The University Record, November 21, 1995

X-rays uncover flowers' magical inner world

By Margaret Vergith
Matthaei Botanical Gardens

Thirty years ago Albert G. Richards, out for a stroll, made a purchase that changed his life. A store was offering daffodils at 27 cents a dozen. Richards purchased some and took them back to his office at the School of Dentistry, where he taught radiography to dental students and hygienists. On impulse, he made an x-ray of one of the flowers, and thus began the hobby that led to hundreds of beautiful images, some of them on display at the Matthaei Botanical Gardens through the end of November.

"While many people love and appreciate flowers," Richards says, "they may never have realized or seen the secret beauty hidden within the blossoms."

Floral radiographs reveal details of the successive layers of tissues or petals. As you look at these pictures, you are looking into and right through the flowers. Occasionally Richards finds surprises: the radiograph of a rose revealed a spider and its nest deep inside the blossom.

His photographs have appeared in Smithsonian; seven are at the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation at Carnegie-Mellon University and one is displayed at the J. Paul Getty Museum. That image was one of more than 100 flower photographs included in an exhibition organized by the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Richards, who holds degrees in physics and chemical engineering, was the first to use electron microscopy to view the internal microstructure of human teeth, and he invented the recessed cone x-ray head that is now standard equipment in many dental offices.

Richards was appointed to the first Distinguished Professorship in the School of Dentistry in 1974. He was granted emeritus status in 1982 and now devotes his time to gardening and his basement laboratory.