Wednesday 26 May 2021

Lewis Woolnough - a life under the microscope (Obituary)

Memories by Chris Thomas. 06 May 2021

I always knew it was Lewis, as soon as I heard his “Hello Chris” on the phone. A quiet yet warm voice that shone with light of his positive yet reserved nature.

Of course I had met and occasionally chatted to him at  meetings of the Quekett Microscopical Club, but it was really when he approached me about re-issuing his book ‘Understanding and Using the Stereomicroscope’ that I came to know him better.

Lewis was above all an open, positive but self deprecating person. Yet in his quiet way, it soon became apparent that appeared ever so slightly unhappy with the way an old first version of his book had been produced and presented. For those of us who got to know Lewis well, this was so uncharacteristic of his usual unflappable outlook, that the small hints of dissatisfaction spoke volumes about his feelings on the matter. I might therefore have had some initial reservations on embarking on the project of producing the book in a way that he wanted.

Such fears were soon dispelled as I found that here was someone with a deep shared interest in helping and instructing others. What really struck a chord with me was his constructive and cooperative approach to transferring his knowledge to an audience starting out in microscopy. No didactic lecturing, here was a friend who would take you through right from the beginning to proficiency in using the stereomicroscope.

I really enjoyed debating certain points with him, as he or I would try to persuade the other to our viewpoint, each of us microscopy experts in our own right. There was a steely core of certainty about what his objectives were underlying that calm smiling exterior, combined with a flexibility of mind that allowed compromise where it would ultimately benefit the book. We worked well as a team and I looked forward to his company, despite our different personalities. 

We were able to combine his text and quirky black and white illustrations with many colour photos, include colour coded sections for easy reference and even introduce stereoscopic images. The result was the new first edition, published in 2010 by the Quekett Microscopical Club – which was recognised as a useful handbook, not only for novices but also those already familiar with stereomicroscopy. It is now out of print.

Milton Contact Ltd published the second edition of his book with added material in 2018.

The second edition of Understanding and Using the Stereomicroscope

Digital printing also allowed smaller print runs, in the hundreds rather than thousands. When a batch was close to running out, we simply ordered another small print run to tide him over. There are several retailers still selling the book, Brunel Microscopes and Northern Bee Books being examples. The Quekett also purchased copies use at special events and for the Arkwright Scholarship course on microscopy that it runs annually. Individuals also ordered copies directly from Lewis, with many copies going abroad.

Such was the feeling of success from the relationship that I was inspired to write and publish ‘Understanding and using the light microscope’ with Lewis’ assistance, input and co-authorship. We had great fun hiring a photographic studio for an afternoon, roping in my student daughter for age and gender balance. We produced nine instructional videos accompanying the book. Lewis was such an excellent teacher that we basically agreed a topic for each video, an outline of the content and then just let the camera roll as all three of us turned these into real life lessons on using the light microscope. We did have to do several takes on certain parts sometimes but it went remarkably smoothly, with great fun had all round. 

Other fond memories I have are of meeting Lewis and Janet in their home, having a lunch or a tea in the kitchen overlooking their large garden. Lewis and I would then ensconce ourselves in the study to pore over microscopes, samples and generally talk of things microscopical. At the end of the day, Lewis would always safely wave me out onto the road from his drive as a large hedge on the right obscured the view and I feared for my safety.

Whilst I could always find my way to Lewis, I invariably had trouble finding the route to the nearby Village Hall in Bradfield St George, where Lewis was involved in the organisation of the annual East of England Microscopy meeting in Autumn. I must have found at least three different routes to get there and exit over the years, seemingly finally coming to the venue almost by chance!

Lewis was also the turn to person when it came to meeting the relatives of other microscopists and helping them find good homes for their microscopes, slides and occasional hazardous stains and solvents!

Lewis was also there with constructive advice and support when I contemplated and finally joined the new Quekett Committee.  

From our occasional conversations this year, I learnt almost as an aside of Lewis’ illness, and hearing of his hospitalisation and passing away, I felt the loss of a decade’s long companion and like minded person in microscopy, as well as the an author.

But Lewis is still there within me, the shared memories, laughter, debates and interests. I’m pleased that I can tread in his footsteps by taking on the first part of the Quekett’s Arkwright Scholarship course, aiming to continue his aim of making microscopy education fun, interesting and interactive.

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