Henry Clifton Sorby

Henry Clifton Sorby

Henry Clifton Sorby was born in Sheffield in 1826.  He decided at the age of 15 that he wanted to become a scientist rather than go into the family business.  Following his father's death in 1847 he found himself, at the age of 21, with a comfortable income and as a result was able to devote himself to scientific investigation until his death in 1908, at the age of 82.

His work ranged widely, but his particular interests were in geology, metallurgy and marine biology.  He made a number of important contributions to these areas, particularly through his development and application of microscopy to materials such as thin sections of rock and metals, pioneering the field of microscopical petrography.  His studies resulted in, among other things insights into the process of 'slaty cleavage' that led to his election as a Fellow of the Royal Society at the age of 31.

He is quoted as saying: "In those early days people laughed at me. They quoted Saussure who had said that it was not a proper thing to examine mountains with microscopes, and ridiculed my action in every way. Most luckily I took no notice of them."

He went on to apply microscopical examination techniques to meteorites, manufactured metals, and biological materials.  He devised the technique of spectroscopic microscopy which among other things allowed the detection of minute quantities of materials such as blood otherwise invisible to the eye.

Henry Clifton Sorby - aboard the yacht 'Glimpse'

In 1878 he purchased a large yacht, "Glimpse" and having equipped her as a laboratory and survey vessel, he spent considerable portions of the next 20 year cruising the North Sea coast, pursuing his scientific interests, in geology and marine biology.

He published about 250 scientific papers in his lifetime, was president of various learned societies, and received a range of scientific honours, though he never moved away from Sheffield.  He was a strong advocate of higher education, and worked along with Mark Firth (after whom Firth Hall is named) to promote this. He was vice-president, then president, of Firth College (1881-1897), vice-president of the University College of Sheffield (1897-1905), and served on the Council of the University of Sheffield after its establishment in 1905 until his death in 1908.  In his will he endowed a Professorship in Geology, and a research fellowship for the pursuit of original scientific research.

The Sorby Natural History Society, founded in 1918, was named after him, as have been various research institutes (including a wartime medical research unit based in Animal and Plant Sciences), and a range of medals for scientific achievement presented by various learned societies.

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The Sorby slides

As part of his interest in marine biology Sorby developed and perfected a method of preparing and mounting marine organisms on glass lantern slides, clearing and staining the specimens, meaning they could be projected onto a screen for viewing. The quality of his technique and work is evident in the fact that these slides are still exquisitely clear and beautiful over a century later. A collection of the Sorby slides is held in Animal and Plant Sciences, and photographs of a selection of these are shown below.

Sorby slide - bristleworm

Sorby slide - sea mouse

Sorby slide - sea cucumber (dissection)

Sorby slide - fanworm

Sorby slide - jellyfish 2

Sorby slide - jellyfish

Sorby slide - great spider crab

Sorby slide - peacock fanworm

Sorby slide - cuttlefish