Antonie van Leeuwenhoek

Antonie Philips van Leeuwenhoek (October 24, 1632 – August 26, 1723) was a Dutch tradesman and scientist from Delft, Netherlands. He is commonly known as “the Father of Microbiology”, and considered to be the first microbiologist. He is best known for his work on the improvement of the microscope and for his contributions towards the establishment of microbiology. Using his handcrafted microscopes he was the first to observe and describe single celled organisms, which he originally referred to as animalcules, and which we now refer to as microorganisms. He was also the first to record microscopic observations of muscle fibers, bacteria,spermatozoa and blood flow in capillaries (small blood vessels). Van Leeuwenhoek did not author any books, although he did write many letters. He had 6 children. With his first wife Barbara de Mey, he had 5 children. She died in 1666. He remarried and had one more child with Cornelia Swalmius.

Replica of microscope by Van Leeuwenhoek

Van Leeuwenhoek’s interest in microscopes and a familiarity with glass processing led to one of the most significant, and simultaneously well-hidden, technical insights in the history of science. By placing the middle of a small rod of soda lime glass in a hot flame, Van Leeuwenhoek could pull the hot section apart to create two long whiskers of glass. By then reinserting the end of one whisker into the flame, he could create a very small, high-quality glass sphere. These spheres became the lenses of his microscopes, with the smallest spheres providing the highest magnifications. An experienced businessman, Leeuwenhoek realized that if his simple method for creating the critically important lens was revealed, the scientific community of his time would likely disregard or even forget his role in microscopy. He therefore allowed others to believe that he was laboriously spending most of his nights and free time grinding increasingly tiny lenses to use in microscopes, even though this belief conflicted both with his construction of hundreds of microscopes and his habit of building a new microscope whenever he chanced upon an interesting specimen that he wanted to preserve.

Van Leeuwenhoek used samples and measurements to estimate numbers of micro-organisms in units of water. Van Leeuwenhoek made good use of the huge lead provided by his method. He studied a broad range of microscopic phenomena, and shared the resulting observations freely with groups such as the English Royal Society. Such work firmly established his place in history as one of the first and most important explorers of the microscopic world.

After developing his method for creating powerful lenses and applying them to study of the microscopic world, Van Leeuwenhoek was introduced via correspondence to the Royal Society of London by the famous Dutch Physician Reinier de Graaf. He soon began to send copies of his recorded microscopic observations to the Royal Society. In 1673 his earliest observations were published by the Royal Society in its journal: Philosophical Transactions. Amongst those published were Van Leeuwenhoek’s accounts of bee mouthparts and stings.

Microscopic section through one-year-old ash tree (Fraxinus) wood, drawing made by Van Leeuwenhoek.

Despite the initial success of Van Leeuwenhoek’s relationship with the Royal Society, this relationship was soon severely strained. In 1676 his credibility was questioned when he sent the Royal Society a copy of his first observations of microscopic single-celled organisms. Previously, the existence of single-celled organisms was entirely unknown. Thus, even with his established reputation with the Royal Society as a reliable observer, his observations of microscopic life were initially met with skepticism. Eventually, in the face of Van Leeuwenhoek’s insistence, the Royal Society arranged to send an English vicar, as well as a team of respected jurists and doctors, to Delft, to determine whether it was in fact Van Leeuwenhoek’s ability to observe and reason clearly, or perhaps the Royal Society’s theories of life itself that might require reform. Finally in 1680, Van Leeuwenhoek’s observations were fully vindicated by the Society.

Van Leeuwenhoek’s vindication resulted in his appointment as a Fellow of the Royal Society in that year. After his appointment to the Society, he wrote approximately 560 letters to the Society and other scientific institutions over a period of 50 years. These letters dealt with the subjects he had investigated. Even when dying, Van Leeuwenhoek kept sending letters full of observations to London. The last few also contained a precise description of his own illness. He suffered from a rare disease, an uncontrolled movement of the midriff, which is now named Van Leeuwenhoek’s disease. He died at the age of 90, on August 26, 1723 and was buried four days later in the Oude Kerk (Delft).

In 1981 the British microscopist Brian J. Ford found that Van Leeuwenhoek’s original specimens had survived in the collections of the Royal Society of London. They were found to be of high quality, and were all well preserved. Ford carried out observations with a range of microscopes, adding to our knowledge of Van Leeuwenhoek’s work.

Via  Van Leeuwenhoek

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One Response to Antonie van Leeuwenhoek

  1. alfy says:

    I am always rather unhappy about these journalistic descriptions “The Father of X” being applied to early workers in a field. There were often several people working at the same time and it becomes invidious to single out one for a special accolade. Leeuwenhoek has priority in observing a whole range of microphenomena but it was a pity that he never produced a book of his observations. His work seems to have been communicated purely to the savants of the Royal Society.

    By contrast, Robert Hooke drew together all his microscopic observations into one splendid and coherent book, “Micrographia” and made it available to anyone who had the money to pay for a copy, or access to a library which had the book. In this way, Hooke made discoveries in microscopy available to a very wide public.

    Here are two different approaches to the dissemination of new knowledge, and, as deskarati fans are very interested in effective popularisers of science, it is clear that Hooke was well to the fore in using the technology of his times in this respect.

    Let’s have no more “Father of” nonsense, please.

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