September 9, 2009

Anna’s Gift

A researcher’s ‘pet’ finds its way back home to the School of Dental Medicine

By Julie Flaherty

The Austrian-made microscope that Anna Quincy Churchill presented to young protégé, Vincent Lisanti, in 1951. Photo: Vito Aluia

Cleaning out a closet in his North Bergen, N.J., home not long ago, Vincent Lisanti, D42, stumbled across an old friend. It was the familiar black wooden box with a key attached, and inside was the heavy brass microscope that had been a constant companion for much of his research career.

Should he give it to a high school, he wondered? To his son? His granddaughter?

“You know what?” he said to himself, “this ought to go home.”

Home, in this case, is Tufts Dental School, where more than a half-century ago a professor made a gift of the microscope to a young dental researcher. Lisanti was a rising star in the school’s laboratories when Anna Quincy Churchill, the long-serving histology professor who was nearing retirement, sent a message asking him to come to her office. Given that he hadn’t been a stellar student in her class, Lisanti was surprised to hear from her, and even more surprised when she said she wanted to make a contribution to his research. She handed him one of her microscopes.

“She felt that being one of her students—mediocre or otherwise—I could put the microscope to use,” Lisanti says.

The Austrian-made microscope, which was manufactured between 1925 and 1926, was already well-worn and a little outdated when he got it in 1951. “It was like a horse and wagon versus a Cadillac,” Lisanti says. But it served its purpose. Countless slides of tissues, blood and saliva passed beneath its lenses. Perhaps its greatest achievement was helping determine that hyaluronidase, an enzyme found in saliva and associated with the spread of infection, was caused by bacteria.  

“It was always on my desk,” Lisanti says of the instrument, which he called his “pet.” It followed him from the various labs he established. By the mid 1950s, Lisanti, an associate professor of dental research at Tufts, had become the largest individual grant and contract holder in biology in the United States, and Tufts was the preeminent oral research center. He took the microscope with him when he left Tufts in 1958 to found the Institute of Somatological Research in Cambridge, Mass. It stayed close to him until 1973, when he stopped actively working in the lab and began overseeing grants. That’s when it went in the closet. It waited there patiently until last fall, when Lisanti mailed it to Dean Lonnie Norris “as a reminder that TUSDM was a great dental centerpiece.”

Although the microscope probably commanded a good price when new, its value today is primarily sentimental, said Raymond Giordano, a microscope collector, appraiser of scientific instruments and owner of the Antiquarian Scientist in Southampton, Mass.

“They were substantial, well-designed, useful instruments of their day,” Giordano says. “It was the kind typically bought for physicians-in-training. Doctors in that period generally had to own their own microscope.”

The microscope still works, despite some tarnish and rust and a couple of missing parts, including the small illuminator box that once threw light up through the bottom of the stage. Lisanti hasn’t given up hope of finding that part, though. “It might turn up in the cellar here somewhere,” he says.

Julie Flaherty can be reached at

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