Antoni van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723), a Dutch textile merchant and amateur scientist from Delft, is best known as "the Father of Microbiology." He created microscope lenses more powerful than any other lenses of his day and kept his technique secret throughout his life. Using his handcrafted microscopes, he was the first to observe and describe single-celled organisms, which he originally referred to as "animalcules." Leeuwenhoek describes with enthusiasm these animalcules in a letter to the Secretary of the Royal Society of London:Using his handcrafted microscopes, he was the first to observe and describe single-celled organisms, which he originally referred to as "animalcules." Leeuwenhoek describes with enthusiasm these animalcules in a letter to the Secretary of the Royal Society of London:
These animalcules had divers colours . . . others again were green in the middle, and before and behind white . . . And the motion of most of these animalcules was so swift and so various, upwards, downwards, and round about, that 'twas wonderful to see: I judge that some of these little creatures were above a thousand times smaller than the smallest ones I have ever yet seen. [Leewenhoek, 1674; reprinted in Schierbeek 58]
Leeuwenhoek was also the first to record detailed microscopic observations of muscle fibers, bacteria, spermatozoa and blood flow in capillaries. His meticulous drawings helped pave the way for the biological sciences, a scientific field that would, in time, encroach upon the metaphysical sciences. In "Signs of the Times," Carlyle mocks Dr. Cabanis's assertion that our thought and spirituality must originate from bodily organs, claiming that
[Dr. Cabanis] fairly lays open our moral structure with his dissecting-knives and real metal probes; and exhibits it to the inspection of mankind, by Leuwenhoek microscopes, and inflation with the anatomical blowpipe. Thought, he is inclined to hold, is still secreted by the brain; but then Poetry and Religion (and it is really worth knowing) are "a product of the smaller intestines!"
By invoking Leeuwenhoek's exacting microscopes, Carlyle criticizes the "science of the age" for ruthlessly analyzing and devaluing the great mysteries of life, such as thought and spirituality. At the same time, Carlyle bemoans the languishing metaphysical and moral sciences, which formerly held responsibility for explaining life's mysteries.
"Antonie van Leeuwenhoek." Wikipedia. 2009. March 19, 2009.
"Schierbeek, A. Measuring the Invisible World. London: Abelard-Schuman, 1959.
Last modified 21 March 2009