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The microtome – a brief history of microtomes

Microtomes are tools used to ‘section’ a range of different materials. ‘Sectioning’ in this usage means to cut materials into very thin slices, which are subsequently examined under a microscope. But when was the humble microtome invented, and by whom?

The invention of the microtome is difficult to pinpoint exactly due to varying sources citing different stages of microtome development. Some suggest it was invented as far back as 1770, while occasionally it is attributed to being 1865 (some argue 1866),  by a Swiss Anatomist by the name of Wilhelm His who was dedicating his research largely to the study of human embryos.

Aside from the somewhat confusing early days of the microtome, there’s no question that the technology, choice and application of these instruments has evolved exponentially.

In fact, there are now three main classifications of microtomes, and within this, at least a further 13 individuals types of microtomes.

5040 rotary microtome side image

The main categories of microtomes are:

  • Manual microtomes
  • Semi-automatic microtomes
  • Automatic microtomes

Manual microtomes can further be divided into:

Automatic microtomes can further be divided into:

  • Laser microtome
  • Computer microtome
  • Ultra-thin computer microtome

While the history of the microtome is very fascinating, the future is even more so. As technology and understanding in pathology and histopathology continue to advance, humanity itself benefits, whether it’s a medical or technological application for the humble microtome.

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