A minor departure..

..from my usual Friday geeky plant post.

My recent Guest in Jest post for Linda reminded me that in a cupboard in my office I have a rather attractive box containing Magic Lantern slides which I found whilst clearing out old photographic gear at work prior to our relocation 15 years ago. I decided to dig it out and investigate.

The only labelled slide indicates that it is either the original or, more likely, a professional reproduction of a figure from this paper published in the Journal of Ecology in 1939.



This makes sense given the box was found in the cellar of an ecological research establishment. The establishment was founded in the late 1950s so I am guessing the slides belonged to one of the first senior staff.

The photo itself was taken by one R J Lythgoe. R J Lythgoe was the son-in-law of Sir Arthur Tansley who was the founder and first editor of the above journal. Lythgoe also took photographs for Tansley’s own work. One of the authors of the above paper had been a student of Tansley’s.

Tansley, incidentally, was the first chairman of the British Nature Conservancy. This was the fore-runner of my current employer. Another link is his founding (in 1902) of the journal New Phytologist in which I co-authored one of my first scientific papers in 1999.

Interestingly the only references I can find to a Dr R J Lythgoe around this time are papers and books on visual perception. I do not know if this is the same R J Lythgoe but an interest in photography would seem to fit.

Many of the rest of the slides in the box are amateur pictures of forests and trees but there are also a number of slides of rather evocative street scenes and a number of scenes that appear to be from Minnesota in the US. Including a number of pictures of the University campus. Looking at the cars etc I am guessing these date from the 1940s. My reproduction (using my camera phone and a lightbox) is not good but you can get the idea.


Source of the Mississippi, Minnesota


Coffman Memorial Union. University of Minnesota.

So my theory is these slides were left behind after the retirement of an ecologist who had been on a conference or field trip to the University of Minnesota in the 1940s. Later in their career (1950s/1960s) they then ended up working for the institution I work for now.

There is a connection between the University of Minnesota and Tansley at around this time. Tansley was the first to coin the term ‘ecosystem’, a concept that was taken up by the quantitative ecology team in Minnesota and resulted in the seminal work by Raymond Lindeman which formed his PhD thesis at the university in 1942 (and which was eventually published posthumously as he died in his 20s from Hepatitis).

I am no nearer to identifying the original owner of these slides but the detective work so far has been interesting.




  1. There are often treasures found in storage places at old universities. They recently found a machine used by a Nobel Price Researcher in a storage space at the University of Illinois that they had no clue existed. So your theory seems very plausible. Such an interesting blog post. You know how much I like good mystery and detective work! BTW I don’t know if this R. J. Lythgoe is related to Jonathan Lythgoe, the author of The Ecology of Vision. But you may like to know that J. Lythgoe is considered the Father of Ecology of Vision! My hubby is a big fan of his work.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Now that is interesting and I had not heard of John Lythgoe. I wonder if there is a connection? Sounds plausible as it would be quite a coincidence otherwise. Although there is another Darren Sleep working in environmental science – in Canada! Thank you for this information – it makes me even more intrigued!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I am very intrigued as well by this connection. You must know that one of Tansley’s daughter, Katharine, married a Lythgoe? I saw this on Wiki. Which Lythgoe I don’t know yet. Katharine died in 1988. My hubby thinks John Lythgoe died in the 1990 but he is not sure. Must investigate further.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Yes. I believe Tansleys daughter married the photographer R J Lythgoe. What I do not know is if this is the same R J Lythgoe working in the vision field at the same time. I suspect it is. Possibly it could be the same John Lythgoe who published the book in 1979 and died in 1990 but that John Lythgoe could just as easily be R J’s son. The J in RJ could be John.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. I find this incredibly interesting! I love a good mystery and the box they are stored in is quite a beautiful piece in itself. What is exciting about this is the link to Tansley. His notable works about vascular plants is some of my favorite. I love a plant that works much like a human body. These pictures are truly fantastic. What an amazing discovery! Good detective work πŸ’Ÿ

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Oh, thank you Lisa. Tansley is a hero of mine too!

      I love the craftsmanship of the box as well and it is one of the reasons I hung on to it. It reminds me of old microscope boxes and you know what I am like about old microscopes!
      Have a lovely weekend! πŸ˜ŠπŸ’•

      Liked by 2 people

  3. There is a part of me that wants to delve into the mysteries surrounding these images. What’s the Minnesota connection? Oh, there are so many questions. I am struggling to restrain myself. The box is a great find, for sure.

    Liked by 2 people

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