The History of Diatoms

Diatoms have only been effectively studied since the mid 19th century, although study of diatoms exploded in popularity along with the popularisation of the optical microscope.

Friedrich Hustedt

Friedrich Hustedt. (image source)

However, diatoms gained a reputation for being hard to study, partially because of the high powered microscopes needed to do so effectively, and so research went into decline.  Friedrich Hustedt, one of the most famous diatomists from 1900-1960, had to work as a high school teacher along side his research in order to support his family, as there was little to no funding available in the field. Hustedt described over 2000 diatom taxa, he also had the largest private diatom collection in the world, which is currently stored at the Afred Wegener Institute in Germany (link).

North America had many people who were interested in,and published papers about, diatoms in this era, but the majority were hobbyists or specialists who were not part of a university. Anther factor that held back the development of diatoms as a research topic, is that many of the papers published at this time contained little new information other than describing new species.

One electron microscopes and high-powered computers became more available in the late 1950’s, research into diatoms began to flourish, and the field continues to expand today. Diatoms: Applications for the Environmental and Earth Sciences states that: “Taxa have been described at a rate of about 400 per year over the past three decades, and this rate appears to be accelerating in recent years.”

Diatoms: Applications for the Environmental and Earth Sciences suggests that the history of diatom research be split into three broad categories:

Diatom arrangement by Klaus Kemp. (image source)

Diatom arrangement by Klaus Kemp. (image source)

  1. “The era of exploration” – 1830-1900. Largely descriptive, discovery of new taxa, life cycles, locations, and basic physical structure.
  2. “The era of systemisation” – 1900-1970. Attempts to simplify the complex world of diatoms, in part to ease sharing information with nom-specialists.
  3. “The era of objectification” – present. Powerful computers allow us to predict and model diatom growth and occurrance, allowing for diatoms to be used as research tools themselves.

Ending on a lighter note, a novel use of diatoms dating back to the Victorian era, is samples of diatoms mounted on slides as art. The diatoms are mounted on a slow-drying glue, and historically were arranged using a pig’s eyelash. Modern diatomist, Klaus Kemp, is one of the last known diatom artists, and some of his arrangements can be found on his website, Microlife Services. Embedded below is a short film (less than 5 minutes) about Klaus Kemp, directed by Matthew Killip. It is a stunning piece of work, and I highly recommend you watch it.

The Diatomist from Matthew Killip on Vimeo.

Reference

Stoermer, E. and Smol, J. (2004). The Diatoms: Applications for the Environmental and Earth Sciences. 2nd ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, pp.3-8.

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