Biography of Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, Father of Microbiology

The Dutch scientist invented the first practical microscope

Painting of Anton Van Leeuwenhoek by Robert Thom

 

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Anton van Leeuwenhoek (Oct. 24, 1632–Aug. 30, 1723) invented the first practical microscopes and used them to become the first person to see and describe bacteria, among other microscopic discoveries. 

Fast Facts: Anton van Leeuwenhoek

  • Known For: Improvements to the microscope, discovery of bacteria, discovery of sperm, descriptions of all manner of microscopic cell structures (plant and animal), yeasts, molds, and more
  • Also Known As: Antonie Van Leeuwenhoek, Antony Van Leeuwenhoek
  • Born: Oct. 24, 1632, in Delft, Holland
  • Died: Aug. 30, 1723, in Delft, Holland
  • Education: Only basic education
  • Published Works: "Arcana naturœ detecta," 1695, a collection of his letters sent to the Royal Society of London, translated into Latin for the scientific community
  • Awards: Member of the Royal Society of London
  • Spouses: Barbara de Mey (m.1654–1666), Cornelia Swalmius (m. 1671–1694)
  • Children: Maria
  • Notable Quote: "My work...was not pursued in order to gain the praise I now enjoy, but chiefly from a craving after knowledge."

Early Life of Anton van Leeuwenhoek 

Leeuwenhoek was born in Holland in 1632, and as a teenager he became an apprentice at a linen draper's shop. Although it doesn't seem a likely start to a life of science, from here Leeuwenhoek was set on a path to inventing his microscope. At the shop, magnifying glasses were used to count the threads and inspect the quality of cloth. He was inspired and taught himself new methods for grinding and polishing tiny lenses of great curvature, which gave magnifications up to 275X (275 times the subject's original size), the finest known at that time.

Contemporaneous Microscopes

People had been using magnifying lenses since the 12th century and convex and concave lenses for vision correction since the 1200s and 1300s. In 1590, Dutch lens grinders Hans and Zacharias Janssen constructed a microscope with two lenses in a tube; though it may not have been the first microscope, it was a very early model. Also credited with the invention of the microscope about the same time was Hans Lippershey, the inventor of the telescope. Their work led to others' research and development on telescopes and the modern compound microscope, such as Galileo Galilei, Italian astronomer, physicist, and engineer whose invention was the first given the name "microscope."

The compound microscopes of Leeuwenhoek's time had issues with blurry figures and distortions and could magnify only up to 30 or 40 times.

Leeuwenhoek Microscope

Leeuwenhoek's work on his tiny lenses led to the building of his microscopes, considered the first practical ones. They bore little resemblance to today's microscopes, however; they were more like very high-powered magnifying glasses and used only one lens instead of two.

Other scientists didn't adopt Leeuwenhoek's versions of microscopes because of the difficulty in learning to use them. They were small (about 2 inches long) and used by holding one's eye close to the tiny lens and looking at a sample suspended on a pin.

Leeuwenhoek Discoveries

With these microscopes, though, he made the microbiological discoveries for which he is famous. Leeuwenhoek was the first to see and describe bacteria (1674), yeast plants, the teeming life in a drop of water (such as algae), and the circulation of blood corpuscles in capillaries. The word "bacteria" didn't exist yet, so he called these microscopic living organisms "animalcules." During his long life, he used his lenses to make pioneer studies on an extraordinary variety of things—living and nonliving—and reported his findings in more than 100 letters to the Royal Society of England and the French Academy.

Leeuwenhoek's first report to the Royal Society in 1673 described bee mouthparts, a louse, and a fungus. He studied the structure of plant cells and crystals, and the structure of human cells such as blood, muscle, skin, teeth, and hair. He even scraped the plaque from between his teeth to observe the bacteria there, which, Leeuwenhoek discovered, died after drinking coffee.

He was the first to describe sperm and postulated that conception occurred when a sperm joined with an ovum, though his thought was that the ovum just served to feed the sperm. At the time, there were various theories of how babies formed, so Leeuwenhoek's studies of sperm and ovum of various species caused an uproar in the scientific community. It would be around 200 years before scientists would agree on the process.

His View on His Work

Like his contemporary Robert Hooke, Leeuwenhoek made some of the most important discoveries of early microscopy. In one letter from 1716, he said,

"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. And therewithal, whenever I found out anything remarkable, I have thought it my duty to put down my discovery on paper, so that all ingenious people might be informed thereof."

He did not editorialize on meanings of his observations, as he acknowledged he was not a scientist, just an observer. Leeuwenhoek was not an artist either but worked with one on the drawings he submitted in his letters.

Legacy

Some of Leeuwenhoek's discoveries could be verified at the time by other scientists, but some discoveries could not because his lenses were so superior to others' microscopes and equipment. Some people had to come to him to see his work in person.

Just 11 of Leeuwenhoek's 500 microscopes exist today. His instruments were made of gold and silver, and most were sold by his family after he died in 1723. Other scientists did not use his microscopes, as they were difficult to learn to use. Some improvements to the device occurred in the 1730s, but big improvements that led to today's compound microscopes didn't happen until the middle of the 19th century.

Sources

  • Cobb, M. "An Amazing 10 Years: The Discovery of Egg and Sperm in the 17th Century." Reproduction in Domestic Animals 47 (Suppl. 4; 2012), 2–6, Faculty of Life Sciences, University of Manchester, Manchester, UK.
  • Lane, Nick. "The Unseen World: Reflections on Leeuwenhoek (1677) ‘Concerning Little Animals.’" Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London Series B, Biological Sciences 370 (1666) (April 19, 2015): 20140344.
  • Van Leeuwenhoek, Anton. Letter of June 12, 1716, to the Royal Society, quoted by the University of California Museum of Paleontology, Berkeley.
  • Vision Engineering. "Later Developments."