Microscope parties

David Fairchild and the World within the Microscope

by Janet Mosely

"All my life it has seemed strange to me that the vast majority of human beings are content with only hearsay accounts of the wonders found 'through the microscope.' It is a breath-taking world, filled with myriads of strange and fascinating objects which the naked eye could never see." - Dr. David Fairchild (The World Was My Garden, pg.10)

David Fairchild was fascinated by the hidden world shown only through the lens of a microscope.  Much of his early career was spent examining algae and ants, parasites and fungi. His great patron, Barbour Lathrop, nicknamed him “Algie”.  This nickname probably reflected the fact that, when Lathrop offered to pay for Fairchild to travel to Java, Fairchild put him off for two years while he studied ants and algae in Naples and then cellular biology in Germany. Even after their travels together began, Lathrop often chastened young Fairchild for stopping overlong to collect insects and fungi.  Happily, they worked out a relationship where Fairchild also learned the more cosmopolitan arts of travel as well as the necessarily quicker skills of a plant explorer.

The Book of Monsters (National Geographic Society, 1914) was Dr. Fairchild’s first published book.  The monsters of the title are the insects and spiders which inhabit our homes and gardens.  Along with his wife Marian, he magnified and photographed spiders and crickets, katydids, and cockroaches, among others.  These images were the first that many had ever seen magnified to such an extent, and from the insects' eye-level. It most definitely achieved its purpose of exposing the hidden world of the woodland and meadow to non-scientists. In the introduction to The Book of Monsters, Marian and David wrote that the book was “…produced in the playtime hours of two busy people…” (The Book of Monsters, p.6-7)  


Wasp (for The Book of Monsters), 1912.
Photo by David Fairchild. Archive/FTBG.


That Marian and David Fairchilds’ “playtime hours” were full of scientific pursuits is evident in their desire to include their children and grandchildren in those activities. They made the observation and study of the natural world an everyday part of their family life.  Nowhere is this more evident than in some charming photographs taken by a family friend, Frederick Tudor, in 1946. In the photos, Fairchild is surrounded by his grandchildren and their friends who gathered at The Kampong for friendship, fun and lessons with the handheld lens. 

Fairchild with children David Fairchild II
Dr. David Fairchild gives handheld lenses (small microscopes) to his grandchildren and their friends at The Kampong, 1946.

David Fairchild II at The Kampong.
From The World Grows Round My Door, p. 244

A recently discovered handwritten scrap in the archive has the rough draft of a delightful little poem written by Dr. Fairchild. He notes that he wrote the poem and gave it to his grandson with a handheld lens for Christmas.     

“I have a little microscope
I keep it in my pocket
Or up around my neck
As if it were a locket.
It has a little window
Through which I look and see
The great big eyes of dragon flies
And stings of bumble bee.
I watch the little things all day
The bugs and spiders at their play.
I can see their eyes and legs
As clear as clear can be.
I love my books and dolls and toys
And everything that makes a noise.
But I like better just to be
With my little window underneath the tree.”

A true Pied Piper of scientific study, David Fairchild was known to carry handheld lenses in his pockets and hand them out to children as he met them at the Garden or on the street.  The Garden’s Education Department continues this tradition and children who participate receive handheld lenses to take home with them to discover the hidden wonders in their own backyards.

 Return to Library and Archive home

Unless otherwise stated, all photographs on this page property of Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden.
Please contact the Archivist for permission to use or reproduce photographs.

Please contact:
Nancy Korber
Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden Center for Tropical Plant Conservation
11935 Old Cutler Road
Miami, Florida 33156 USA
tel. 305/667-1651, ext. 3424
fax 305/665-8032