Image of blood platelets
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First illustration of blood platelets in Donné's Cours de microscopie.

Donne atlas title page
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A: Paris, Île-de-France, France

Donné Founds Microphotography; Landmark in Hematology, Oncology, and Pathology

1844 to 1845
Donne atlas plate 1
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Donné's atlas reproduced photomicrographs engraved from daguerreotypes.

In 1844 and 1845 French physician Alfred François Donné published Cours de microscopie compémentaire des études médicales in Paris. The folio atlas of plates, which appeared one year after the text, included twenty plates showing engraved images of 86 microdaguerreotypes taken by medical student, later physicist Léon Foucault. Because daguerreotypes were unique images they could not be duplicated by a photographic process like prints from photographic negatives, and had to be engraved for reproduction by printing.

Donné, a French public health physician, began teaching his pioneering course on medical microscopy in 1837, a time when the medical establishment remained largely unconvinced of the microscope’s usefulness as a diagnostic and investigative tool. In July 1839 Louis Daguerre, one of the inventors of photography, announced to the Académie des Sciences his “daguerreotype” process for creating finely detailed photographic images on specially prepared glass plates. Donné immediately embraced this new art, and within a few months had created not only the first documented photographic portrait in Europe, but also the earliest method of preparing etched plates from daguerreotypes. Donné resolved to incorporate photography into his microscopy course, and in February 1840 he presented to the Académie his first photographic pictures of natural objects as seen through the microscope. “It was Alfred Donné who foresaw the helpful role that projections of microscopic pictures could play during lectures on micrography” (Dreyfus, p. 38).

Over the next few years Donné continued to refine his photomicrography methods with the help of his assistant, Léon Foucault (who would go on to have a distinguished career as a physicist).  Donne's and Foucault's work was the first biomedical textbook to be illustrated with images made from photomicrographs. Among its noteworthy images are the first microphotographs of human blood cells and platelets, and the first photographic illustration of Trichomonas vaginalis, the protozoon responsible for vaginal infections, which Donné had discovered in 1836. The text volume of the Cours contains the first description of the microscopic appearance of leukemia, which Donné had observed in blood taken from both an autopsy and a living patient. His observations mark the first time that leukemia was linked with abnormal blood pathology:

"There are conditions in which white cells seem to be in excess in the blood. I found this fact so many times, it is so evident in certain patients, that I cannot conceive the slightest doubt in this regard. One can find in some patients such a great number of these cells that even the least experienced observer is greatly impressed. I had an opportunity of seeing these in a patient under Dr. Rayer at the Hôpital de la Charité. . . . The blood of this patient showed such a number of white cells that I thought his blood was mixed with pus, but in the end, I was able to observe a clear-cut difference between these cells, and the white cells . . . "(p. 135; translation from Thorburn, pp. 379-80).

The following year this abnormal blood condition was recognized as a new disease by both John Hughes Bennett (a former student of Donné’s) and Rudolf Virchow.

Norman, Morton's Medical Bibliography (1991) nos.  267.1, 3060.1. Dreyfus, Some Milestones in the History of Hematology, pp. 38-40, 54-56, 76-78. Frizot, A New History of Photography, p. 275. Gernsheim & Gernsheim, The History of Photography 1685-1914, pp. 116, 539. Hannavy, Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography, Vol. 1, p. 1120. Wintrobe, Hematology: The Blossoming of a Science, p. 12. Bernard, Histoire illustrée de l’hématologie, passim. Thorburn, “Alfred François Donné, 1801-1878, discoverer of Trichomonas vaginalis and of leukaemia,” British Journal of Venereal Disease 50 (1974) 377-380.

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