The 17th century Dutch naturalist Anton van Leeuwenhoek is often dubbed “the father of microbiology,” and food good reason. Sometimes referred to as Antonie, Antoni or Antony, van Leeuwenhoek came from humble beginnings as a draper and approached the then-unnamed practice of microbiology from a hobbyist's perspective. Despite his lack of scientific training, van Leeuwenhoek's sheer dedication and enthusiasm led to some of the most significant discoveries in the history of biology.
Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, born in Delft, Holland in 1632, made his discoveries in a very unusual fashion. He spent the majority of his life as a linen draper in his hometown, where he also served as chamberlain to the sheriffs. Around 1668, he began building simple, hand-crafted microscopes to observe the world around him, from pieces of chalk to scrapings from his own teeth. Until his death in 1723, van Leeuwenhoek documented his many observations and discoveries in over 200 conversational letters written to the Royal Society in London, with which he included detailed, accurate drawings created by a professional local illustrator.
Although van Leeuwenhoek did not invent the microscope, he contributed greatly to its history. In his lifetime, van Leeuwenhoek built roughly 500 microscopes and at least 172 lenses. Although simple in construction -- in fact, these scopes would be considered powerful magnifying glasses today -- van Leeuwenhoek's viewing devices could magnify objects up to 200 times and offered unheard of clarity for the time. Some speculate that van Leeuwenhoek discovered a simple method of dark-ground illumination, the process of observing living matter using scattered light.
Key Biological Discoveries
Under his homemade microscopes, van Leeuwenhoek discovered bacteria, protozoa and spermatozoa. In his early observations, van Leeuwenhoek referred to bacteria as “animalcules.” He was also the first to observe free-living and parasitic microscopic protists, blood cells and nematodes. Likewise, van Leeuwenhoek discovered the tiny multicellular aquatic animals known as rotifers and hydra, and the single-celled volvox.
In his observation of aphids, van Leeuwenhoek discovered the process of parthenogenesis, a form of asexual reproduction from an unfertilized ovum. While he did not discover muscle fibers, van Leeuwenhoek was the first to observe them -- as well as the blood flow in capillaries -- under the microscope. Because van Leeuwenhoek was extremely secretive about his methods, he may have made even more discoveries than those known by the modern scientific community.
- PBS: Red Gold: Anton Van Leeuwenhoek
- Princeton University: WordNet Search 3.1: Dark Ground Illumination
- University of California Museum of Paleontology: Antony van Leeuwenhoek (1632 - 1723)
- Florida State University: Molecular Expressions: Antonie van Leeuwenhoek
- University of Cambridge: A Dutch Pioneer: Antoni van Leeuwenhoek
- Oli Scarff/Getty Images News/Getty Images