ANTONIE VAN LEEUWENHOEK: The Father of Microbiology Part 1

Jan_Verkolje_-_Antonie_van_Leeuwenhoek Portrait by Jan Verkolje

(The Draper, and trader, and microscope maker)

ˈɑntɔni vɑn ˈleːwənhuːk

Antonie van Leeuwenhoek (24 Oct 1632-26 Aug 1723) lived in Delft, Netherlands and worked in drapery and haberdashery. (Alternative subtitles included: Or how a haberdasher developed microscopy). His parents Margaretha (Bel van den Berch) and Philips Antonysz van Leeuwenhoek were middle class merchants. Following the death of his father, young Antonie was sent to live with relatives in Benthuizen and later apprenticed as a draper in Amsterdam. His shrewd business mind enabled him to start his own haberdashery shop back in Delft and he was soon appointed the prestigious position of Chamberlain for the Delft Sheriff’s Assembly.*

While running his drapery and haberdashery shop, van Leeuwenhoek developed an interest in the creation of magnifying lens. Then, he started producing simple microscopes. He became enthralled by the images of the microscopic world. His friend Renier de Graaf, a Delft physician, urged Antonie to submit his findings to the Royal Society in London. And throughout his lifetime, nearly 200 letters were exchanged from the country village of Delft to the great English capital. Unlike the learned members of the Royal Society, Van Leeuwenhoek received no formal training in either the sciences or Latin. Moreover, he only spoke and wrote Dutch and his letters had to be translated before the meetings. Although initially enthusiastic about his pursuits, Antonie’s discovery of single-celled organisms was regarded with disbelief and ridicule by the Royal Society.

Dear Mr. Anthony van Leeuwenhoek,

Your letter of October 10th has been received here with amusement. Your account of myriad “little animals” seen swimming in rainwater, with the aid of your so-called “microscope,” caused the members of the society considerable merriment when read at our most recent meeting. Your novel descriptions of the sundry anatomies and occupations of these invisible creatures led one member to imagine that your “rainwater” might have contained an ample portion of distilled spirits–imbibed by the investigator. Another member raised a glass of clear water and exclaimed, “Behold, the Africk of Leeuwenhoek.” For myself, I withhold judgment as to the sobriety of your observations and the veracity of your instrument. However, a vote having been taken among the members–accompanied I regret to inform you, by considerable giggling—it has been decided not to publish your communication in the Proceedings of this esteemed society. However, all here wish your “little animals” health, prodigality and good husbandry by their ingenious discoverer.

You could have cut the sarcasm with a snicker. But Antonie insisted on the veracity of his findings and the Royal Society eventually sent an envoy to Delft. Van Leeuwenhoek’s credibility and genius was restored. Years later van Leeuwenhoek would write, “my work, which I’ve done for a long time, was not pursued in order to gain the praise I now enjoy, but chiefly from a craving after knowledge, which I notice resides in me more than in most other men.” A good reminder for all researchers: work hard, stay true, and embrace the wondrous!

Heavily Abbreviated List of Antonie van Leeuwenhoek’s Accomplishments:

First to record microscopic observations of

  • Capillaries
  • Muscle fibers
  • Bacteria
  • Sperm
  • Compound eyes (insects!)
  • Single-celled organisms

*This same business acumen would be later put to use in his lensmaking endeavors. When invited by Tsar Peter the Great he refrained from showing the court his most advanced microscopes, thus preventing others from learning his techniques and creating rival lenses. FYI: his method involved soda lime glass. Robert Hooke, the great English microbiologist bemoaned that the entire field of microscopy, and by extension the financial profits, rested on the shoulders of one Dutch man.

For more information on van Leeuwenhoek see:

http://vanleeuwenhoek.com/#hisdiscoverieshttp://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/history/leeuwenhoek.htmlhttp://lacelula.udl.es/documents/leeuwen.pdf, and http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/334699/Antonie-van-Leeuwenhoek

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One thought on “ANTONIE VAN LEEUWENHOEK: The Father of Microbiology Part 1

  1. Michael Lord

    Really enjoyed. Informative and well written! Shows how often the little mind laughs at things they don’t understand

    Like

    Reply

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