With science being at the heart of what we do at BioLabTests, we are taking a look at a man who was born on this day 389 years ago and shaped the world of microbiology with his innovative ideas, the “Father of Microbiology”: Antonie van Leeuwenhoek.

Dutch businessman turned scientist

Despite being known for his pioneering work in microscopy and for his contributions towards the establishment of microbiology as a scientific discipline, van Leeuwenhoek didn’t come from a scientific background. He was a Dutch businessman, whose journey began as a draper. He founded his own shop in 1654. During this time period, people would use magnifying glasses to inspect the quality of clothing. He began developing an interest in lens making and went on to build his first microscope and started to explore microbial life in the 1670s. This was one of the notable achievements of the Golden Age of Dutch exploration and discovery.

He drew inspiration from a book written by Robert Hooke called ‘Micrographia’, which spoke about microscopes. In his lifetime he made over 500 microscopes, which allowed a magnification of between 200 and 300 times. A significant improvement compared to Hooke’s microscopes, which provided a magnification between 40 and 50 times.

Using his single-lensed microscopes, he made detailed drawings of the things he saw including what he found in blood and water. In the 1670s, he observed and described the first microorganisms, which he found in a sample of river water. At the time, he referred to them as animalcules, which is derived from the Latin “animalculum” meaning “tiny animals”. Through his experiments, he was the first to relatively determine the size of microorganisms. Most of the “animalcules” are now referred to as unicellular organisms, although he observed multicellular organisms in pond water.

Although he did not publish any books, his work is well documented through letters he sent to the Royal Society of Biology after he was elected a member in 1680. In a quote he summarized the reason for writing these letters: “Whenever I found out anything remarkable, I have thought it my duty to put down my discovery on paper, so that all ingenious people might be informed thereof”.

One of his most important observations was of spermatozoa (sperm) from various animals, which brought him to the conclusion that fertilisation occurred when the spermatozoa penetrated the egg. He went on to also document microscopic observations of muscle fibres, bacteria, red blood cells, crystals in gouty tophi, and blood flow in capillaries, further leading the way in scientific exploration.

Antonie van Leeuwenhoek was a man who paved the way for many great scientists and advancements in microbiology, which has greatly contributed to the world in which we live in.