A Brill Calendar: August 27
Few scientific instruments extended the frontiers of scholarly and scientific knowledge as dramatically as the microscope.
It accelerated all kinds of experiments with these unprecedented tools to enter visually the domain of everything previously too to small to be observed earlier. Three towering figures in early microscopy – Marcello Malpighi, Antonie van Leeuwenhoek and Jan Swammerdam – were born between 1628 and 1637. Swammerdam, Leyden medical alumnus, was the first to pass away; living a short life of 43 years and 5 days. Malpighi, founder of scientific histology, survived him by some fourteen years. Both were academically trained scholars.
Van Leeuwenhoek had the good fortune to become the longest living of this triad; studying the minuscule living things under his single-lens microscopes almost to his dying days in the city where he was born: Delft, aged 90. Innocent of academic training and unwilling to learn Latin – or to leave his home-town – Van Leeuwenhoek became a legend in his own time: among his distinguished visitors the Queen of Great Britain and Tsar Peter of Russia. Until his very last day, August 27 1723, Van Leeuwenhoek kept the manufacturing of his lenses, of which he produced more than 400 specimens, a deep secret. Some of them had the extraordinary magnifying power of 300 times.
It is seldom, that a technological secret has withstood explanation for so long a time similar to the ‘secret’ of the painter Johannes Vermeer, van Leeuwenhoek’s exact contemporary (October 31 1632 – buried December 15 1675)