Brian J Ford: Life through a microscope
Image: Ford has devoted much of his career to pushing microscopy closer into the public-eye.
Professor Brian J Ford's discoveries have shaken up the world of microscopy over and over again. Rebecca Pool talks to the renowned microscopist about his breakthroughs.
When Professor Brian J Ford was a very young child, he was fascinated by the form and function of living organisms. As the internationally known microscopist and biologist tells Microscopy and Analysis: “I was always intrigued by what made things work the way they did, especially living things.”
“If I looked at a daddy long-legs I would speculate on the mechanism of its legs,” he explains. “And the earliest family photographs show me inspecting flowers and looking inside such things.”
His passion for understanding the living grew throughout school, and by the time he reached The King’s School, Peterborough, he’d encountered his first microscope, was ‘fastidiously’ reading books on microscopy and was amassing a fine collection of microscopic preparations.
Image1: As a schoolboy Ford was preoccupied with optical instruments of all kinds; in this case it is a vintage spectrophotometer.
“When you hold an object at arm's length, you get a good impression of it; bring it up close and you see some detail but use a microscope and you see so much more,” he says. “For me, the microscope was simply the only way you could get right inside something, which was of course, what I always wanted to do.”
Ford's desire to learn more was fuelled by his science tutor at King’s, research biologist, A.G. Lowndes.
Known for developing a method to measure the density of living aquatic organisms, and for taking film of high-speed cilia, Lowndes introduced Ford to microbiology as well as Antony van Leeuwenhoek, widely regarded to be the father of microscopy and microbiology.
He also walked Ford through the basics of microscopy, such as Köhler illumination, and provided invaluable insight on how to think.
As Ford puts it: “[Lowndes] was the most uncouth man you could imagine but his clarity of thought inspired me, and he also made me realise that if you're going to do something, do it thoroughly and don't do things by half measures.”
And Ford never has. Prior to starting university, he worked at the Medical Research Council, he wrote a weekly newspaper column on science and played blues piano in a nightclub, to bring in a regular income.
While rubbing shoulders with up and coming journalists, such as John Humphries, Sue Lawley and Michael Buerk, he was also rushing to the local slaughterhouse to collect fresh blood from slaughtered cows for his MRC research on ‘live’ blood clots.
Ford’s stint at the MRC only lasted a year but during this time, his inspirational MRC supervisor, Professor Scott Thompson, had sown the seeds of a blood coagulation conundrum that Ford would one day solve.
Ford's high-resolution micrograph of coagulating blood shows the penderocytes suspended by submicroscopic fibrils, which dark-ground illumination can reveal.
Meanwhile an ‘extraordinarily interesting’ colleague, Ted Hill, had also opened his eyes to the wonderful world of culturing microbes.
By 1959, Ford had enrolled at the University of Cardiff to study botany and zoology, but left before graduating to set up his own laboratory.
As he puts it: “I was never in favour of going to university because I thought you would only be taught a narrow discipline and I wanted to be so much more wide ranging.”
So, come 1961, Ford left university, set up his own private laboratory and began acquiring microscopes. At the same time, his science reporting work was flourishing as he wrote longer feature articles and appeared on radio and television programmes explaining his views on science.
Crucially, his short time at Cardiff University had left him with a wealth of colleagues, only too happy to provide access to equipment.
“I left with the best of friends, and was always in and out of the lab,” says Ford. “I would never describe myself as an independent scientist as without the interdependency from all of my friends I wouldn't have been able to do a single thing.”
One of Ford’s first commissions was from a naturalists’ trust, to carry out an ecological survey of Sully Island, off the coast of Glamorgan, South Wales.
It was the Sixties, ‘ecology’ was unheard-of, yet Ford produced a definitive botanical map, finding extraordinary plants, such as Ophioglossum, the Adder's-tongue fern, and the Bee Orchid Ophrys, along the way.
While working here, a colleague had pointed out that fish in a nearby boating lake were ill. Ford caught some fish, devised a method to draw blood by direct cardiac puncture so he could observe living blood under his light microscope instead of the standard smears of the time.
Success ensued as he quickly spotted, in his words, ‘flickering flame-like trypanosomes’; unicellular parasitic flagellate protozoa living within the blood.
This award winning image of Ford's blood cells was taken through Leeuwenhoek's original microscope at the University Science Museum un Utrecht, Netherlands. The lobed nucleus of a leucocyte can even be seen with this single-lensed instrument (top right).
The mystery of the ailing fish was solved, and crucially, Ford realised that he could apply the same method to study human blood and shed light on the blood coagulation conundrum that had now troubled him for some time.
Since his MRC days, he had realised that freshly forming fibrin threads, thought to trap blood cells at the site of a wound, simply couldn't form swiftly enough to stem blood flow.
Ford’s high-resolution light microscopy on live human blood samples revealed suspended cells - dubbed penderocytes - within the fibrinous networks of clotting blood, and he theorised that these were actually responsible for the repair of a damaged blood vessel, rather than fast-growing fibrin threads.
Ford hot-footed it down to Sully Hospital, acquired blood from open-heart surgery patients and on imaging this, was able to draw an all-important link between penderocyte formation and the time taken for blood to clot.
His discovery of penderocyte was applauded in the medical and general press, his blood-clotting micrographs won awards and at only 25, he was invited to present his research at the Royal Society.
But penderocytes in clotting blood was just one of many discoveries that would thrust Ford into the limelight.
"Trying to interpret life from SEM images is like trying to study the sociology of pigs by looking closely at a bacon sandwich."
In his mid-twenties, Ford was also asked by an archaeology department to study the skeleton of a murdered woman from the Dark Ages. Again, using light microscopy, he discovered traces of iron in its damaged ribs as well as a cerebral growth in its skull.
“These nodules were probably caused by cerebral meningeal abscesses and would have caused this woman to have unusual behaviour,” explains Ford. “So I thought, ‘Ah, she would have been acting oddly so was probably killed as they thought she was a witch’.”
Ford’s results again featured in the press and on TV, the techniques he had developed to study the skeleton were documented in a UNESCO textbook.
Stunning discoveries aside, Ford was always busy writing books. Microbiology and Food became a bestseller and was widely cited, particularly in the US, while The Revealing Lens and the Optical Microscope Manual were extensively reviewed.
Many other books have followed, including Microbe Power, Tomorrow's Revolution and Single lens, Story of the Simple Microscope, each again hitting the headlines and gaining mass media appeal.
Lecture tours, worldwide, had also commenced, but come 1981, Ford was to make what could be considered his biggest discovery.
Ford had just received a Kodak Bursary, alongside grants from the Linnean Society and the Royal Society, to return to his microscopy studies. As part of this, he was invited by the then Royal Society president, Sir Andrew Huxley, to consult the actual Leeuwenhoek letters, dating from the 17th century and bound in volumes, within a vault at the Royal Society. He accepted.
“Leafing through the pages of the letters I discovered a blank sheet with an envelope pasted in the middle,” Ford recalls. “I gingerly opened the envelope and inside was the first of several packets of Leeuwenhoek's very own specimens. I mean, can you imagine that?”
Ford's discovery of Leeuwenhoek's centuries-old sections which revealed much about how the great microscopist had worked.
Ford went on to take micrographs of Leeuwenhoek's centuries-old sections which revealed much about how the great microscopist had worked. And following a Royal Society paper, results were published in myriad publications including Nature, New Scientist, Scientific American and the British Medical Journal.
“There were hundreds of newspaper articles all over the world... but I was in a state of complete nerves until I'd completed the microscopy and returned the specimens back to the Royal Society,” laughs Ford.
Ford’s research on Leeuwenhoek continued and he eventually wrote the book The Leeuwenhoek Legacy, paying homage to the microscopist’s work and also providing details on surviving Leeuwenhoek microscopes and how to build your own. Recently he was presented with two newly-discovered 17th century Leeuwenhoek microscopes, which nobody knew existed, within the space of a single year.
But while Ford has always wanted to share his passion of microscopy - he still campaigns on the lack of public familiarity with microscopes - his desire to explore the wonderful world of science without borders has probably left the longest-lasting public impression.
Ford has devoted much of his career to pushing microscopy closer into the public-eye.
After the Leeuwenhoek project, he proposed that deciduous plants shed their leaves as part of an excretory mechanism, a concept that was widely reported and featured in Nature.
Research on head lice, published in medical journals, led to better control of outbreaks, while other avenues have included viruses in drinking water and sexually-transmitted diseases. And he has also been instrumental in establishing worldwide legislation for the safe handling of pathogens and preventing the sale of opiate-containing medicines in the UK.
Fittingly, Ford was appointed a professor at Leicester University in 2011 and was pleased when Cardiff University launched a department for interdisciplinary research.
As he puts it: “An interdisciplinary approach has always been so important to me, and I have never been able to constrain myself by traditional scientific disciplines.”
“I realised at an early age that great breakthroughs were always made by people that had an extremely broad understanding and worked in different fields,” he adds.
Today, Ford, now an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Microscopical Society, lectures about microscopy at conferences around the world and on cruise ships while avidly publishing on the complexity of living cells, advocating the study of whole cell biology and single cell intelligence.
He has appeared on television with people including Michael Parkinson and Carol Vorderman, both of whom became firm friends. As always, he remains totally devoted to light microscopy, relying on his trusted Olympus BH dating from the 1970s, to, as he puts it, study life.
“You can put a specimen into a SEM and watch it die if you like,” he says. “But for me, trying to interpret life from SEM images is like trying to study the sociology of pigs by looking closely at a bacon sandwich. If you want to look at living cells, they have got to be living.”
And for him, the way forward for microscopy is to bring it home. “If you’re a microscopist in work, make sure you have a microscope at home to show the family,” he says.
“If you're out and about, and see, say, stagnant water, grab some, take it home and show it to the kids,” he adds. “Microscopes should be more than a tool at work, they should be as familiar to everybody as a laptop.”