McArthur microscope and Japan

The microscope invented by John McArthur is recorded as the world smallest high power microscope in the 1974 edition of "The Guinness Book of Records". He is a recipient of many awards for his ingenious design including two Design Council Awards and the Duke of Edinburgh's Prize for Design, and is elected as honorary fellow of various societies [1].

Though this fact has been well-known among microscopists in the western world, but relatively unknown is his relation with Japan. The purpose of this note is to present pieces of my recollection about this, directly told by Dr. John McArthur and the Japanese, Mr. Tatsuo Inagawa.

Photo 1.
McArthur portable microscope
(biological model) with the
leather case.

Fortunately I had a privilege of acquainting John McArthur and his family, when I was working as a visiting scientist at the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge and they extended warm hospitality to our family throughout our stay there from 1972 to 1973, and from 1982 to 1983. (By the way, I nearly hit the centenary celebration of the inauguration of the Cavendish Laboratory, and I was very lucky to be in both of the pictures of the old and the new Cavendish of 1972 and 73, respectively. The former is printed in Crowther's book, "The Cavendish Laboratory 1874-1974".)

One day in July 1972, my wife and I with my small child were invited by Mrs. Ruth McArthur to her home at Landbeach, a small village nearby Cambridge. At the first greetings I immediately recognised that John, Ruth's husband, is a man of warm personality. He was proud of being of Scottish origin.

As soon as I introduced myself that I was a physicist from Tokyo, he said that he was a researcher of tropical diseases and now he was designing and developing compact portable microscopes. He began to tell me of his early life in Borneo, a quite amazing story. The following is what he told me:

I was studying malaria in Borneo, and was captured and confined in a camp by the Japanese army during World War II. Fortunately, however, Mr. Inagawa, a high rank officer of the army administration, understood the importance of the research, and encouraged me to continue. He provided me with supporting money for research and even milk for my baby [2] under the difficult circumstances of getting foods.

During my research I desperately felt the need of the portable microscope usable in fields and under the kerosene lamp in a tent. After the release from imprisonment I started developing compact microscopes with full versatility suitable for research. I am currently very busy in pursuing the ultimate design of models of various types, including the surface inspection model, to my complete satisfaction.

Photo 2.
McArthur family with a big
Japanese kite of carp when they
visited us in Cambridge.
The carp is decorated outside like
a flag to pray for the health of
boys around Boy's Day (5th of May)
in Japan.
From left: Anna, John's sister Isa,
Ruth, Ian and John,
my family: young Jun, my wife
Tomoko and the writer.
(April 1973)

Photo 3.
McArthur family at Landbeach
Second from left, Ruth, Tomoko,
Anna, Jun, John and Ian.
(August 1973)

I asked him to show his invention. The instrument is quite compact and measures 10 cm x 6.8 (8.3 with the lamp house)cm x 5 cm. In spite of its compactness it is quite versatile with magnification of 100x, 400x, and 1000x with oil immersion. Further it has a condenser lens with an iris stop, and a stage and fine focusing. The most ingenious part of the design is the deflection of the optical path, twice by prisms; this makes it possible to be amazingly compact with the merit of auto-focusing nature because of the inverted optical path. Another remarkable and enjoyable feature is that it is possible to examine micro-organisms living in water in vivo with a glass vessel owing to this inverted optical path. He is developing this model by himself with the help of the factory nearby the village.

He said he had no intention of getting the patent for what he designed, but it was aimed solely for the progress of researches in fields. He added that he had a chance to visit Japan (probably in 1954 when he attended the WHO conference held in the Philippines), and contacted a Japanese optical firm and proposed to produce and sell the instrument of his design. But no agreement was reached at that time. John found later, however, that this firm produced a copy of his design and began to sell. It didn't last, though [3]. I was surprised to hear this story and naturally felt ashamed. He further continued to tell that he was developing a cheaper plastic model for the use of bare foot doctors in Africa and soon the design would be completed.

When Emperor Hirohito visited England in 1971, he had the honour to demonstrate his microscope to the Emperor on the occasion of his visit to the Royal Society to receive an honorary doctorate. Indeed John showed me the photo of this occasion. The Emperor is a biologist keen on microscopes; he has publications on hydrozoa and plants in Japan. He had been in the posession of the McArthur microscope which was presented by Princess Alexandra when she visited Japan in November 1961.

Photo 4.
John McArthur demonstrating his
microscope to the Emperor at
the Royal Society.
(6th October 1971. Photo courtesy
of Dr. John McArthur)

Further, he asked me to find Mr. Inagawa, as he wanted to thank Mr. Inagawa personally for kindness extended to him which can not be expected during the wartime. Apparently he had a chance to greet Mr. Inagawa's children when he visited Tokyo, but failed to meet Mr. Inagawa himself [4]. He asked me also if it is possible to meet the Emperor if he visits Japan again. I said that the possibility might be small, but I agreed to help him find Mr. Inagawa.

My family and I came back to Japan in the end of 1973. Luckily I could find Mr. Inagawa in a short time, and informed John of his address. I learned later, however, that they failed to communicate with each other for unknown reasons; John wrote letters to Mr. Inagawa without any responses.

To clear up these circumstances I decided to meet Mr. Inagawa, and this materialised in May 1975 at his office in Tokyo. I conveyed the best regards from John, and he remembered John very well. He told me his reminiscences very vividly [5]:

Photo 5.
Tatsuo Inagawa at his office.
(May 1975)

I was dispatched as a civilian administrator to Jesselton (now Kota Kinabalu), North Borneo in May 1942, and became 'gunsei bucho' (literally, chief administrator of the occupied territory under the auspices of the army) of the 37th Division Army Headquarters in North Borneo in 1945. One day I found the name McArthur in the list of the captured who has the same name as American General's. General's first name is Douglas and the name on the list was John, a British civilian. He had graduated from Cambridge University (in fact, John read medicine at the University College London. Reference [1] is incorrect in this. I am indebted to Mrs. Ruth McArthur and Dr. Malcolm McArthur for this correction) and was a researcher of malaria. As a considerable number of Japanese soldiers were infected by malaria then, I was interested in him naturally, and had conversation (or interrogation) with him offering a chair to his wife, Kitty, which was not standard at that time.

As I believed that researchers should not stop their researches even in wartime, I decided to release him from imprisonment immediately, and offered him a doctor's residence of the public hospital and two horses for carrying instruments for research. Further I gave him a special document of permission, saying

As this person is a researcher of malaria mosquitoes, I grant, hereby, his free travels inside of the occupied territory.

I offered him 75 yen monthly for his research from my pocket in disguise of the official money --- a third of my monthly salary, and milk which was difficult to obtain then for his three month old baby, Malcolm. I remember that he showed me larvae of malaria mosquitoes and learned that their flying distance is about 1.5 miles.

When I became ill and stayed in a hospital, the military police, unhappy about my protection of the McArthur family, moved them to a distant camp, 1,000 km away, which was not under my control. When the war ended, I still remember the occasion when he visited me. He was glad to find out my internment camp finally, saying that he would not be able to see me any more as he was departing for England on the following day.

I came back to Japan in April of 1946, and served as assistant barrister for POWs. I worked in several Public Prosecutors Offices, and retired from the public service as the Director of High Public Prosecutors Office in Sendai in 1968. I also had the privilege of meeting the Emperor in 1966. (High rank officers such as the Director of High Public Prosecutors Office were directly ordered, historically speaking, by the Emperor.)

Around 1954, Dr. McArthur visited Tokyo. Unfortunately, I could not meet him, because I was in Kagoshima at that time. My children received and greeted him at my home in Tokyo, instead. (Shigeri, the youngest daughter, wrote to me later that she helped her brother and sister serve John with 'sukiyaki'.) I am now a guest professor of Waseda University and working as a chief legal advisor of a private enterprise, Sankei Newspaper. I have a son, Akira, banker, and two daughters. Tsuruko is now a professor of psychiatry and Shigeri married to a lawyer.

I regret to know too late that Dr. McArthur is living in Cambridgeshire, as I made a tour to London and Oxford in the summer of 1971. If I had known earlier, certainly I would have visited him.

When I was leaving his office, Mr. Inagawa promised to write to John. I informed John of my interview of Mr. Inagawa. Time separating John and Inagawa is so long, and made both of them aged and unable to meet together.

The story of reconnaissance thereafter was reported by The Fuji Evening News, a popular tabloid newspaper, on 13 June, 1975, under the headline of "Anglo-Japanese bondage established under the warfare in Borneo". The excerpt translation reads:

A letter saying, I have not known for thirty years that you, who released me, a POW during the World War II, had supported my research with your pocket money ---, arrived in Japan several days ago from Britain. Dr. John McArthur (73 years old) is the writer who is an honorary member of the Royal Society of prominent British scientists. The receiver is Mr. Inagawa (70 years old), a lawyer, and formerly the Director of the Bureau of Civil Rights, Ministry of Justice, the Director of the Public Prosecutors Office of Sendai District, etc. Both of them acquainted as enemies in the battlefield of North Borneo, and have not been able to communicate each other after the war. Having received an unexpected letter, says Mr. Inagawa, Too much for me to be thanked. But I wish we could meet together, though both of us become aged.

Photo 6.
John McArthur at his work room.
(October 1977)
Photo 7.
Celebrating Christmas in the Scottish way
at McArthur's home.
From left: Ian, John, Ruth, Anna McArthur,
Jun, Tomoko, Mika Saitoh in the clockwise
order around the table.
(December 1982)

They finally succeeded in exchanging communications with each other, I believe.

Mr. Inagawa did not tell nor I asked much about his own life in Borneo when I interviewed him. In his essays "Hohtoh Yoteki (Dew Drops out of Legal Lights)", Mr. Inagawa elaborated some of his personal war-time experiences in Borneo.

After the defeat of the Imperial Japanese Navy off Island Leyte late in 1944, we faced shortage of everything: 10 grams of rice a day among others not to mention lack of ammunition.

When the war ended, the Japanese were ordered to move to the spots at the seaside by the allied army, some 70 miles from the place where we stayed. In replacement of the military officer, I organised the march to there. At the departure we bought vegetable seeds to supplement the shortage of foods. With the 15 kg luggage and few of foods each, it took four days to reach there on foot. And then we were moved to several places by boat before arriving at the final camp where we were interned. About ten thousand Japanese were gathered there. We had to do vegetation by ourselves in camp to get fresh vegetables, though the Australian army fed us with some solid foods (biscuits?) and dried vegetables but they were not really suited to the health of the Japanese.

One day I was brought to be examined in front of the natives, if I had done wrong doings. One Chinese native accused me, but all the rest testified against his claim and praised me instead, and so I was omitted fortunately from the list of POWs for trials.

Dr. Malcolm McArthur, son of John, kindly informed me what happened to him during the war.

Much has been made of the atrocities during the war, but there were also many good stories that seldom seem to be told... sadly! One I have that you will like is the following:

One day, in internment camp in Kuching, the camp Commandant --- I think his name was Colonel Suga --- came round and saw me and complimented my Mother on having such a healthy looking infant. My Mother said "Thank you… but he won't be healthy for long as I don't have any milk for him." The Commandant moved on. And next day a crate of sweetened condensed milk arrived for me!

I also have happy memories of riding in Colonel Suga's car. He used to take children for rides sometimes.

Infant Malcolm could have a peaceful moment even in the harshest conditions for the family in internment camp.

A McArthur microscope is a rare item in Japan, and I bought a biological model personally in 1977 for the memory of friendship with John and his family. This, I believe, is one of the two existing in Japan, the other one being stored in the Imperial Palace as the gift to the Emperor by Princess Alexandra.


I am grateful to Mrs. Shigeri Ishizuka for her detailed information about the Inagawa family and to Mrs. Ruth McArthur for her information. I am indebted to Dr. Malcolm McArthur for informing me of his war-time experiences, clarifying some dates and for the critical reading of the note.

Motohiko Saitoh(February 2006)


[1] B. Bracegirdle, J. Microscopy, Vol. 183, Pt. 2, 110 (1996).
John Norrie McArthur was born in Glasgow on the 9th November 1901, and died on the 26th April 1996. He was made honorary fellow of the Linnean Society and of the Royal Microscopical Society, honorary member of the Quekett Microscopical Club, and received the honorary doctorate of the Open University. He also won many prizes including two Design Council Awards in 1970 and 1972, the Duke of Edinburgh's Prize for Design in 1972, and the SIMS Annual Award 1973-1974 from the State Microscopical Society of Illinois.

[2] In 1938 John went to British North Borneo as a research officer of the Colonial Office and began to work on malaria. John had his first son, Malcolm (born in Tambunan, North Borneo on the 3rd January 1942) with his first wife, Kitty Carey (9th January 1901-1962. The year of Kitty's passing away, 1952 quoted in [1] is not correct). After the war the family came back to London and remained there until Kitty's death in 1962 before moving to Landbeach. Malcolm started medical studies at King's College, London in 1961, became a medical doctor, moved to Botswana, initiated Flying Mission in 1977, and is now retired in Tongue by Lairg, Scotland. On 5th April 1963 John remarried Ruth Payne (24th November 1932-) and had a daughter, Anna (born on 31st May 1965, now a garden designer) and a son, Ian (born on 16th July 1967, now a writer) with her. I am indebted to Dr. Malcolm McArthur and Mrs. Ruth McArthur for the information.

[3] Later in his letter dated the 30th September 1983 to me, John states:

... I should say at the beginning that three Japanese firms have tried without my knowledge to make my instrument, but have failed because they have tried to do it themselves and have not understood fully what my aim and direction was.

In 1954 I attended the WHO conference on malaria in the Philippines, and after demonstrating my instrument there I was invited to visit the Nikon factory in Tokyo where I understood that this firm would be interested in manufacture, but on my return home they decided against this.

A year or two later, however, the same firm placed on the market a copy of my instrument, actually I believe from my publications of 1945. This early Nikon microscope missed many of the advantages of my own design, and could not accept the wide range of accessories which had been described particularly for laboratory work. I found that it was excellent optically but was poor mechanically, and with several major faults.

Since then this Nikon instrument has remained on the market, particularly I believe in the U.S.A., but people tell me that they are disappointed with it because it lacks the versatility of mine and in other ways. ...

[4] In his letter dated the 21st August, 1974, John stresses the charm of the Inagawas:

... If you do find it possible to speak to him I would be grateful to know. He was friendly and generous to me at a time when it must have been extremely difficult for him to be so, and I was disappointed not to be able to see him and thank him personally when I was later in Japan.

I remember his son, who was courteous and kindly to me in Tokyo, and his daughter who was making what I thought were beautiful and promising pictures, and I would be glad to know how they are and what they are doing.

In particular I appreciated his daughter Tsuruko who was studying medicine. She interested me because she was following my own line of work and so we understood each other, and because I admired her character. I would be glad to know if she has achieved her dream of becoming a surgeon and if she is happy.

But if you could have a word with Mr. Inagawa himself I would greatly appreciate if you could give him my warmest greetings, and tell him that I have written to him on several occasions but perhaps I have the wrong address, and that I would like him to know that with the passing of the years I have never forgotten his courtesy and kindness at a time when it must have been very difficult for him to show this. I regard him as one of the most truly great gentlemen I have ever met, and it has been my regret that it has never been possible again to meet.

[5] Tatsuo Inagawa (1905-1994)
Born in Sendai on the 6th February 1905. Baptised when he was the 4th grade school boy of Rikkyo Junior High School at Tsukiji, Tokyo. Note that junior high schools used to require 5 years of study from the age of 12 to finish then. Entered Department of Law, Waseda University in 1923, graduated in 1928 and became a lawyer. Dispatched to Borneo in 1942, became 'gunsei bucho' under the auspices of the 37th Headquarters of the Imperial Army in North Borneo in 1945, and came back to Japan in April 1946. Worked as assistant barrister for navy POWs at the Tokyo Court for POWs. Prosecutor of High Prosecutors Office in Tokyo in 1947, moving to Kagoshima Local Office in 1953, and then to Supreme Prosecutors Office in Tokyo in 1956. Director of Bureau of Human Rights, Ministry of Justice in 1962, and Director of High Public Prosecutors Office in Sendai from 1966 to 68. Had the honour to be invited by the Emperor in the autumn and winter of 1966. Lecturer at Waseda University from 1960, and guest professor of Waseda University after the retirement from the public service in 1968 through 1975. Received the Order of Merit of the 2nd Rank (Kun 2-Toh Kyokujitsu Juhkoh-Shoh) in 1975. Visited Europe several times including the trip to England in the summer of 1971. Chief legal advisor of the Sankei Group from 1968 until his death on 12th September 1994. Burried at Kamakura Grave Yard.

He got married with Hisako Numata (1904-1977) in 1929, and had one son, Akira (1930-1989), banker, and two daughters, Tsuruko and Shigeri. Tsuruko (1932-1989) was a professor of psychiatry of Tokyo Women's Medical College and then of the National Defense Academy, and married to her colleague Takuro Ohki, and Shigeri (1935-), married to Fumihiko Ishizuka, lawyer. He is also known as an essayist for his two volume books, "Hohtoh Yoteki" (Dew Drops of Legal Lights--- Wills of a Lawyer), vols. 1 (1975) and 2 (1982).

Back to Home