The origins of most sciences can be traced back to the work and genius of an individual. In the case of microbiology, that genius was Anton van Leeuwenhoek.
But, who was van Leeuwenhoek and why is he so important? In this article, we will go over his life and work.
Anton van Leeuwenhoek
Anton van Leeuwenhoek was a Dutch tradesman and scientist who was born on October 24, 1632, in Delft, Dutch Republic and died in the same town on August 26, 1723, at the age of 90.
He is best known for developing and improving the microscope, which then allowed him to make important contributions in the scientific field of microbiology.
Anton or Antonie? Both names are used, his name in Dutch is Antonie but he is better known as Anton in the English-speaking world.
He was not born into a scientific family. His father was a basket maker and his mother a housewife. When Anton was 16 he moved to Amsterdam to work as an apprentice for a cloth merchant, where he carried out bookkeeping and cashier duties.
At that time, cloth merchants used some kind of rudimentary microscope that is was really nothing more than a magnifying glass that had been mounted on a stand. Anton was so impressed by it, that he bought his own soon after moving to Amsterdam.
Once his apprenticeship was over in 1654, Anton went back to his hometown where he established a drapery business and became successful.
It was thanks to the microscopes that he was able to craft by hand that he became the first person to observe single-celled organisms, now known as microorganisms. But the term that van Leeuwenhoek used to refer to them was animalcules.
Apart from being the first person who was ever able to see microorganisms, he was also the first to observe bacteria, muscle fibers, spermatozoa, and the blood flow in the small blood vessels known as capillaries.
Van Leeuwenhoek: The Father of Microbiology
In the history of science, Anton van Leeuwenhoek is one of the most unlikely scientists there has been. A tradesman born into a family of tradesmen, he never obtained a university degree or pursue a higher education. And he had no fortune to his name.
A man has always to be busy with his thoughts if anything is to be accomplished. – Antonie van Leeuwenhoek
As we saw, he began working at age 16 and it was only his curiosity and ingenuity that prompted him to make the discoveries he did.
Clearly, what he lacked in formal academic training he made up for with both diligence and skill. So much so that he is widely known and respected now as the “father of microbiology”.
He is credited with having made some of the most important discoveries in the whole history of biology.
We know that he learned to make simple microscopes by grinding lenses by 1668. These handcrafted microscopes allowed him to make some simple observations of his own.
He then seemed to have come across an illustrated book called Micrographia by Robert Hooke, which encouraged him to pursue more serious and sophisticated research. It was then that he began developing his own microscopes.
Anton van Leeuwenhoek’s Microscope
His microscopes were simple in design. Mostly, they were just magnifying glasses instead of a compound of different lenses as modern-day microscopes consist of.
Van Leeuwenhoek made his lenses why heating up a rod of soda lime glass and pulling the hot section thus creating tow whiskers of glass, and then reheating the then of one of those whiskers to create a glass sphere. He then used the glass spheres he had created as lenses for his microscopes because of the magnifications they were able to achieve.
The way he assembled all the components in order to create a microscope was extremely simple, particularly if we compare his handcrafted microscopes with the ones scientists use know, and which are based on an original design by Zacharias Jensen.
Van Leeuwenhoek used a single lends that he mounted in a small hole through a brass place. He then mounted this on a sharp point sticking up right in front of the lens. He used two screws to adjust the focus of the lens and its position.
The length of his instruments was between 3 and 4 inches. In order to use them, you needed high-quality lighting. The microscope also had to be placed close to the eye and patiently positioned.
But, unlike what is sometimes believed, van Leeuwenhoek did not invent the microscope. Compound microscopes date as far back as the 1590s. But they were not optimal and were greatly inferior to what he was able to create and use in his own research.
This explains why, despite the existence of microscopes for over forty years, no one had yet observed microorganisms. What is key in studying van Leeuwenhoek is not so much that he was able to create his own microscopes but the observations he managed to carry out with them for the first time.
But not only was he able to make those amazing observations for the first time in human history, he was also able to describe what he observed in detailed writing. Otherwise, he could not have shared his knowledge and he would have most likely remained an obscure figure.
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. – Antonie van Leenwenhoek
He was able to describe what he observed to an illustrator and then he wrote detailed descriptions of everything we saw through his microscope.
His observations began to get published in 1673 by the Royal Society of London, an institution with which he had been in correspondence. Some members of the Royal Society were skeptical about van Leeuwenhoek’s early observations, but a team was sent out to the Dutch Republic, and he was eventually appointed a Fellow of the Royal Society. It took him 50 years of research to be finally vindicated.