H.G. Wells and the biology lab at home

Even if H. G. Wells’s biology students weren’t ordered to stay home, most couldn’t access a biology lab. And yet they had to be prepared for the practical examinations in their field. Wells knew that many of them were working on their own, unable to afford a tutor. How could he best prepare his students?

At the time, Wells was employed by the University Correspondence College, so his students were at a distance, most of them in the UK. Since there were no good biology text-books available for at-home study, Wells wrote one (well, two — part one on vertebrates and part two on invertebrates and plants). Part One was published in 1893, and is his first published full book.

Wells, then 27 and not yet an acclaimed author of science fiction, was also teaching an on-site biology laboratory at Red Lion Square. The University Tutorial College (the UCC’s London branch) had set up excellent facilities. But not everyone could come to London. Some would save up for years just to come for the examinations.

Challenged by this problem, Wells dedicated the last part of his textbook to creating laboratory “practicals” at home. He called it “A Syllabus of Practical Work”.

In it, he explained how to set up ones kitchen table, find the appropriate specimens, and work them in conjunction with the instructional pages and diagrams. In the first edition he had done the diagrams himself, but the reviews had been less than enthusiastic. So in the second edition he asked his former student, now companion, Catherine Robbins, to do them:


Students must do the reading first, of course:

We would impress upon the student at the outset the importance of some preliminary reading before dissection is undertaken. No one would dream of attempting to explore a deserted city without some previous study of maps and guide-books, hut we find again and again students undertaking to explore the complicated anatomy of a vertebrated animal without the slightest, or only the slightest, preparatory reading. This is entirely a mistake.

He then provided a list of equipment needed:

For such dissection as the subject-matter of this book requires, the following appliances will be needed :
(a) Two or three scalpels of various sizes.
(b) Scissors, which must taper gradually, have straight

blades, and be pointed at the ends, and which must bite right up to the tips (or they are use- less). Two pairs, small and large, are advisable
(c) Forceps, which must hold firmly, and meet truly at the points.
(d) Two needles set in wooden handles.
e) An ordinary watchmaker’s eye-glass is very helpful, but not indispensable.
(f) A dissecting dish—an ordinary pie dish will do—
into which melted paraffin wax has been poured, to the depth of, say, three-quarters of an inch, and allowed to solidify. (This wax may be blackened by mixture with lampblack. If the wax floats up at any time, it can, of course, be remelted. Or it may be loaded with lead.)
(g) A rough table or board (for the rabbit and dog-fish).
(h) Blanket pins, and ordinary pins.
(i) A pickle or other wide-mouthed jar, and some
common methylated spirit.
(j) A microscope, with low power of 1 in. or 1/2 in., and
high power 1/6 in. or 1/4 in. Glass slips and cover glasses, and a bottle of very weak (1 per cent.) solution of salt.

And suggestions of where to obtain them:

Animals for dissection may be obtained from the recognised dealers, who usually advertise in such scientific periodicals as Nature, Natural Science, and Knowledge. Sinel (naturalist, Jersey) is the most satisfactory dealer in dog-fish in our experience; Bolton (Malvern) will supply Amphioxus through the post. Frogs and rabbits may be obtained anywhere. The tame variety of rabbit is quite satisfactory for the purpose of dissection.

And instructions on how to do away with Fluffy:

I know I certainly have chloroform around the house.

But the point is that yes, many things one wouldn’t ordinarily think of as being doable at home, can be achieved with a little money and some ordering by mail. Students at the University Correspondence College had a high success rate in the Matriculation, Intermediate, and Bachelors examinations in Biology.


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