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Anton van Leeuwenhoek, father of microbiology

Antonie Van Leeuwenhoek was a Dutch textile merchant (haberdasher) and self-taught scientist who, almost singlehandedly, laid the foundations for the development of bacteriology, protozoology and microbiology in general. His work, along with others, was absolutely decisive in the final refutation of the spontaneous generation hypothesis. At the age of 40, Anton would become the first person to describe the unicellular organisms that we now call bacteria; at the time he called them “animalcules”, a term that described the fascinating beings that he discovered after examining a dental plaque.

Biography and discoveries of Leeuwenhoek

Antonie van Leeuwenhoek was born in Delft, the Netherlands, on October 24, 1632. In 1648 Leeuwenhoek began working as an apprentice to a textile merchant, which introduced him to magnifying glasses, tools used by textile merchants to count the density of objects. threads for quality control purposes. Twenty years later, in 1668, van Leeuwenhoek made his first and only visit to London, where he saw a copy of Robert Hooke’s Micrographia (1665) which included images of textiles that aroused his interest.

He began to make observations with a magnifying glass and in 1673 he reported his first findings to the Royal Society: mouthparts, bee stings, a human louse and a fungus. In 1676 van Leeuwenhoek peered into the water and was surprised to see multitudes of tiny organisms. These organisms were the first bacteria observed by man.

After its discovery, Leeuwenhoek sent a letter to the Royal Society announcing what was found in detail. These findings caused astonishment in society, although they also caused some skepticism; however, Robert Hooke repeated the experiment and confirmed the findings. In recognition of his findings, Leeuwenhoek was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1680, an association with which he continued to maintain contact for the rest of his life, primarily by correspondence.

The work carried out earned Anton go down in history as the “Father of Microbiology” because he not only discovered bacteria, but also blood cells, microscopic nematodes and spermatozoa. He laid the foundations of plant anatomy and became an expert in animal reproduction. He likewise studied the structure of wood and crystals. In addition, he made more than 500 microscopes to see specific objects, all without having completed higher education and following the method of trial and error.

Childhood, adolescence and adulthood

Anton’s childhood was affected by the early death of his father Philips Antonisz van Leeuwenhoek, who died when Anton was 5 years old. Years later, Margaretha Bel van den Berch, Antonie’s mother, married for a second time the Dutch artist Jacob Jansz Molijn, with whom Anton had a wonderful relationship but who also died in 1648, Leeuwenhoek being a 16-year-old teenager.

After the death of his stepfather and in the same year, Anton entered as an apprentice in a linen workshop in Amsterdam, where he quickly demonstrated his skills, which allowed him to be quickly promoted to the most trusted position at that time: cashier and workshop accountant.

Years later, in 1654, Antonie returned to her hometown, Delft, where she opened her own drapery and haberdashery shop. There he also sold buttons, ribbons and other textile accessories.

It was also in 1654 after his return to Delft that Anton married Barbara de Mey, the daughter of a cloth merchant with whom he would have five children, four of whom died during his first years of life. In 1666 Barbara died and, five years later, Antonie remarried Cornelia Swalmius, with whom he had no children. Cornelia died in 1694 and Leeuwenhoek did not remarry.

lens manufacturing

Anton’s work in the textile business allowed him to work with magnifying glasses of all sizes to check the quality of the fabrics he traded. His interest in the tools that allowed him to see beyond what he could not with the naked eye led him to the manufacture of lenses, a challenge that he was able to achieve thanks to his experience with handling glass beads as aids. of increase.

The first lenses built by Leeuwenhoek were small millimeter spheres. Records indicate that the smallest lens he made was 1mm in diameter. The reason for this small size has to do with the magnification capacity of these lenses, capable of providing an increase of up to 300 times the actual size of what is observed.

These small spherical lenses were later used by Leeuwenhoek to build microscopes with which objects as small as 1.35 microns (μm) could be observed, that is, 0.00135 mm. Throughout his 90 years, Antonie came to create 500 small microscopes that were used to make sketches of the content of liquids such as blood, and also solid objects, plant tissues and animal tissues.

The microscopes created by Anton Leeuwenhoek were too small and could not be used in all fields of research, but they were a source of inspiration for today’s microscopes.

Anton van Leeuwenhoek died in Delft on August 26, 1723.


  • Antonie Van Leeuwenhoek. Famous Biologists at famousbiologists.org.
  • Lane, Nick. “The Unseen World: Reflections on Leeuwenhoek (1677) ‘Concerning Little Animals’”. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London Series B, Biological Sciences 370 (1666) (April 19, 2015).
  • Van Leeuwenhoek, Anton. Letter of June 12, 1716 to the Royal Society, cited by the Museum of Paleontology, University of California, Berkeley.
  • Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay