Antonie van Leeuwenhoek

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Antonie van Leeuwenhoek
Anthonie van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723). Natuurkundige te Delft Rijksmuseum SK-A-957.jpeg
A portrait of Antonie van Leeuwenhoek (1632–1723) by Jan Verkolje
Born(1632-10-24)24 October 1632
Died26 August 1723(1723-08-26) (aged 90)
Delft, Dutch Republic
Known forThe first acknowledged microscopist and microbiologist [note 1]
Microscopic discovery of microorganisms (animalcule)
Scientific career
Fields Microscopy
Influences Robert Hooke
Regnier de Graaf
InfluencedHistory of biology and life sciences
Natural history
Scientific Revolution
Age of Reason
Antonie van Leeuwenhoek Signature.svg

Antonie Philips van Leeuwenhoek [note 2] FRS ( /ˈɑːntənivɑːnˈlvənhʊk/ AHN-tə-nee vahn LAY-vən-huuk, Dutch:  [ɑnˈtoːni vɑn ˈleːuə(n)ˌɦuk] ( Loudspeaker.svg listen ); [5] 24 October 1632 – 26 August 1723) was a Dutch businessman and scientist in the Golden Age of Dutch science and technology. A largely self-taught man in science, he is commonly known as "the Father of Microbiology", and one of the first microscopists and microbiologists. [6] [7] Van Leeuwenhoek is best known for his pioneering work in microscopy and for his contributions toward the establishment of microbiology as a scientific discipline.

Fellow of the Royal Society Elected Fellow of the Royal Society, including Honorary, Foreign and Royal Fellows

Fellowship of the Royal Society is an award granted to individuals that the Royal Society of London judges to have made a 'substantial contribution to the improvement of natural knowledge, including mathematics, engineering science and medical science'.

Dutch Republic Republican predecessor state of the Netherlands from 1581 to 1795

The Dutch Republic, or the United Provinces, was a confederal republic that existed from the formal creation of a confederacy in 1581 by several Dutch provinces—seceded from Spanish rule—until the Batavian Revolution in 1795. It was a predecessor state of the Netherlands and the first Dutch nation state.

Scientist person that studies a science

A scientist is someone who conducts scientific research to advance knowledge in an area of interest.


Raised in Delft, Dutch Republic, van Leeuwenhoek worked as a draper in his youth and founded his own shop in 1654. He became well recognized in municipal politics and developed an interest in lensmaking. In the 1670s, he started to explore microbial life with his microscope. [note 3] This was one of the notable achievements of the Golden Age of Dutch exploration and discovery (c. 1590s–1720s).

Delft City and municipality in South Holland, Netherlands

Delft is a city and municipality in the province of South Holland, Netherlands. It is located between Rotterdam, to the southeast, and The Hague, to the northwest. Together with them, it is part of both Rotterdam–The Hague metropolitan area and the Randstad.

Draper cloth merchant

Draper was originally a term for a retailer or wholesaler of cloth that was mainly for clothing. A draper may additionally operate as a cloth merchant or a haberdasher.

Using single-lensed microscopes of his own design, van Leeuwenhoek was the first to experiment with microbes, which he originally referred to as animalcules (from Latin animalculum = "tiny animal"). Through his experiments, he was the first to relatively determine their size. Most of the "animalcules" are now referred to as unicellular organisms, although he observed multicellular organisms in pond water. He was also the first to document microscopic observations of muscle fibers, bacteria, spermatozoa, red blood cells, crystals in gouty tophi, and blood flow in capillaries. Although van Leeuwenhoek did not write any books, his discoveries came to light through correspondence with the Royal Society, which published his letters.

Unicellular organism organism that consists of only one cell

A unicellular organism, also known as a single-celled organism, is an organism that consists of only one cell, unlike a multicellular organism that consists of more than one cell. Unicellular organisms fall into two general categories: prokaryotic organisms and eukaryotic organisms. Prokaryotes include bacteria and archaea. Many eukaryotes are multicellular, but the group includes the protozoa, unicellular algae, and unicellular fungi. Unicellular organisms are thought to be the oldest form of life, with early protocells possibly emerging 3.8–4 billion years ago.

The microscopic scale is the scale of objects and events smaller than those that can easily be seen by the naked eye, requiring a lens or microscope to see them clearly. In physics, the microscopic scale is sometimes regarded as the scale between the macroscopic scale and the quantum scale. Microscopic units and measurements are used to classify and describe very small objects. One common microscopic length scale unit is the micrometre, which is one millionth of a metre.

Muscle contractile soft tissue of animals

Muscle is a soft tissue found in most animals. Muscle cells contain protein filaments of actin and myosin that slide past one another, producing a contraction that changes both the length and the shape of the cell. Muscles function to produce force and motion. They are primarily responsible for maintaining and changing posture, locomotion, as well as movement of internal organs, such as the contraction of the heart and the movement of food through the digestive system via peristalsis.

Early life and career

van Leeuwenhoek's birth house in Delft, in the Netherlands, in 1926 before it was demolished Antony van Leeuwenhoek and his "Little animals"; being some account of the father of protozoology and bacteriology and his multifarious discoveries in these disciplines; (1932) (19122164704).jpg
van Leeuwenhoek's birth house in Delft, in the Netherlands, in 1926 before it was demolished

Antonie van Leeuwenhoek was born in Delft, Dutch Republic, on 24 October 1632. On 4 November, he was baptized as Thonis. His father, Philips Antonisz van Leeuwenhoek, was a basket maker who died when Antonie was only five years old. His mother, Margaretha (Bel van den Berch), came from a well-to-do brewer's family. She remarried Jacob Jansz Molijn, a painter. Antonie had four older sisters: Margriet, Geertruyt, Neeltje, and Catharina. [8] When he was around ten years old his step-father died. He attended school in Warmond for a short time before being sent to live in Benthuizen with his uncle, an attorney. At the age of 16 he became a bookkeeper's apprentice at a linen-draper's shop in Amsterdam, [9] which was owned by the Scot William Davidson. Van Leeuwenhoek left there after six years. [10] [11]

Warmond Place in Zuid-Holland, Netherlands

Warmond is a village and former municipality in the western Netherlands, north of Leiden in the province of South Holland. The municipality covered an area of 14.42 km² of which 4.42 km² is water, and had a population of 4,977 in 2004. Together with Sassenheim and Voorhout, it became part of the Teylingen municipality on 1 January 2006. Warmond is located in an area called the "Dune and Bulb Region", and is notable for being extremely affluent.

Benthuizen Village in South Holland, Netherlands

Benthuizen is a village in the Dutch province of South Holland. It is a part of the municipality of Alphen aan den Rijn, and lies about 1 km east of Zoetermeer.

William Davidson of Curriehill Scottish tradesman in Amsterdam and spy

Sir William Davidson, 1st Baronet of Curriehill was a Scottish tradesman in Amsterdam, an agent and a spy for the King and a member of his Privy Council.

Van Leeuwenhoek married Barbara de Mey in July 1654, with whom he fathered one surviving daughter, Maria (four other children died in infancy). That same year he returned to Delft, where he would live and study for the rest of his life. He opened a draper's shop, which he ran throughout the 1650s. His wife died in 1666, and in 1671, Van Leeuwenhoek remarried to Cornelia Swalmius with whom he had no children. [12] His status in Delft had grown throughout the years. In 1660 he received a lucrative job as chamberlain for the assembly chamber of the Delft sheriffs in the city hall, a position which he would hold for almost 40 years. In 1669 he was appointed as a land surveyor by the court of Holland; at some time he combined it with another municipal job, being the official "wine-gauger" of Delft and in charge of the city wine imports and taxation. [13]

Chamberlain (office) Person in charge of managing a household

A chamberlain is a senior royal official in charge of managing a royal household. Historically, the chamberlain superintends the arrangement of domestic affairs and was often also charged with receiving and paying out money kept in the royal chamber. The position was usually honoured upon a high-ranking member of the nobility (nobleman) or the clergy, often a royal favourite. Roman emperors appointed this officer under the title of cubicularius. The papal chamberlain of the Pope enjoys very extensive powers, having the revenues of the papal household under his charge. As a sign of their dignity, they bore a key, which in the seventeenth century was often silvered, and actually fitted the door-locks of chamber rooms, since the eighteenth century it had turned into a merely symbolic, albeit splendid, rank-insignia of gilded bronze. In many countries there are ceremonial posts associated with the household of the sovereign.

A schepen or échevin (French) is a municipal officer in Belgium and formerly the Netherlands. It has been replaced by the wethouder in the Netherlands. In modern Belgium, the schepen or échevin is part of the municipal executive. Depending on the context, it may be roughly translated as an alderman, councillor, or magistrate.

City Hall (Delft) seat of government in Delft, Netherlands

The City Hall in Delft is a Renaissance style building on the Markt across from the Nieuwe Kerk. It is the seat of the city's government as well as a popular venue for civic wedding ceremonies. Most administrative functions have been transferred to an office inside the Delft railway station building. Originally designed by the Dutch architect Hendrick de Keyser, it was heavily changed over the centuries and was restored in the 20th century to its Renaissance appearance.

The Geographer by Johannes Vermeer The Geographer.jpg
The Geographer by Johannes Vermeer

Van Leeuwenhoek was a contemporary of another famous Delft citizen, the painter Johannes Vermeer, who was baptized just four days earlier. It has been suggested that he is the man portrayed in two Vermeer paintings of the late 1660s, The Astronomer and The Geographer , but others argue that there appears to be little physical similarity. Because they were both relatively important men in a city with only 24,000 inhabitants, it is likely that they were at least acquaintances; Van Leeuwenhoek acted as the executor of Vermeer's will after the painter died in 1675. [14] [note 4]

Johannes Vermeer 17th-century Dutch painter

Johannes Vermeer was a Dutch Baroque Period painter who specialized in domestic interior scenes of middle-class life. He was a moderately successful provincial genre painter in his lifetime but evidently was not wealthy, leaving his wife and children in debt at his death, perhaps because he produced relatively few paintings.

<i>The Astronomer</i> (Vermeer) painting by Johannes Vermeer

The Astronomer is a painting finished in about 1668 by the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer. It is oil on canvas, 51 cm × 45 cm, and is on display at the Louvre, in Paris, France.

<i>The Geographer</i> painting by Johannes Vermeer

The Geographer is a painting created by Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer in 1668–1669, and is now in the collection of the Städelsches Kunstinstitut museum in Frankfurt, Germany. It is closely related to Vermeer's The Astronomer, for instance using the same model in the same dress, and has sometimes been considered a pendant painting to it. A 2017 study indicated that the canvas for the two works came from the same bolt of material.

Microscopic study

While running his draper shop, van Leeuwenhoek wanted to see the quality of the thread better than what was possible using the magnifying lenses of the time. He developed an interest in lensmaking, although few records exist of his early activity. 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.[ citation needed ]

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. Then, by 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. [15]

A microscopic section of a one-year-old ash tree (Fraxinus) wood, drawing made by van Leeuwenhoek Leeuwenhoek Eschenholz.jpg
A microscopic section of a one-year-old ash tree (Fraxinus) wood, drawing made by van Leeuwenhoek

Recognition by the Royal Society

After developing his method for creating powerful lenses and applying them to the study of the microscopic world [16] , van Leeuwenhoek introduced his work to his friend, the prominent Dutch physician Reinier de Graaf. When the Royal Society in London published the groundbreaking work of an Italian lensmaker in their journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society , de Graaf wrote to the editor of the journal, Henry Oldenburg, with a ringing endorsement of van Leeuwenhoek's microscopes which, he claimed, "far surpass those which we have hitherto seen". In response, in 1673 the society published a letter from van Leeuwenhoek that included his microscopic observations on mold, bees, and lice. [17]

A 1677 letter from van Leeuwenhoek to Oldenburg, with the latter's English translation behind, the full correspondence remains in the Royal Society Library Antoni van Leeuwenhoek letters to the Royal Society 3.jpg
A 1677 letter from van Leeuwenhoek to Oldenburg, with the latter's English translation behind, the full correspondence remains in the Royal Society Library

Van Leeuwenhoek's work fully captured the attention of the Royal Society, and he began corresponding regularly with the society regarding his observations. At first he had been reluctant to publicize his findings, regarding himself as a businessman with little scientific, artistic, or writing background, but de Graaf urged him to be more confident in his work. [18] By the time van Leeuwenhoek died in 1723, he had written some 190 letters to the Royal Society, detailing his findings in a wide variety of fields, centered on his work in microscopy. He only wrote letters in his own colloquial Dutch; he never published a proper scientific paper in Latin. He strongly preferred to work alone, distrusting the sincerity of those who offered their assistance. [19] The letters were translated into Latin or English by Henry Oldenburg, who had learned Dutch for this very purpose. Despite the initial success of van Leeuwenhoek's relationship with the Royal Society, soon relations became 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 some skepticism. [20]

Eventually, in the face of van Leeuwenhoek's insistence, the Royal Society arranged for Alexander Petrie, minister to the English Reformed Church in Delft; Benedict Haan, at that time Lutheran minister at Delft; and Henrik Cordes, then Lutheran minister at the Hague, accompanied by Sir Robert Gordon and four others, 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 that might require reform. Finally in 1677, [21] van Leeuwenhoek's observations were fully acknowledged by the Royal Society. [22]

Illustration of critique of Observationes microscopicae Antonii Levvenhoeck... published in Acta Eruditorum, 1682 Acta Eruditorum - XVIII zoologia, 1682 - BEIC 13349171.jpg
Illustration of critique of Observationes microscopicae Antonii Levvenhoeck... published in Acta Eruditorum, 1682

Antonie van Leeuwenhoek was elected to the Royal Society in February 1680 on the nomination of William Croone, a then-prominent physician. [note 5] Van Leeuwenhoek was "taken aback" by the nomination, which he considered a high honor, although he did not attend the induction ceremony in London, nor did he ever attend a Royal Society meeting. [24]

Scientific fame

By the end of the seventeenth century, van Leeuwenhoek had a virtual monopoly on microscopic study and discovery. His contemporary Robert Hooke, an early microscope pioneer, bemoaned that the field had come to rest entirely on one man's shoulders. [25] He was visited over the years by many notable individuals, such as the Russian Tsar Peter the Great. To the disappointment of his guests, van Leeuwenhoek refused to reveal the cutting-edge microscopes he relied on for his discoveries, instead showing visitors a collection of average-quality lenses. [26]

An experienced businessman, van Leeuwenhoek believed 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. He made about 200 microscopes with a different magnification.[ citation needed ]

Van Leeuwenhoek was visited by Leibniz, William III of Orange and his wife, Mary II of England, and the burgemeester (mayor) Johan Huydecoper of Amsterdam, the latter being very interested in collecting and growing plants for the Hortus Botanicus Amsterdam, and all gazed at the tiny creatures. In 1698, van Leeuwenhoek was invited to visit the Tsar Peter the Great on his boat. On this occasion van Leeuwenhoek presented the Tsar an "eel-viewer", so Peter could study blood circulation whenever he wanted. [27]

Techniques and discoveries

van Leeuwenhoek's microscopes by Henry Baker Van Leeuwenhoek's microscopes by Henry Baker.jpg
van Leeuwenhoek's microscopes by Henry Baker

Antonie van Leeuwenhoek made more than 500 optical lenses. He also created at least 25 single-lens microscopes, of differing types, of which only nine have survived. These microscopes were made of silver or copper frames, holding hand-made lenses. Those that have survived are capable of magnification up to 275 times. It is suspected that van Leeuwenhoek possessed some microscopes that could magnify up to 500 times. Although he has been widely regarded as a dilettante or amateur, his scientific research was of remarkably high quality. [28]

The single-lens microscopes of van Leeuwenhoek were relatively small devices, the largest being about 5 cm long. [29] [30] They are used by placing the lens very close in front of the eye, while looking in the direction of the sun. The other side of the microscope had a pin, where the sample was attached in order to stay close to the lens. There were also three screws to move the pin and the sample along three axes: one axis to change the focus, and the two other axes to navigate through the sample.

Van Leeuwenhoek maintained throughout his life that there are aspects of microscope construction "which I only keep for myself", in particular his most critical secret of how he made the lenses. For many years no one was able to reconstruct van Leeuwenhoek's design techniques, but in 1957, C.L. Stong used thin glass thread fusing instead of polishing, and successfully created some working samples of a van Leeuwenhoek design microscope. [31] Such a method was also discovered independently by A. Mosolov and A. Belkin at the Russian Novosibirsk State Medical Institute. [32]

A replica of a microscope by van Leeuwenhoek Leeuwenhoek Microscope.png
A replica of a microscope by van Leeuwenhoek

Van Leeuwenhoek used samples and measurements to estimate numbers of microorganisms in units of water. [33] [34] He also made good use of the huge advantage provided by his method. He studied a broad range of microscopic phenomena, and shared the resulting observations freely with groups such as the British Royal Society. [35] Such work firmly established his place in history as one of the first and most important explorers of the microscopic world. Van Leeuwenhoek was one of the first people to observe cells, much like Robert Hooke. [36]

Van Leeuwenhoek's main discoveries are:

In 1687, van Leeuwenhoek reported his research on the coffee bean. He roasted the bean, cut it into slices and saw a spongy interior. The bean was pressed, and an oil appeared. He boiled the coffee with rain water twice and set it aside. [39]

Like Robert Boyle and Nicolaas Hartsoeker, van Leeuwenhoek was interested in dried cochineal, trying to find out if the dye came from a berry or an insect. [40] [41] [42]

Van Leeuwenhoek's religion was "Dutch Reformed" Calvinist. [43] He often referred with reverence to the wonders God designed in making creatures great and small, and believed that his discoveries were merely further proof of the wonder of creation. [44] [45]

Legacy and recognition

Memorial of Antonie van Leeuwenhoek in Oude Kerk (Delft) Memorial Antonie van Leeuwenhoek.jpg
Memorial of Antonie van Leeuwenhoek in Oude Kerk (Delft)
Antonie van Leeuwenhoek is buried in the Oude Kerk in Delft. Graf Leeuwenhoek.jpg
Antonie van Leeuwenhoek is buried in the Oude Kerk in Delft.
A cluster of Escherichia coli bacteria magnified 10,000 times. In the early modern period, Leeuwenhoek's discovery and study of the microscopic world, like the Dutch discovery and mapping of largely unknown lands and skies, is considered one of the most notable achievements of the Golden Age of Dutch exploration and discovery (c. 1590s-1720s). E coli at 10000x, original.jpg
A cluster of Escherichia coli bacteria magnified 10,000 times. In the early modern period, Leeuwenhoek's discovery and study of the microscopic world, like the Dutch discovery and mapping of largely unknown lands and skies, is considered one of the most notable achievements of the Golden Age of Dutch exploration and discovery (c. 1590s–1720s).

By the end of his life, van Leeuwenhoek had written approximately 560 letters to the Royal Society and other scientific institutions concerning his observations and discoveries. Even during the last weeks of his life, van Leeuwenhoek continued to send letters full of observations to London. The last few contained a precise description of his own illness. He suffered from a rare disease, an uncontrolled movement of the midriff, which now is named van Leeuwenhoek's disease . [46] He died at the age of 90, on 26 August 1723, and was buried four days later in the Oude Kerk in Delft. [47]

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 all were well preserved. [48] [49] [50] Ford carried out observations with a range of single-lens microscopes, adding to our knowledge of van Leeuwenhoek's work. [51] In Ford's opinion, Leeuwenhoek remained imperfectly understood, the popular view that his work was crude and undisciplined at odds with the evidence of conscientious and painstaking observation. He constructed rational and repeatable experimental procedures and was willing to oppose received opinion, such as spontaneous generation, and he changed his mind in the light of evidence. [28]

On his importance in the history of microbiology and science in general, the British biochemist Nick Lane wrote that he was "the first even to think of looking—certainly, the first with the power to see." His experiments were ingenious and he was "a scientist of the highest calibre", attacked by people who envied him or "scorned his unschooled origins", not helped by his secrecy about his methods. [20]

The Antoni van Leeuwenhoek Hospital in Amsterdam, named after van Leeuwenhoek, is specialized in oncology. [52] In 2004, a public poll in the Netherlands to determine the greatest Dutchman ("De Grootste Nederlander") named van Leeuwenhoek the 4th-greatest Dutchman of all time.[ citation needed ]

On 24 October 2016, Google commemorated the 384th anniversary of van Leeuwenhoek's birth with a Doodle that depicted his discovery of "little animals" or animalcules, now known as bacteria. [53]

The Leeuwenhoek Medal, Leeuwenhoek Lecture, Leeuwenhoek (crater), Leeuwenhoeckia , Levenhookia (a genus in the family Stylidiaceae), and Leeuwenhoekiella (an aerobic bacterial genus) are named after him.[ citation needed ]

See also


  1. Van Leeuwenhoek is universally acknowledged as the father of microbiology because he was the first to undisputedly discover/observe, describe, study, conduct scientific experiments with microscopic organisms (microbes), and relatively determine their size, using single-lensed microscopes of his own design. [1] Leeuwenhoek is also considered to be the father of bacteriology and protozoology (recently known as protistology). [2] [3]
  2. The spelling of van Leeuwenhoek's name is exceptionally varied. He was christened as Thonis, but always went by Antonj (corresponding with the English Antony). The final j of his given name is the Dutch tense i. Until 1683 he consistently used the spelling Antonj Leeuwenhoeck (ending in –oeck) when signing his letters. Throughout the mid-1680s he experimented with the spelling of his surname, and after 1685 settled on the most recognized spelling, van Leeuwenhoek. [4]
  3. Note that the existence of microscopic organisms (microbes, microorganisms) was predicted or hypothesized many centuries before they were first observed by van Leeuwenhoek.
  4. In A Short History of Nearly Everything (p. 236) Bill Bryson alludes to rumors that Vermeer's mastery of light and perspective came from use of a camera obscura produced by Van Leeuwenhoek. This is one of the examples of the controversial Hockney–Falco thesis, which claims that some of the Old Masters used optical aids to produce their masterpieces.
  5. He was also nominated as a "corresponding member" of the French Academy of Sciences in 1699, but there is no evidence that the nomination was accepted, nor that he was ever aware of it. [23]
  6. The "Lens on Leeuwenhoek" site, which is exhaustively researched and annotated, prints this letter in the original Dutch and in English translation, with the date 17 September 1683. Assuming that the date of 1676 is accurately reported from Pommerville (2014), that book seems more likely to be in error than the intensely detailed, scholarly researched website focused entirely on van Leeuwenhoek.
  7. Sixty-two years later, in 1745, a physician correctly attributed a diarrhea epidemic to van Leeuwenhoek's "bloodless animals" (Valk 1745, cited by Moll 2003).

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  1. Lane, Nick (6 March 2015). "The Unseen World: Reflections on Leeuwenhoek (1677) 'Concerning Little Animal'." Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2015 Apr; 370 (1666): 20140344. [doi:10.1098/rstb.2014.0344]
  2. Dobell, Clifford (1923). "A Protozoological Bicentenary: Antony van Leeuwenhoek (1632–1723) and Louis Joblot (1645–1723)". Parasitology. 15 (3): 308–19. doi:10.1017/s0031182000014797.
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