John Ellis’ Microscopic Animals

Assistant Archivist Luke Thorne takes a closer look at some microscopic marvels

Published on 26th May 2021

In preparing a blog for Treasure of the Month I came across a number of notebooks in our manuscript collections belonging to the British naturalist and linen merchant John Ellis (1714-1776). One of these notebooks, a quarto sized manuscript book bearing the title ‘Microscopic Animals,’ features various detailed sketches and diagrams of microscopic creatures, insects, seeds and plants (MS/289). Each sketch was drawn in pencil or pen on a separate piece of paper and then pasted into the book’s pages.

An image of Ellis' brown notebook, which he filled with his drawings of magnified organisms. The notebook is kept in a protective envelope.
Ellis’ notebook filled with drawings of magnified organisms, alongside its protective envelope

Ellis, who joined the Society in 1797, is best known for being the first person to publish a written description of the Venus flytrap in a pamphlet entitled, "Directions for Bringing over Seeds and Plants from the East Indies and Other Distant Countries" (1770). Ellis was also a contemporary of Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) and wrote to him many times. Linnaeus also thought highly of Ellis, describing him in one letter as a “bright star of natural history” (L4608).

Many of Ellis’ notebooks relate to the transportation of seeds and plants from North America, and scientific memoranda of the plants and animals he observed. This notebook however, stands out as the drawings in it are so well detailed it is as if we are looking at these organisms ourselves under a microscope.

Of particular note are the drawings of Rotifers, commonly known as ‘Wheel Animals’ due to the presence of hair-like structures (cilia) around their heads, which move in a motion that resembles a spinning wheel. Ellis makes a note of this motion occurring “under the 3 parcels of the Fibrilla” alongside his drawing of one.

A drawing of a Wheel Animal; a translucent maggot shaped organism with hair-like structures on its head.
“A New Species of Wheel Animal”

Similarly detailed figures of aquatic seeds, plants and creatures collected from pond water and duckweed appear in the pages of the note book as well. Ellis recorded different kinds of Infusoria, a microorganism, which could increase in number through division. You can see that this process has been recreated by Ellis in his drawings.

Below the drawings of the Infusoria Ellis also recorded the result of an experiment in which salt arose from hempseed mixed in water and created pleasing geometric shapes.

Figures of “Animalcula infusoria” (Peranema) and salts that arose from a hempseed-water mixture.
Figures of “Animalcula infusoria” (Peranema) and salts that arose from a hempseed-water mixture

The book was a real pleasure to look through for its beautifully drawn sketches of strangely shaped organisms, illuminating a world that would otherwise be overlooked.

You can search for more records about John Ellis and his work in our archives catalogue.

By Luke Thorne, Assistant Archivist