London Dreaming…

The Linnean Society, The Royal Geographic Society, The Royal Geological Society, The Natural History Museum…

The Royal Society is hosting a series of free lunch time lectures on the history of science. On October 29 at 1:00 PM they are featuring Professor Brian J. Ford, an expert on the history of microscopy:

The birth of microscopy is here shown to be very different from the traditional view. Standard texts inform us that pioneers, like Hooke, used compound microscopes to investigate the microscopic world. Yet there is a paradox: the fine images in works like Hooke’s Micrographia (1665) include details that contemporaneous compound microscopes could not resolve.

The single lensed (=simple) microscope has been dismissed as a crude instrument of limited capacity, and recent demonstrations on television have confirmed this view. Today we shall discover that remarkably clear images were obtained by lenses of diminutive size (often no larger than the head of a pin). The work of Hooke, Leeuwenhoek and Robert Brown is re-examined, and their remarkable results are now reconciled with the technical capacity of the instruments they used in their investigations.

See the Royal Society Events Diary for more on the lunchtime  lectures.

Wish I could be there…

First Published Microscopy Article?

Before Hooke published his Micrographia (1665), and before Leeuwenhoek’s first letter to the Royal Society (1673), others had published on microscopy. The OU History of Science Collections has documented two more early users of the microscope. They were contemporaries of Galileo  – fellow members of the Academy of the Lynx-Eyed – and they produced a document called the Apiarium:

The Apiarium (Rome, 1625) was a gift of the Lynx to the new pope. Galileo adapted the telescope into a new instrument, named a microscope by a member of the Lynx. In the Apiarium, the first publication of observations made with a microscope, Federico Cesi (1585-1630) and Francesco Stelluti (1577-1651) studied the anatomy of the bee.

Learn more about this document and find further links in the article: Earliest published microscopic study.

(Image from OU History of Science: Apiarium)

Leeuwenhoek’s Microscope in the Classroom

An article from CBE – Life Sciences promotes Leeuwenhoek for teaching science history in high school. In the effort to motivate an interest in the history of science, this study from Brazil utilizes replicas of the Leeuwenhoek microscope to connect the past to the present. The abstract:
The history of science should be incorporated into science teaching as a means of improving learning and also to increase the students’ understanding about the nature of science. In biology education, the history of microscopy deserves a special place. The discovery of this instrument not only opened a new and fantastic microworld but also led to the development of one unifying principle of biological sciences (i.e., cell theory). The microscopes of Leeuwenhoek and Hooke opened windows into the microworld of living organisms. In the present work, the knowledge of these themes was analyzed in a group of students beginning an undergraduate biology course. Our data suggest that the history of microscopy is poorly treated at the secondary school level. We propose a didactic activity using a replica of Leeuwenhoek’s microscope made with Plexiglas and a lens obtained from a key chain laser pointer or from a broken CD drive. The proposed activity motivated students to learn about microscopy and helped them to appreciate scientific knowledge from a historical perspective.
Included with the study is supplemental material with instructions for the construction of replica Leeuwenhoek microscopes.
Lenira M.N. Sepel, Elgion L.S. Loreto, and João B.T. Rocha Using a Replica of Leeuwenhoek’s Microscope to Teach the History of Science and to Motivate Students to Discover the Vision and the Contributions of the First Microscopists
CBE Life Sci Educ 2009: 338–343. [Abstract] [Full Text]


Prior to Leeuwenhoek’s description of microorganisms, the Englishman Robert Hooke had released his book Micrographia. Within this book (Observation XX ) Hooke describes some mould found on a book cover:Hookes mould

But, first, I must premise a short description of this Specimen, which I have added of this Tribe, in the first Figure of the XII. Scheme, which is nothing else but the appearance of a small white spot of hairy mould, multitudes of which I found to bespeck & whiten over the red covers of a small book, which, it seems, were of Sheeps skin, that being more apt to gather mould, even in a dry and clean room, then other leathers. These spots appear’d, through a good Microscope, to be a very pretty shap’d Vegetative body, which, from almost the same part of the Leather, shot out multitudes of small long cylindrical and transparent stalks, not exactly streight, but a little bended with the weight of a round and white knob that grew on the top of each of them; many of these knobs I observ’d to be very round, and of a smooth surface, such as A, A, &c. others smooth likewise, but a little oblong, as B; several of them a little broken, or cloven with chops at the top, as C; others flitter’d as ’twere, or flown all to pieces, as D, D. The whole substance of these pretty bodies was of a very tender constitution, much like the substance of the softer kind of common white Mushroms, for by touching them with a Pin, I found them to be brused and torn; they seem’d each of them to have a distinct root of their own; for though they grew neer together in a cluster, yet I could perceive each stem to rise out of a distinct part or pore of the Leather; some of these were small and short, as seeming to have been but newly sprung up, of these the balls were for the most part round, others were bigger, and taller, as being perhaps of a longer growth, and of these, for the most part, the heads were broken, and some much wasted, as E; what these heads contain’d I could not perceive; whether they were knobs and flowers, or seed cases, I am not able to say, but they seem’d most likely to be of the same nature with those that grow on Mushroms, which they did, some of them, not a little resemble.”

Author Howard Gest brings forward the case (see this article)  that Hooke was in fact the first to observe a micro-organism, rather than Leeuwenhoek.