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Beakers & bellows.

The story goes that, in the 1930s, Chester G. Fisher, founder of Fisher Scientific, and his three sons decided to go sightseeing in Paris. While there, they visited Napoleon's tomb, waiting in line among many other sightseers. When they left the tomb, they asked their cab driver to drop them at the tomb of Louis Pasteur, the French chemist and bacteriologist who created a vaccine against rabies and is credited with discovering, among other things, the causes of childbirth fever and how the fermentation process works. To the Fishers' surprise, the cab driver had no idea where to find Pasteur's tomb.

When the group finally located the grave on the grounds of the Pasteur Institute, an old man there unlocked the gate that led to the tomb, explaining that no one had asked to see the burial site in months. The Fishers paid their respects and, before leaving, photographed the gatekeeper at the tomb. When they asked his name, they discovered the old man was Joseph Meister, who as a child had been bitten by a rabid dog and received the world's first vaccination for hydrophobia from Louis Pasteur.

Chester Fisher was so touched that this one man was devoting his life to watching over Pasteur's tomb, and so amazed that the French seemed indifferent--even antagonistic--about the chemist that the scientific community considered its patron saint, that he dedicated a section of his Pittsburgh-based company's museum to Louis Pasteur.

Over the years, Fisher Scientific, a supplier of scientific instruments and high-purity chemicals, has collected more than 900 pieces of top-quality artwork and memorabilia that trace 2,000 years of science, from Chinese alchemy in A.D. 142 to the Atomic Age. Forty masterpieces, including 17th- and 18th-century works by Dutch and Flemish artists, are on permanent display in the company's primary museum. The adjacent Pasteur Memorial is home to many portraits of the scientist, some of his letters and notebooks, and lab equipment he once used.

Curator Harry Schwalb explains that the Fisher Collection is more than artwork; it's a record of the way early laboratories looked. They were in small, dim rooms in the homes of the scientists. The spaces were cluttered with stacks of reference books, strangely shaped beakers, bellows for fireprodding, and stuffed amphibians (the latter "partly as charms to aid transmutation of elements, partly raw materials for concoctions," Schwalb explains). Because the Fisher paintings show in detail the workings of these early labs, historians often study them to fill in the blanks on science's timeline. For instance, experts from major glass companies, such as Corning, have examined the Fisher Collection hoping to find predecessors to today's test tube.

"It goes back to the idea of roots," Schwalb says. "People want to know where they came from, where their parents came from, or, in the case of a scientist, where it all started. These pictures show them that chemistry is an old and demanding, but also very wonderful, profession."

In addition to showcasing Pasteur's virtues, the collection also focuses on alchemy, an early form of chemistry whose goal was to turn base metals into gold. The prize piece in the Fisher Collection, "The Alchemist," is a 1648 painting by David Teniers the Younger. The company bought it as part of a collection owned by a Cambridge University scientist.

"We literally rescued it from World War II," says Schwalb. "We were so nervous that the paintings in the collection would be damaged in Europe in the warfare--and, of course, we feared that if Cambridge or Oxford bought the collection, the artwork would be cloistered--that we had the entire collection put on a boat and brought to America."

No such worries at Fisher Scientific. The 3,000-employee company has a spacious museum with "state-of-the-art environmental protection" for the art treasures, Schwalb assures.

According to the curator, the museum has welcomed many famous visitors over the years, including Madame Curie, Japan's Emperor Hirohito's personal physician, and representatives from the Pasteur Institute. More frequent visitors are scientists, physicians, professors, and historians--many of whom buy reproductions of the artwork the company sells at cost--as well as local college students and occasional troops of Girl and Boy Scouts.

As accessible as the company makes the Fisher Collection, it stops short of displaying what Schwalb fondly calls the "fabulous invalids" throughout the headquarters building, as many companies with corporate collections do.

"You're talking about fragile paintings, many on wooden panels, that are centuries old," he explains. "Any change in temperature or humidity would be like exposing an elderly person to a new blast of wind."

When employees do venture into the museum, they find the story of science unfolds before them. Chester Fisher made sure of that. "He was very realistic," says Schwalb. "Fisher knew these aren't all lovely paintings. The Dutch and Flemish artists, for instance, painted very dull, brown, sepia pictures. Visitors to the museum aren't looking at a sailboat in the moonlight or flowers. So Chester Fisher always placed elaborate stories next to each piece. The story is half of the picture. As long as you read the stories, you'll understand what was happening in these funny, smoky laboratories."
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Title Annotation:Corporate Gallery: The Fisher Collection; Fisher Scientific Co. collection of scientific instruments
Author:Couch, Robin L.
Publication:Financial Executive
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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