberts was a Welsh engineer and businessman. While the optics rapidly improved, a method for following the earth’s rotation was needed. Long exposure times are needed—sometimes as long as an hour—to record distant images that weren’t visible to the naked eye. Around 1885 Roberts ordered a 20-inch reflecting telescope to add to the observatory he had built onto his house. Roberts also came up with a technique to mount a camera and lens onto an equatorial mounted telescope. An equatorial mount compensates for the rotation of the earth. This allows the telescope to stay fixed on the object, producing a sharp image. The camera stayed aimed accurately during the long exposure times as the earth moved.

Using this technique, Roberts photographed the Great Nebula in the Andromeda Galaxy. This photo revealed the nebula had a spiral makeup, unknown at the time. Before Isaac Roberts photo, a nebula was thought to be round.

Only illustrations were available. And these illustrations were portrayed as circular. Scientists, engineers, botanists, artists, and businessmen all contributed to the invention and improvements of photography. All played a part in the making of a photographic image. Those images led to many botanical discoveries, including plants and flowers leading to medical cures, poisonous plant discoveries, and improved crops.

In addition, many lives have been saved because of Alfred François Donné, the bacteriologist and doctor who invented the photoelectric microscope used to identify infectious parasites. As for John W. Draper, scientist and chemist who made the first detailed photograph of the full moon in 1843 and became known as the Father of Astrophotography, where would space exploration be without his discoveries? What about space travel and the products developed for space exploration now used in our daily lives?
We have so much more to be thankful for to these early photographic pioneers, far beyond our vacation photos, wedding pictures and selfies.

-Bob Walden

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