A small group of Harvard scientists working in a stone building several blocks behind MIT have succeeded in unlocking the doors that have blocked man from seeing brilliant colors in regions that have in the past been visible only as murky, drab swirls.
These colors, caused by minute variations in the chemical characteristics of the cells that make up living tissue, have enabled cancer researchers to probe deeper than ever before into the mysterious factors that differentiate healthy tissue from cancerous tissue.
The device that makes the research possible is a color translating, ultraviolet microscope developed by the Polaroid Comporation, a Cambridge firm that astounded the optical world 12 years ago by producing the first practical means of polarizing light.
The new microscope, which cost a third of a million dollars to develop and build, is so revolutionary in principle that scientists associated with the project had to start practically from scratch anl develop whole new areas of theory. According to William A. Shurcliff '40, Polaroid physicist who co-ordinated teams of physicists, chemists, and biologists on the project. "We had to throw everything we knew about microscopes out of the window."
Math Took a Year
The most remarkable piece of research done in making the microscope was the was the objective lens designed by David S. Gray '40, Gray's problem was to design a high-powered lens that would be simultaneously transparent to both ultra-violet and normal light without re-focussing. Mathematical calculations alone took the young scientist, who is regarded as among the five or so top lens designers in the world, over a year.
The new lens was the fundamental stumbling block, and once it was completed, other men went to work on an apparatus that would house the tiny piece of glass and enable it to perform its amazing function. Robert C. Jones '38, designed an electronic brain that instantly calculates the exposure settings on the camera to which the lens is coupled. Murray N. Fairbank '28, chief engineer on the project, developed the maze of machinery that feeds the film through the equipment and develops it in a minute's time.
Extends Vision Whole Octave
Performance of the machine has shown its possibilities to be almost limitless. It extends the range of man's color vision down one whole octave into the shorter wave length to a region never seen before. This is done by making use of the ultra-violet light emitted by living tissues when photographed under the extremely short wavelengths of ultraviolet light.
Three different photographs of a specimen are taken on film sensitive to the ultraviolet end of the light spectrum. These three exposures are made at three different wavelengths which correspond to the fundamental red, yellow, and blue of ordinary light. In the few seconds after exposure the instrument develops the films, dries them, and projects them through color filters onto a viewing screen.
Cancer Shown in Red
The result is a picture of the specimen that is in full color, while to the ordinary microscope, human tissue is completely colorless. Amazing things have been seen with the new instrument. Cancerous cells, which have heretofore in many cases been impossible to distinguish from healthy tissue, have been seen on the screen as flaming red inflammations on the green background of normal tissue. These colors are produced by chemical reactions within the cells.
Biologists are tremendously excited by the microscope. The variations in color between healthy and diseased cells may lead to a better understanding of the whole life process Shurcliff says the device offers "new eyes to see a whole world."