“Leeuwenhoek/Bore no spite/Against the speck,/The mote, the mite. …
“Only wonder/Sharp as pain,/Clear as thunder/Before rain,/Stirred his senses,/When his eyes/Through his lenses/Held surprise.”
––“Leeuwenhoek”, by Alex R. Schmidt, in Poetry: A Magazine of Verse (October 1943)
“[M]y work, which I’ve done for many a long year, was not pursued in order to gain the praise I now enjoy, but chiefly from a craving after knowledge, which I notice resides in me more than in most other men. And therewithal, whenever I found out anything remarkable, I have thought it my duty to put down my discovery on papers, so that all ingenious people might be informed thereof.”
––June 12, 1716 letter from Leeuwenhoek to Professors Antony Cinck, Ursmer Narez, and Henri-Joseph Réga of the University of Louvain, upon receiving a medal, and an encomium in Latin verse, from the University. (Included, in the original Dutch, in the work offered here). Translation by Clifford Dobell.
THE FIRST COMPLETE COLLECTION OF THE 165 LETTERS OF ANTONI VAN LEEUWENHOEK THAT WERE PUBLISHED IN HIS LIFETIME (IN THE ORIGINAL DUTCH, AND PRECEDING THE FIRST COMPLETE LATIN EDITION BY FOUR YEARS); INCLUDING HIS LETTERS TO THE ROYAL SOCIETY DESCRIBING THE FIRST-EVER OBSERVATIONS OF BACTERIA, SPERM CELLS, AND OTHER MICROSCOPIC OBJECTS AND PHENOMENA.
Antoni van Leeuwenhoek — a seventeenth-century Dutch draper, municipal official, and amateur scientist — became skilled in the construction of simple (single-lens) microscopes, which he used to observe the “mysteries of nature.” He described his observations in some two hundred letters to the Royal Society of London spanning a period of more than 45 years, of which 165 were published during his lifetime. The work offered here is the first collected edition of those letters, published when Leeuwenhoek was in his 80s.
Leeuwenhoek was born in the town of Delft in the Dutch Republic on October 24, 1632. His biographer and bibliographer, Clifford Dobell, states that “[a]ll the trustworthy evidence now available … shows that [he] was a true Hollander of decent though not of aristocratic descent — a child of fairly well-to-do tradespeople.” (Dobell, Antony van Leeuwenhoek and his ‘Little Animals’: Being Some Account of the Father of Protozoology & Bacteriology and his Multifarious Discoveries in These Disciplines (1932).) He had a few early years of schooling, did not attend a university, and never learned Latin or, indeed, any language other than Dutch.
“In 1648 … [he] was sent to Amsterdam …. He was there placed in a linen-draper’s shop, in order to learn the business; and in a very short time he qualified himself as a draper and rose to the position of book-keeper and cashier — a post which he held for several years at least. … About six years after his first apprenticeship in Amsterdam, Leeuwenhoek returned to his native town: and here, for the rest of his days, he remained.” He married in 1654, and at about that time “bought a house and shop in Delft, and set up business as a draper.” (Dobell, op. cit.)
“It is probable that Leeuwenhoek carried on his drapery business for many years — from the time of his first marriage (1654) onwards. We have no direct information about him again, however, until six years later, when he was made Chamberlain to the Sheriffs of Delft. He held this post for 39 years ….” ( Id.) While holding the post of Chamberlain, he also acquired other municipal appointments — as a surveyor, a tax official, and a “wine-gauger” (in which capacity he was responsible for quality control and accurate representation of volume for wines and spirits imported into Delft).
Leeuwenhoek was a contemporary of the artist Johannes Vermeer, who was born on the same day as him and who also lived in Delft. Vermeer “was buried in his native town on 15 December 1675 at the early age of 43, leaving his widow with eight children (all under age), an insolvent estate, and some of the world’s finest pictures. To meet her creditors Catharina Vermeer was forced to file a petition in bankruptcy and realize her assets: whereupon … the Sheriffs nominated Leeuwenhoek to act as ‘curator’ or ‘official receiver.’” (Dobell, op cit.) Although it has been suggested that Leeuwenhoek’s role in the administration of Vermeer’s estate was merely a responsibility associated with his position as Chamberlain, Dobell notes that “[t]o me the incident appears rather to indicate that Leeuwenhoek may have been a personal friend of the Vermeers ….” The links between the work of Leeuwenhoek and Vermeer are explored in Laura J. Snyder, Eye of the Beholder: Johannes Vermeer, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, and the Reinvention of Seeing (2015), which ties Leeuwenhoek’s microscopy with Vermeer’s (conjectured) use of a camera obscura in creating his paintings.
“The transformation of scientific ideas … now associated with the Scientific Revolution came about in large part because of the new optical instruments, the new theories that provided the groundwork for using them, and the startling ability to see beyond what was available to the naked eye. For the first time the question of how we see assumed a central place in science, and what it meant, precisely to see, was radically reconceived. And in the midst of this upheaval of thought, science and art came together in a small city in the Dutch Republic to shed light on what it really meant to see the world around us. …
“It is tempting to speculate that Vermeer and Leeuwenhoek must have known each other, that they must have been friends who talked together about lenses and optical experiments. There is an intricate web of threads that draws them together — they were born the same week in 1632, the lived and worked their entire adult lives within the area of an American football field, they had friends in common, and, most telling of all perhaps, when Vermeer died, Leeuwenhoek was the executor of his estate. But there is no ‘smoking gun’ proving conclusively that they were friends or even acquaintances. What we do know of the two men is intriguing enough without engaging in conjecture, no matter how agreeable it is to imagine them discussing optics and optical instruments over a beer in Vermeer’s family’s tavern. The true allure of the story of their lives and works is the way both men played key roles in the sea change in the notion of seeing that occurred in this time and place.”
It is not clear how Leeuwenhoek became interested in microscopy. It has been speculated that he began constructing microscopes in order to better examine the quality of the linen cloth that he purchased and sold. However, Edward G. Ruestow, in his book The Microscope in the Dutch Republic: The Shaping of Discovery (Cambridge 1996), suggests that “[i]t would not have been out of character had Leeuwenhoek originally been more intrigued by the technical challenge of making the instruments than by any thought yet of their serious application. He always delighted, it appears, in exercising his ingenuity and self-sufficiency in technological matters …. Consequently, whatever the initial source of inspiration … the prospect of making so extraordinary an instrument as a powerful microscope simply by fusing beads of glass would surely have appealed to such a penchant for technological dabbling.” In any event, his emergence into the international world of science was quite sudden. “From the date of his appointment as Chamberlain in 1660 nothing was heard of Leeuwenhoek outside of Delft for thirteen years, though we may be sure that he was not idle during this interval. But in 1673 we hear of him again in an altogether unexpected connexion. Our Dutch Draper-Chamberlain is now suddenly discovered to us as an amateur of science — offering a paper, containing some modest original observations, for publication in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London.” (Dobell, op. cit.)
The publication of his research over the years, in the Philosophical Transactions and elsewhere — illustrated by beautiful and striking engravings made from drawings executed by draftsmen hired by Leeuwenhoek — made him famous, and he was visited over the years by such notables as Tsar Peter the Great, William of Orange, and Leibniz. He died, still in Delft, at the age of 90, and is buried in the Old Church (“Oude Kerk”) in that town.
Despite his fame during his lifetime, “[m]ost of his discoveries were forgotten, and only rediscovered in the nineteenth century, 150 years later, being then interpreted in the context of the newly developing cell theory, with little reference back to Leeuwenhoek himself. In this regard Leeuwenhoek’s legacy is analogous to that of Gregor Mendel, likewise rediscovered at a time when others were exploring similar ideas.” (Nick Lane, “The unseen world: reflections concerning Leeuwehnhoek (1677) ‘Concerning little animals’”, Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 370:344 (2014).)
Advances in Microscopy Achieved by Leeuwenhoek:
The instruments built by Leeuwenhoek were simple (single-lens) microscopes, unlike the compound microscope that had been used by Hooke to make the observations recorded in his 1665 work Micrographia. Although his microscopes were thus in some sense technologically more primitive, the scope and significance of the discoveries made by Leeuwenhoek went well beyond those of Hooke. This was largely because of the quality of Leeuwenhoek’s lenses, which he produced by “melting Venice glass into thin threads, containing little globules, which are then ground and polished, and mounted against a needle hole pricked through a thin plate of brass.” (Lane, op. cit.)
In later years “few believed Leeuwenhoek could have seen cells as small as bacteria; even the empathetic Dobell struggled to conceive what magical form of lighting Leeuwenhoek must have employed to view his specimens. Only the galvanizing work of Brian J. Ford, who rediscovered some of Leeuwenhoek’s samples in the library of the Royal Society in 1981, resurrected the glory of the single-lens microscope. Ford photographed Leeuwenhoek’s original specimens using one of his surviving microscopes in Utrecht, and demonstrated a remarkable resolution of less than 1 μm …. [One micron (“μm”) is equal to one twenty-five thousandth of an inch.] That left little scope for disbelief: plainly, Leeuwenhoek really did see much of what he claimed.” (Lane, op. cit.). In the preface to Brian Ford’s book presenting the results of his research, The Leeuwenhoek Legacy (1991), Ford notes that “Professor R.V. Jones has told me of a recent university examination question which asked candidates to outline why it was impossible for Leeuwenhoek to have observed living bacteria. In this book we scotch that scepticism permanently. Views taken with lenses made by Leeuwenhoek, and with others made in modern times — but of Leeuwenhoek type — show once and for all that the simple microscope was capable of high magnification and surprisingly good resolution. One of the new insights is that a single lens is enough to reveal the fundamental structures of cellular organization. A Leeuwenhoek microscope can show the nucleus, the nucleolus, plastids, and a tripartite spermatozoon; the lobed nucleus within an unstained human polymorphonuclear cell from a blood smear shows clearly through the tiny lens preserved at Utrecht, for instance; a magnificent result for such a minute magnifying system.”
Like all microscopists, even modern ones, the quality of Leeuwenhoek’s observations depended upon his skill with sample preparation, such as the ability to cut thin, even, transparent sections from his specimens. Leeuwenhoek was also responsible for innovations in staining specimens to highlight their structure. See, e.g., Frederic T. Lewis, “The introduction of biological stains: Employment of saffron by Vieussens and Leeuwenhoek,” Anatomical Record 83(2):229-253 (1942).
Using these techniques, Leeuwenhoek became the first to observe and describe the striations in muscle fibers, bacterial cells, sperm cells, red blood cells, blood flow in capillaries (in the tail of a small eel), and protozoa such as Spirogyra, Euglena, and Vorticella.
Leeuwenhoek’s Letters to the Royal Society:
“All Leeuwenhoek’s recorded observations were described in letters. He never wrote a book or a scientific paper — only letters, and still more letters, addressed to all manner of people. His letters were all written by himself in his own old-fashioned Dutch, though they were often translated by others into other languages, published in many different ways, and collected in various volumes at divers dates by different editors. … He wrote much as he must have spoken, so that his letters have an extraordinarily colloquial and familiar flavor which conveys — to me, at least — a strange sense of intimacy.” (Dobell, op. cit.)
A friend of Leeuwenhoek’s, the physician Reinier de Graaf, called his work to the attention of the editor of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, Henry Oldenburg. The upshot of that introduction was a lengthy correspondence, stretching over decades, between Leeuwenhoek and the Society. Leeuwenhoek’s letters, which were written in Dutch, were translated into English and edited by Oldenburg and then published in the Transactions.
“Leeuwenhoek first courted controversy in a letter of September 1674. Describing a nearby lake …, he noted that its water was very clear in winter ‘but at the beginning or middle of summer it becomes whitish, and there are then little green clouds floating in it’. These clouds contained wispy ‘green streaks, spirally wound serpent-wise, and orderly arranged’ — the beautiful green alga Spirogyra. Then came Leeuwenhoek’s first mention of little animals: ‘among these streaks there were besides very many little animalcules ... And the motion of most of these animalcules in the water was so swift, and so various upwards, downwards and round about that ‘twas wonderful to see: and I judged that some of these little creatures were above a thousand times smaller than the smallest ones I have ever yet seen upon the rind of cheese’ (by which he meant mites).” (Lane, op cit.)
This letter, with its incredible claims of microscopic animals, excited skepticism and caution among the members of the Society. “Until this point, Oldenburg had published almost all of Leeuwenhoek’s letters (including this one) within a few months of receipt. Now, he drew pause. Of the next 12 letters sent by Leeuwenhoek, only three were published, and none that touched on animalcules.” (Id.)
Oldenburg asked Leeuwenhoek to provide additional information that would help members of the Society replicate his experiments and confirm his observations. In response, Leeuwenhoek employed a draftsman to illustrate his papers, and “sent eight testimonies from gentlemen of repute—a Lutheran minister, a notary and a barrister, among others.” (Lane, op. cit.). After a number of failures by members of the Society to reproduce Leeuwenhoek’s results, Robert Hooke finally succeeded. “Without Hooke’s support and verification—a task beyond several of the best microscopists of the age, including [Nehemiah] Grew — Leeuwenhoek might easily have been dismissed as a charlatan. Instead, through Hooke’s impressive demonstrations, and with the direct support of the patron of the Royal Society, King Charles II, Leeuwenhoek was elected a Fellow in 1680.” ( Id.)
Editions of the Letters:
Leeuwenhoek’s letters are the bane of bibliographers. Dobell states: “Leeuwenhoek himself published in his lifetime 165 letters (not counting letters within letters); and to these he assigned numbers — in chronological order. He published them, however, in two separate series — the first numbered with Arabic numerals, the second with roman. But the first series began with No. 28 (not No. 1) and ran to No. 146, and thus consisted of 119 letters in all; while the later series (46 letters) was consistently numbered from I to XLVI. … All of the letters originally printed in Dutch, under Leeuwenhoek’s supervision, were translated into Latin and printed in that language; but the Dutch and Latin versions were not issued simultaneously. (As a rule — but not invariably – the Dutch versions preceded the Latin.) Furthermore, the letters — whether in Dutch or in Latin — generally made their appearance a few at a time in the form of a brochure with a common title: while a little later another collection would appear — often printed for a different publisher and with a different title — and in this some of the earlier letters were often incorporated. The final complete collections of Leeuwenhoek’s letters [as here] were made up of these earlier partial collections — of various issues — and new editions; and in the case of the Latin translations, sometimes of entirely new versions corrected and amended almost beyond recognition.”
As a result, copies of the complete collections generally differ in numerous details, such as the editions of the original brochures that are included. Dobell noted that “[p]erfect copies, composed of first editions throughout, and with all the plates, are now extremely rare,” and that his own was the only such copy he had seen.
The Work Offered Here:
Send Brieven (1718; Dobell No. 20) is one of the “final compete collections” referred to by Dobell. It contains the Dutch versions of the 165 letters, and preceded by four years the first complete Latin collection, the Opera Omnia of 1722.
This particular copy of Send Brieven includes first editions of many of the twenty constituent parts, and later editions of others. Generally, the parts containing the earlier letters are the ones that are present as later editions. This copy also includes a publication not noted as part of Send Brieven in Dobell’s bibliography — the “Brief van G: Bidloo aan Antony van Leeuwenhoek; Wegens de dieren, welke men zomtyds in de lever der Schaapen en andere beesten vind” (“Letter from G. Bidloo to Antony van Leeuwenhoek about the animals which are sometimes found in the liver of sheep and other beasts”) (1698). Govert (or Govard) Bidloo was a Dutch anatomist (and, earlier in his career, a playwright and librettist). The “Brief … aan Antony van Leeuwenhoek …” describes the life cycle of the creature now known as the liver fluke, Fasciola hepatica. According to Dobell (p. 400), the “Dutch edition [of this work] is extremely rare.”
This copy of Send Brieven is in four quarto volumes, bound in contemporary Dutch full vellum, and includes over 100 beautiful and fascinating engraved plates (many folding), 128 text engravings, and titles, portraits, and a frontispiece engraved by Abraham de Blois and Romeyn de Hooge.
This work is offered with a copy of Arcana Naturae, Ope & beneficio exquisitissimorum Microscopiorum... (Dobell No. 25b), an early Latin compilation of nineteen of Leeuwenhoek’s letters (including the one describing spermatozoa), copiously illustrated with in-text engravings and five plates (four folding) plus an additional engraved title. Handsomely bound in eighteenth century three-quarter vellum over blue paste paper boards, with a red morocco spine label; edges stained red. (One plate with a repaired closed tear; generally an excellent copy. The catalog of the Haskell Norman collection states that “Dobell mistook this work for the third edition of the Arcana natura of 1695. As Boutesteyn’s Latin preface explains, this is actually the third edition of the Anatomia seu iteriora rerum (1687), which itself is the greatly expanded second edition of the rare anatomia et contemplation nonnullorum naturae …. The present edition is divided into two separately paginated parts ….” This copy has the rare first Latin edition of 1685 (Dobell 21) of the first part.
Also with: Extracts of two of Leeuwenhoek’s letters (in English) from the Philosophical Transactions, “Some Microscopical Observations upon Muscles and the Manner of their Production” (1712) and “An Abstract... Concerning Scales within the Mouth, the Scaly Child that was shewn, the Anatomy of the Slime within the Guts, and the use thereof” (1684).
Leiden: Daniel van Gaesbeeck and Cornelis Boutesteyn; Delft: Henrik van Kroonefelt and Adrian Beman, 1684-1718. Thick quarto (approx. 6.0x7.5 inches), contemporary full Dutch vellum (three volumes with blind-stamping on boards). Four bound volumes. With approximately 100 engraved plates and over 100 in-text engravings. Handsome bookplates of collector Jan Paulus Schumacher on front pastedowns. Text generally clean with only insignificant minor wear.
AN EXCEEDINGLY RARE COMPLETE SET IN HANDSOME CONTEMPORARY BINDINGS OF ONE OF THE MAJOR WORKS IN THE HISTORY OF SCIENCE.
Price: $27,500 .