Anton van Leeuwenhoek is often referred to as the “Father of Microbiology.” The discovery of the cell occurred in 1665 and is attributed to Robert Hooke. Hooke wrote a book called Micrographia and offer 60 observations of detailed objects that were seen under a compound microscope. Leeuwenhoek would go on to expand upon the cell theories that Hooke first offered.
How a Childhood Developed a Lens Maker
Anton van Leeuwenhoek was born in 1632 in the city of Delft, which was located in the Dutch Republic. His father was a basket maker, but died when Anton was just 5 years old. His mother, who came from a wealthy family, would then marry a painter. Anton’s stepfather died when he was 10 years old. Yet despite being a widow twice-over, his mother supported his initial education with the help of an uncle who worked as an attorney.
Leeuwenhoek would make a name for himself not by going on to receive a university education, but by becoming active in municipal politics. It was during his time as a politician that he developed a hobby that involved making lenses. He would handcraft the lenses needed for microscopes and that would eventually lead to his first descriptions of microorganisms that would become the foundation of his cell theory.
How Leeuwenhoek’s Cell Theory Came About
Leeuwenhoek observed cells at nearly the same time that Hooke first observed them. Leeuwenhoek’s microscope used improved lenses over Hooke’s, however, which allowed him to magnify objects up to 270 times. This allowed him to see motile objects, which led him to write that “motility is a quality of life.” That meant the cell structures he saw under the microscope were living organisms.
Leeuwenhoek would go on to view many different forms of microorganisms for the first time. Bacteria and protozoa were referred to as “animalcules.” He would provide the first accurate descriptions of a red blood cell. He would also be the first to observe sperm cells and identify an accurate fertilization process.
He would also go on to use measurements and samples to determine microorganism counts, similar to the process of a complete blood count today. This would lead him to discover the vacuole of a cell and even the banded patterns on muscle fibers.
Leeuwenhoek’s contemporaries thought his cell theories were implausible at best. It would be Robert Hooke who would confirm his findings. And Leeuwenhoek did all of this without receiving a formal education.
A Monopoly on Microscopic Studies and Discoveries
By the year 1700, Leeuwenhoek would wind up being responsible for almost all of the current studies and discoveries in microbiology at the time. Hooke would often comment about the fact that everything in the field was routed through Leeuwenhoek. Yet because Leeuwenhoek’s lenses were far superior to any others that were being created, the scientific world was forced to rely on Anton for discoveries.
Part of the reputation Leeuwenhoek was able to create for himself was due to his business acumen. Many nobles and dignitaries would visit him, hoping to see the microscopes and lenses that were leading to his discoveries. Instead of showing his audiences these items, he would break out the same equipment that everyone else was using, keeping his cutting-edge equipment a secret.
His microscopes were made of copper or silver. He is believed to have made more than 500 optical lenses and at least 25 single-lens microscopes. Nine of those microscopes have survived to this date, each capable of a magnification of 275 times. Leeuwenhoek may have been an “amateur,” but his scientific research met or exceeded quality standards in every regard.
By the end of his life in 1723, Anton van Leeuwenhoek had written over 550 letters to the Royal Society in London and other institutions regarding his discoveries and observations. In his final observations, he even reported on the illness that would wind up killing him, which caused uncontrolled movements in his midriff. It is even called Van Leeuwenhoek’s disease and it is so rare that only about 50 people in the world have been diagnosed with it.
Anton van Leeuwenhoek’s cell theory advancements helped to open up an entirely new realm of scientific discovery. His work helped to set the foundation of disease identification, antibiotics, and modern vaccines because he was able to see how the world worked at some of the smallest levels. Even without a formal advanced education, the title of “Father of Microbiology” is indeed fitting for this man.