a janitor named leeuwenhoek changes the world -- 9/18/19

Today's selection -- from Microbe Hunters by Paul de Kruif. A Dutch janitor and shopkeeper named Antony Leeuwenhoek discovered microbes and the minute details of many other things by grinding his own lenses, making hundreds of microscopes, and spending 20 years in near isolation peering at these never-before-seen items:

"Two hundred and fifty years ago an obscure man named Leeu­wenhoek looked for the first time into a mysterious new world peopled with a thousand different kinds of tiny beings, some ferocious and deadly, others friendly and useful, many of them more important to mankind than any continent or archipelago.

"Antony Leeuwenhoek, unsung and scarce remembered ... was born in 1632 amid the blue windmills and low streets and high canals of Delft, in Holland. His family were burghers of an intensely respectable kind and I say intensely respectable because they were basket-makers and brewers and brewers are respectable and highly honored in Holland. Leeuwenhoek's father died early and his mother sent him to school to learn to be a government official, but he left school at sixteen to be an apprentice in a dry-goods store in Amsterdam. ...

"At the age of twenty-one he left the dry-goods store, went back to Delft, married, set up a dry-goods store of his own there. For twenty years after that very little is known about him, except that he had two wives (in succession) and several children most of whom died, but there is no doubt that during this time he was appointed janitor of the city hall of Delft, and that he developed a most idiotic love for grinding lenses. He had heard that if you very carefully ground very little lenses out of clear glass, you would see things look much big­ger than they appeared to the naked eye ...

"It would be great fun to look through a lens and see things bigger than your naked eye showed them to you! But buy lenses? Not Leeuwenhoek! There never was a more suspicious man. Buy lenses? He would make them himself! During these twenty years of his obscurity he went to spectacle-makers and got the rudiments of lens-grinding. He visited alchemists and apothecaries and put his nose into their secret ways of getting metals from ores, he began fumblingly to learn the craft of the gold- and silversmiths. He was a most pernickety man and was not satisfied with grinding lenses as good as those of the best lens-grinder in Holland, they had to be better than the best, and then he still fussed over them for long hours. Next he mounted these lenses in little oblongs of copper or silver or gold, which he had extracted himself, over hot fires, among strange smells and fumes. ... 

A microscopic section of a one-year-old ash tree (Fraxinus) wood, drawing made by van Leeuwenhoek

"Now this self-satisfied dry-goods dealer began to turn his lenses onto everything he could get hold of. He looked through them at the muscle fibers of a whale and the scales of his own skin. He went to the butcher shop and begged or bought ox-eyes and was amazed at how prettily the crystalline lens of the eye of the ox is put together. He peered for hours at the build of the hairs of a sheep, of a beaver, of an elk, that were transformed from their fineness into great rough logs under his bit of glass. He delicately dissected the head of a fly; he stuck its brain on the fine needle of his microscope -- how he admired the clear details of the marvelous big brain of that fly! He examined the cross-sections of the wood of a dozen different trees and squinted at the seeds of plants. He grunted 'Impossible!' when he first spied the outlandish large perfec­tion of the sting of a flea and the legs of a louse. That man Leeuwenhoek was like a puppy who sniffs -- with a totally im­polite disregard of discrimination -- at every object of the world around him!

"There never was a less sure man than Leeuwenhoek. He looked at this bee's sting or that louse's leg again and again and again. He left his specimens sticking on the point of his strange mi­croscope for months -- in order to look at other things he made more microscopes till he had hundreds of them! -- then he came back to those first specimens to correct his first mis­takes. He never set down a word about anything he peeped at, he never made a drawing until hundreds of peeps showed him that, under given conditions, he would always see exactly the same thing. ... He worked for twenty years that way, without an audience. ...

"But ... the Royal Society of England ... were Antony Leeuwenhoek's first au­dience. There was one man in Delft who did not laugh at Antony Leeuwenhoek, and that was Regnier de Graaf, whom the Lords and Gentlemen of the Royal Society had made a corresponding member because he had written them of inter­esting things he had found in the human ovary. Already Leeu­wenhoek was rather surly and suspected everybody, but he let de Graaf peep through those magic [microscopes] of his, those little lenses whose equal did not exist in Europe or England or the whole world for that matter. What de Graaf saw through those microscopes made him ashamed of his own fame and he hur­ried to write to the Royal Society:

"'Get Antony Leeuwenhoek to write you telling of his discoveries.' ...

"The Royal Society was amazed, the sophisticated and learned gentlemen were amused -- but principally the Royal Society was astounded by the marvelous things Leeuwenhoek told them he could see through his new lenses. The Secretary of the Royal Society thanked Leeuwenhoek and told him he hoped his first communication would be followed by others. It was, by hundreds of others over a period of fifty years. ...

"When you look back at them, many of the fundamental discoveries of science seem so simple, too absurdly simple. How was it men groped and fumbled for so many thousands of years without seeing things that lay right under their noses? So with microbes."

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Paul de Kruif


Microbe Hunters


Harvest Book, Harcourt, Inc.


Copyright 1926 by Paul de Kruif


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