Real Voices interview: Spike Walker

Meet Spike, a prolific micrographer (someone who takes photos through microscopes)

For over 65 years, Spike Walker has been looking at things down a microscope and taking stunning pictures of what he sees. He tells Penny Bailey about the difficulties and joys of capturing snapshots from the microscopic world.

When did you first get into microscopy?

When I was 11, a friend of mine told me there was a microscope at his school. So I asked my father for one. He was on about £2.50 a week but he bought me one for £4.50, and it’s been an interest for 65 years now.

It’s an entirely different world... I’ve no idea what I’m going to see, out of possibly 30,000 species.

What has kept your interest so long?

It’s an entirely different world. And it’s accessible. People will spend a lot of money going out to Kenya to see lions in the wild. I can go up the lane, and take a tube-full of dirty water out of one of the ditches and I’ve no idea what I’m going to see, out of possibly 30,000 species. A lot of them are single cells, and they’re absolutely fascinating. The average cell in your body does one thing. If it’s a muscle cell, it spends its time contracting, for example. These cells live on their own in water and do everything: they propel themselves about, catch their prey, digest it and excrete the remains, and find a mate.

Which cell do you find particularly fascinating?

There’s a one-celled animal called a Peranema. It’s a very elastic, transparent sack with a stout whip sticking out the front end of it, which propels it around. The very tip of it wiggles like a nose. Sometimes I’m looking at something else in a drop of water, and suddenly one of these twitchy little fingers appears in the corner of your eye, followed by yards of nothing and then, unbelievably, this sack-like body. There are times I’ve nearly fallen off my chair laughing.

What’s tricky about making images with a microscope?

If you’re making a portrait of someone, you can decide exactly where your subject is going to sit. And other people hopefully don’t come rushing in and out and getting involved in the photography. But if you’re photographing things in dirty water, other things will be there and they’ll swim in and out. Or the dancer you’re photographing won’t keep still and keeps moving out of the frame.

What’s your favourite image?

There’s one of oxidised vitamin C that got a Wellcome Special Award of Excellence in 2008. I made it by scratching boxes on the slide with a needle. The crystals grew in the boxes, and the image looks like a Victorian wall decoration – little boxes with shells inside.

What awards have you won?

I’ve won 19 Wellcome Image Awards since I started entering in 2002. This year I won the Royal Photographic Society’s Combined Royal Colleges Medal – probably for being the oldest micrographer still in existence!

Lead image:

Vitamin C crystals.

Spike Walker/Wellcome Images

Further reading

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Careers From Biology’ in January 2011 and reviewed and updated in November 2017.

Cell biology, Careers
Careers From Biology, The Cell
Education levels:
16–19, Undergraduate, Continuing professional development