A letter from Antony van Leeuwenhoek to the Royal Society in London – dated Sept. 17, 1683 – imparted the stunning news that little swimming creatures live on our teeth.
Leeuwenhoek called them animalcules – they are now called bacteria – and described their appearance and behavior in minute detail, which I will spare you in case you are eating.
Leeuwenhoek – whose name you can hear pronounced here – had been on good terms with the RS for years, although when he’d told them about infusoria (protists) six years before, they hadn’t actually believed him. They sent a deputation to see him at his home in Delft and verify the news. The idea of one-celled organisms was simply incredible.
They had to admit it was all true, of course, and from then on every new and amazing discovery was accepted. The fact was that no one could argue with Leeuwenhoek because he had the best microscopes in existence. Most compound microscopes could only magnify 20x, tops, but he was getting 200x-300x and it was that technical superiority that made him famous.
When he first gave up being a businessman to delve into science – and ultimately create the field of microbiology – Leeuwenhoek figured out a way to take small bits of molten glass, turn them into spheres and create tiny three by four inch microscopes that had unheard of magnifying ability. They were constructed more like very high-powered magnifying glasses than ground-lens microscopes.
As a result, he was able to make them quickly – it’s estimated that he made between 400-500 of his little microscopes over the years. Grinding lenses for compound lens microscopes would have taken much longer and produced fewer.
But when he first started, he lied about it. He said he was grinding lenses because he thought people wouldn’t take him seriously if he told the truth about his methods.The world came to him eventually – Leibniz came to visit and so did William of Orange. Tsar Peter the Great invited him to spend time on the royal yacht.
In 1981, a British microscopist named Brian J. Ford discovered – in the strongroom of the Royal Society – some of the samples Leeuwenhoek had sent from Delft three hundred years earlier. They were prepared, sent and stored with such care that they were still usable.
The painting of the geographer is part of another Leeuwenhoek mystery – did Vermeer use him as a model? They had, after all, been born a week apart in October of 1632 and surely knew each other. Not only was the population of Delft barely 24,000 souls at the time, but Leeuwenhoek was an executor of Vermeer’s will. I like to think that it’s a little joke on the painter’s part – certainly the man who had first seen a thousand invisible worlds was the perfect model for the Geographer.