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Leeuwenhoek: scientist who saw ‘animalcules’

Anthony van Leeuwenhoek and animalcules drawings
Antonie van Leeuwenhoek and a drawing of animalcules


Some discover their aptitude for science by natural curiosity, which causes them to investigate their surroundings. In doing so they find many hidden secrets that only curiosity like theirs could have revealed. However, an inquisitive nature alone doesn’t make one a scientist. Explorers, adventurers, reporters, and criminal investigators all lead lives based on it too.

Something special happens when curiosity is coupled with an empirical mind. That combination begins to approach the scientific method. The only thing left is to provide a record of findings so that other scientists can attempt to falsify the results.


Scientist By Nature

Antonie van Leeuwenhoek did all of this and more. He used the scientific method to unearth the existence of previously unseen organisms, and he was in regular correspondence with the Royal Society in London, discussing his findings.

Leeuwenhoek was a businessman by trade, but a scientist by nature. His skill in grinding glass allowed him to produce single-lens microscopes that could magnify over 200 times. 

On 17th September 1683, Leeuwenhoek was the first to report the existence of bacteria seen through his microscopes. He called them little “animalcules”.

He achieved clearer and brighter images than any of his scientific fellows would achieve for centuries. This led to doubts and questions about the certainty of what he claimed to have seen.

It wasn’t until 1981 that Leeuwenhoek’s original specimens at the Royal Society were successfully photographed. Even this was done using one of his surviving microscopes. This finally dispelled the lingering disbelief that he indeed saw what he claimed. 


The Father Of Microbiology

Leeuwenhoek had 112 of his 200 letters published in the journal of the Royal Society. He was one of the journal’s most prolific writers, touching on many aspects of biology and even mineralogy. 

However, Leeuwenhoek’s greatest delights and findings were in the field of microbiology. His discoveries are still informing the discipline and being proven true today, especially his reports on bacteria.


The Importance of Bacteria

The world is now very aware of the presence and importance of bacteria. Some bacteria can be harmful, but most are beneficial.

We know that bacteria are used to treat some of the foods we love like yogurt and cheese. We know about the use of bacteria for preserving foods in fermentation and pickling. 

However, we also know bacteria are responsible for food spoilage or poisoning in some cases. Pathogenic bacteria may be transmitted in some foods which can cause food poisoning. For example, the CDC warns that soft cheeses made with unpasteurized milk carry a greater risk of causing a Listeria infection.

The importance of bacteria to humans is also seen in medicine and other industries. Bacterial infections and antibiotic remedies are now well known but bacteria have been put to use for a host of other purposes, such as microbial leaching of precious metals in mining.


Real-life data for microbiology studies

Just like Leeuwenhoek, modern students of microbiology can use real-life data. Lecturers like Dr. Monika Oli teach microbiology students using GIDEON because of its vast dataset and a versatile toolkit. She knows it gives meaningful context to their studies.

At the time of writing, the GIDEON database includes 1,766 pathogenic bacteria, 154 mycobacteria, and 130 yeasts and algae. And the database is updated daily! 

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