American Association for Clinical Chemistry
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AACC Collection Preserves History of Lab Instruments

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AACC Collection Preserves History of Lab Instruments
Devices Show How Technology Has Shaped Blood Analysis
By Phil Kibak

Today’s clinical labs are home to an array of highly developed analyzers capable of performing thousands of tests per day. A trip through this year’s Clinical Lab Expo, the largest exposition in the world for clinical laboratory products, reveals just how advanced these analytical instruments have become. While the lab instruments of the past were not sophisticated by today’s standards, they were advanced for their time and represent a history of innovation that AACC is preserving in its national headquarters here in Washington, D.C.

Over the past few years, AACC has added some very special historic lab instruments to its collection. Those who have had a chance to see these treasures often find themselves reminiscing about what labs were like back in the days when tests were often quite involved and results couldn’t be produced in minutes.

Remembering the Past

“As the quote goes, those who do not remember the past are bound to repeat it,” remarked Amadeo Pesce, PhD, Professor Emeritus at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine and Chair of AACC’s History of Clinical Chemistry Division. “A sense of history is one thing that alerts us to errors that have been made in the past. These older devices help us to understand the great strides we’ve made as a profession and how we have contributed to the delivery of better and more rapid patient care.”

He cited the Technicon Autoanalyzer, on loan to the AACC collection from the Astoria-Pacific Museum. Invented in 1957 by Leonard Skeggs, PhD, and commercialized by Jack Whitehead’s Technicon Corporation, it profoundly changed the character of blood testing by allowing significant increases in the numbers of samples an individual and lab could process. The novel design, based on separating a continuously flowing stream with air bubbles, all but eliminated slow, clumsy, and error-prone manual analytic methods. Instead of taking days to perform a test, a lab with this device could perform hundreds of tests reliably and inexpensively on a daily basis.

The AACC collection also is home to an original Beckman Model G pH meter, donated by Donald L. Frederick, PhD, of the Methodist Medical Center (Peoria, Ill.), and invented by the legendary Arnold O. Beckman, founder of the Beckman Company. The Beckman pH meter was originally designed to accurately and rapidly measure the acidity of lemon juice for the benefit of California citrus farmers. “Beckman was the first company to make this kind of device, and it was adapted and improved on so it could be used in the clinical laboratory,” noted Pesce.

The Model G was a wooden box 12” wide by 8” deep by 9” high, weighing approximately 15 pounds and equipped with a leather carrying handle. Labs very likely used it to establish how well a buffer system operated. The sample was placed in a small beaker attached to a door that swung out from a porcelain compartment set into the front of the instrument. The glass and reference electrodes were normally fastened to the door, but could be removed for washing, remote measurement, and sample changes as necessary. The controls, galvanometer, and readout were located beneath a wooden lid. The lid protected the instrument from dust, gave the model G a compact, clean appearance, cleverly switched off power, and sealed the sample door as the lid was closed via metal levers in the casing.

Original Coulter Counter

Nestled in a corner of a display case in the lobby of the AACC headquarters in Washington, D.C., sits another jewel of the organization’s collection of antique laboratory equipment—a 1953 Model A Coulter Counter.

“It came to us through a serendipitous route,” noted AACC Executive Director Richard Flaherty, PhD. “Some months ago we were working with a corporate recruiter who used to work at Coulter—and then Beckman-Coulter when the company was acquired—and we mentioned in passing that we would dearly like to have an original Coulter Counter for our display. He said he might know someone who had one. And, lo and behold, after a few phone calls, we had one.”

Jim Schepp, who now is the Managing Director and Vice President of Lasher Associates (Weston, Fla.), contacted his former Coulter colleague Andy Swanson, now President of Clinical Diagnostic Solutions (Plantation, Fla.). Swanson provided AACC with this piece of laboratory history.

“The Coulters literally changed the face of blood cell testing in the lab,” noted Schepp. “The development of the Coulter Principle provided a way to automate a process that had been performed manually, and was time-consuming and often inaccurate. But the process and instrumentation invented by Wallace Coulter and his brother Joseph enabled clinical labs to do blood cell counting and sizing in a fraction of the time needed for the manual test and was much more accurate.”

The Coulter Principle relied on an impedance process—as blood cells pass through an aperture, they create a pulse that can be recorded electronically. The magnitude of the pulse depends on the size of the particle, so it can count red cells and white cells. “For years, the Coulter Counter was the only game in town and it became a brand in the same way that Kleenex became synonymous with paper tissues,” said Schepp. “When people wanted a blood count or CBC, they’d say they needed a Coulter count.”

That sentiment is echoed by Karen Bornstein, Vice President of Sales and Marketing for Clinical Diagnostic Solutions. “Without a doubt, the process was considered a breakthrough in clinical laboratory operations,” she said. “When the company unveiled the Coulter Counter, it was the only one of its kind, and all labs had to have one or that lab wasn’t performing hematology tests. Now, a lot of things have changed, but the Coulter Principle lives on in the devices that are manufactured and used today.”

The AACC Collection of Historic Lab Instruments

The AACC expresses its appreciation to all those who have actively shared their knowledge and appreciation of the past with their colleagues through these donations. This is a partial list of the innovative lab instruments on display at the association’s Washington, D.C. headquarters.


Donated By

Double Pan Balance

Donald L. Frederick

Model G pH Meter

Donald L. Frederick

Klett Photoelectric Colorimeter

Theodore Peters

Kjeldahl Flasks & Other Glassware

Mary Aldrich

Folin-WU Sugar Tube

Samuel Meites

Technicon AutoAnalyzer System

On loan from the
Astoria-Pacific Museum

Beckman Model DU Spectrophotometer

On permanent loan from Beckman Instruments Historical Collection

Note: This is only a partial list of the instruments in the collection.

A Treasure in Texas

Almost forgotten and then almost discarded was another donation to the AACC—a Turner Model 111 fluorometer.

“I found this device literally tucked away in a corner,” said Patti Jones, PhD, Clinical Director of Chemistry at Children’s Medical Center (Dallas, Texas), who donated the device on behalf of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. “I started teaching an instrumentation course for the Medical Technology Program at UTSW in 1995, and I was amazed to find this machine hidden away like that. I tinkered with it and found that it still worked, so I’ve been using it to teach fluorometry to my students. It’s antiquated by present-day standards—I think it uses vacuum tubes, for example—but it still works well enough to explain the basic principles. It was going to be trashed, but I rescued it and I know it will have a good home with AACC.”

Fluorometry entails using a beam of light that excites electrons in the molecules of certain compounds, which causes the electrons to emit lower-energy light, which may or may not be visible. “Back in the day when this was used, you could only measure compounds that naturally fluoresced, like ascorbic acid,” noted Jones. “So, back when this was developed, it likely was not a common piece of equipment in most clinical labs. But today you can put a fluorescent tag on an immunoassay and pretty much measure whatever you want by this method.”

Modern fluorometers are a bit smaller and also tend to more user-friendly, she added. “Fluorometry is really kind of an art, anyway. With this instrument you isolated the wavelength you wanted with small, square glass filters you inserted by hand, and a mercury lamp provided the light. Today, you don’t have to play around as much to get what you’re trying to measure, and the light is supplied by a high intensity lamp like a xenon arc. The new fluorometers also operate faster with less time spent per measurement.”

Historical Lab Medicine Contributions

Pesce also called attention to the fact that the 1977 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine awarded to Rosalyn Sussman Yalow, Andrew V. Schally, and Roger Guillemin, recognized a laboratory test, the radioimmunoassay. “This test, which was developed in the 1950s, made it possible to detect mere traces of biological substances in blood and other fluids and it allowed us to do measurements we couldn’t do before,” he said. “At the time the test was developed, some of those assays took 2–3 days to perform; today we can do them in 8 minutes.”

Acting as custodians of the past and passing this kind of information along to new generations helps to reinforce the overall role laboratory science has played and continues to play in the practice of medicine. “The Technicon Autoanalyzer is a perfect example,” said Pesce. “It’s not enough just to do a test—we have to provide physicians with information they can use to make decisions about intervention. By significantly reducing the time needed to perform a test, this machine and others that followed have helped laboratorians to play significant roles in healthcare delivery.”