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Antonj van Leeuwenhoek: Appreciating the Little Things…

Leeuwenhoek's microscopes by Henry Baker. Image: Public Domain

We continue Kirsty Martin's series of blog posts for Glasgow City of Science on the theme of 'Whose Shoulders Are These Anyway?' with an appreciation of the little things in life, first laid bare by van Leeuwenhoek.

 

The sentiment that ‘it’s the little things in life that make it worthwhile’ is thrown about often enough to be considered a cliché; Sir Arthur Conan Doyle considered it a fundamental truth that “the little things are infinitely the most important.”*

That is certainly true of life as a microscopist; my research involves using light and lenses to get as much information as possible about how tiny things (cells, and the proteins within them) influence one of the biggest health issues of our time (cancer).

It is incredibly exciting to be immersed in the world of modern microscopy, which now has the capacity to reveal the details of life in unprecedented detail. I have been privileged to attend talks by Eric Betzig, who shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry last year, and see the phenomenal pictures of cells that his lab generates. Betzig great strength is taking a novel approach to existing problems, and seeing him talk feels like glimpsing into the future of microscopy.**

It won’t surprise readers of this blog series that looking ahead to the potential of the next decades also gets me thinking about the history of microscopy, and who got us where we are today. And the man who most caught my imagination was, oddly enough, not so much a stepping stone on the pathway to our current technology as a divergent branch on the tree that petered out before its time. This man was called Antonj van Leeuwenhoek*** who, like Betzig, liked to take a different approach from his peers. Born in Delft in the year 1632, van Leeuwenhoek was a contemporary of Robert Hooke****, although his observations are far less well publicised these days. This is a shame, because while Hooke and his ilk were muddling along with what we would now consider ‘primitive’ compound microscopes, van Leeuwenhoek was building his own unique design of hand-held ‘mikroskoops’ that massively outperformed them.

It was originally his business as a linen-draper that brought van Leewenhoek to an interest in lens-making; cloth merchants around the world were using magnifying lenses to assess thread count and quality in their wares. van Leeuwenhoek was different in only one way: he wanted to improve the magnification, and experimented with making his own tiny spherical lenses, which the Dutch physician Reinier de Graaf reputedly thought to "far surpass those which we have hitherto seen". And then, like any of us would with a magnifier in our hands, Antonj started to cast around for other things to look at through them. Such things included: pond water; the stings of bees; rainwater; the edges of razors; the seeds of plants; the plaque between his teeth; the eyes of beetles; drops of blood; salt crystals; and the white gunk that collected on his tongue when he had a fever…*****

http://rstb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/370/1666/20140344

The most striking of van Leeuwenhoek’s discoveries would, ultimately, spawn a whole new field of scientific endeavour; microbiology. He had observed tens of thousands of ‘animalcules’ (little animals - pictured) living not only in drops of rain and pond water, but in the plaque from his teeth and the white residue of a putrid throat! We now know these as bacteria – although at the time their very existence was considered a figment of a fever dream by the scientific elite. His first letters to the Royal Society concerning the ‘little animals’ were dismissed, as he was condescending told, “accompanied, I regret to inform you, by considerable giggling”.******

The reticence of the scientific community in accepting van Leeuwenhoek’s data is somewhat surprising, given that the late 1600’s were a hotbed of scientific discovery and technological advancement in Europe. But compared to many of the other scientific luminaries of the time, van Leeuwenhoek was relatively uneducated. He had some schooling as a child, but was then sent to Amsterdam as an apprentice book-keeper to a Scottish linen-draper, William Davidson. On his return to his home town of Delft, van Leewenhoek opened a draper’s shop of his own and it was his success in the field of business that brought him positions of status within the city. That status was as a tradesman, however, who knew no Latin and had not attended any University, which seems to have meant that it held little weight in the eyes of the ‘gentleman scientists’.

But our Tonj wasn’t about to let that hold him back! He persisted in sending his observations – if not his equipment – to the Society, accompanied with drawings made by a trained artist and testimonials from ‘gentlemen’ to whom he had shown the same samples. Among the drawings sent over the next years were diagrams of the concave shape of red blood cells, the striped pattern of muscles,******* and rod-shaped bacteria that are instantly recognisable to any modern student of biology. It was not, however, until their own famed Robert Hooke had pushed his own microscopes to their limits and confirmed van Leeuwenhoek’s observations that the Royal Society relented, published his letters concerning the “wretched beasties” and finally inducted him into their ranks in 1680.

Replica of a single-lens microscope by Leeuwenhoek (Image by Jeroen Rouwkema. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

So that’s all it takes: some native wit, an enquiring mind, “a craving after knowledge” (as Antonj himself described it), and a little stubbornness. Thankfully van Leeuwenhoek “thought it my duty to put down my discovery on paper, so that all ingenious people might be informed thereof.” Unfortunately this record keeping did not extend to his techniques for making his lenses and microscopes, which he chose to “only keep for myself”. He had no apprentice of his own in this field, which meant that when he died in 1723 the fields of microbiology and cell studies were hindered some 150-200 years until compound microscopes of equivalent and greater power were easier to produce. It was not until 1837 that Purkinje confirmed that animal tissues were made up of the same kind of cells as Hooke had seen in plants, and it was 1875 before Ferdinand Cohn was able to begin classifying bacteria (a process that relies on intimate observation of differences and similarities).

I can’t help wondering how different the technology I work with today might have been had van Leeuwenhoek’s techniques been passed on and further developed. And I can’t help but regret that it never happened, as they were such pretty, elegant, little devices (pictured).

 

Footnotes

* It is difficult for me to argue with that, given that it is the little things that keep me in a job! KM

** Seriously, if he is ever giving a public lecture near you I urge you to go; he is truly inspirational! KM

*** Please don’t ask me how to pronounce it! KM

**** Of Micrographia fame. KM

***** Hang on, let me check something. No, we’re good. I didn’t confuse this list with one for a witches brew! KM

****** This seems ludicrously unfair now (hindsight being 20:20, even if microscopes are not!), although in all fairness, it is hard for us to imagine how much of a departure from the accepted norm his claims were at the time. KM

******* Highlighted by saffron, in the first recorded use of cell-staining, no less! KM

 

Kirsty Martin graduated in biochemistry from the University of Glasgow in 2006, moved to Dundee to pursue her PhD in cell signalling at the MRC Unit there. She continued her scientific tour of Scotland with a post-doc in advanced imaging techniques at the newly founded IB3 institute at Heriot Watt University before returning to Glasgow where she's currently combining these skill sets working at the Beatson Institute for Cancer Research.

Outside of the lab Kirsty's an avid reader of classic, historical and fantasy literature; she enjoys puzzle and adventure games; and her geek status is cemented by a love of fibrecrafts, particularly knitting and crochet. She's always excited to find things that combine these varied professional and personal interests!

You can read other blog posts in this series of "Whose Shoulders Are These Anyway" posts from Kirsty on 'Living Liebig’s laboratory legacy', 'What’s In Your DNA, Friedrich Miescher?, 'George's Marvellous Memorial' and 'Dazzled by the Dark Lady'.

 

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