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Hudson's Transparencies - rediscovered at Exeter University

PUBLISHED: 17:04 14 November 2012 | UPDATED: 22:21 20 February 2013

wo rotifers – Testudinella, a strange, swan-necked ciliated protozoan, Lacrymaria, and a desmid alga, Pediastrum

wo rotifers – Testudinella, a strange, swan-necked ciliated protozoan, Lacrymaria, and a desmid alga, Pediastrum

Sea-lilies, rotifers, aquatic insects and fresh water Bryozoa are some of the life forms illustrated on a unique series of transparencies recently rediscovered at Exeter University

Hudsons Transparencies

Sea-lilies, rotifers, aquatic insects and fresh water Bryozoa are some of the life forms illustratedon a unique series of transparencies recentlyrediscovered at Exeter University

WORDS AND Photos by Robin Wootton

In a storeroom in one of Exeter Universitys laboratory buildings, neatly stacked, are 58 curious, unattractive-looking paintings. Each is about a metre high, in a wooden frame, without glass or any kind of backing.
These are the Hudson Transparencies transparencies, because they were designed to be lit from behind, in a dark room. Those of us who worked in the building paid them little attention. Occasionally on Open Days one or two would be brought out and displayed, not very well, as curiosities. With them would be a sheet of paper, explaining that they were made in the 19th century by Charles Hudson FRS, to illustrate his lectures.
For some years it seemed to me that these should be photographed and recorded, but other things always got in the way and in any case, not being a particularly good photographer, I doubted if I was the right person to do it. Then came digital photography, with the capability of getting good pictures in low light, and in late 2010 I spent two days in a dark lecture theatre photographing them one by one, properly back-lit as Hudson intended.
The results were astonishing. Nothing had prepared me for the sheer beauty of the pictures, and the alien weirdness of the animals they illustrated. Hudson painted on thin, translucent paper, pricking through it where he wanted highlights, and masking the rest with thick brown paper so that the background appears jet-black. The impact on his audiences must have been dramatic.
In the meantime, I had found out a good deal about Charles Hudson. He was a Bristol schoolteacher, head of a private school on Clifton Downs. He was also a passionate microscopist, a President and Honorary Fellow of the Royal Microscopical Society; and in his career he became perhaps the world authority on the rotifers.
Rotifers? Most people have never heard of them, but they are around us in countless billions, in every pond, ditch, stream, river, lake, even in the sea. They are tiny they include the smallest of all multicellular animals. Victorian microscopists called them wheel animalcules because they feed with little circlets of cilia hair-like structures that beat in waves, looking like minute rotating wheels. Try putting rotifer into You Tube and enjoy.

Creatures that swim with their hair, that have ruby eyes blazing deep in their necks, who creep without feet, seize without hands and eat without mouths

Hudson knew over 1,000 species; today we know around 2,030. They are very varied. Many live permanently attached to the substrate, usually in slender tubes. Others loop around like microscopic leeches, while some swim freely, feeding on suspended debris and even smaller plants and animals. The great Devon naturalist Philip Henry Gosse, also a rotifer expert, described them as creatures that swim with their hair, that have ruby eyes blazing deep in their necks, who creep without feet, seize without hands and eat without mouths, and in 1886 and 1889 he and Hudson published the definitive 19th Century monograph on the group in two beautifully illustrated volumes, The Rotifera, or Wheel Animalcules, now readable online at
But not all the transparencies are of rotifers. There are little squid; the larvae of crabs, sea-lilies, aquatic insects; beautiful fresh water Bryozoa try You Tube again for some amazing sequences and a few microscopic algae. There are single-celled protozoans: amoebae; spherical heliozoans with a halo of slender filaments like a tiny floating sunburst; cilates in elaborate branching colonies. It is easy to see why 19th-century microscopists, seeing these for the first time, were enraptured.
Cataloguing the transparencies has been a challenge. Most have labels, but the names of many of the animals have changed and it has been necessary to sort out their identities from checklists, and in some cases to consult experts. I have learned a great deal along the way.
If Hudson was Bristol-based, how did the transparencies come to Exeter University? Hudson retired first to Dawlish, but moved after nine years to the Isle of Wight, where he died in 1903. We dont know if he brought the transparencies to Devon, but we do know that they were given in 1939 to the University College of the South West, the Universitys precursor, by the widow of FR Rowley, the long-term Director of the Royal Albert Memorial Museum. Rowley was himself a keen microscopist and a Fellow of the Royal Microscopical Society. He may well have known Hudson, or may have acquired the transparencies after his death.
The work needed publishing, and I chose to do so in the Transactions of the Devonshire Association. The DA has been furthering the knowledge and appreciation of everything to do with Devon for exactly 150 years, and the transparencies, though they originated in Bristol, have probably been in Devon for a century.
What happens to these amazing pictures now? The University will certainly look after them. A dark, dry store room has been the ideal place to keep them - there is no apparent fading or decay. But they are almost impossible to display properly, and computer images seem by far the best way of allowing people to see and enjoy them, as the computer screen gives the proper back-lit effect far better than paper can.
Publishing in the Transactions has allowed me to put the whole series of photographs online. Those shown in this article are just a few examples; do look at the others on the Associations web site, at - click on Transactions.

Then look at the rest of the DAs site. How about joining?

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