Positioning Van Leeuwenhoek's microscopes in 17th-century microscopic practice

Cocquyt, T.
FEMS Microbiology Letters
369, Issue 1
Federation of European Microbiological Societies


The self-made nature of Antoni van Leeuwenhoek's discoveries and microscopes tends to obscure the rich and dynamic 17th-century culture of microscopy that preceded his work. Rather than being limited by available magnifications, 17th-century microscopy was shaped by philosophical paradigms, visual and preparation techniques, and observation conditions. Taking into account new insights into his lens making methods, a comparison of Van Leeuwenhoek's methodology with 17th-century predecessors reveals, on the one hand, how his work was rooted in existing traditions, while on the other hand it makes us appreciate his innovations better. Van Leeuwenhoek elegantly turned the viewing practice associated with high-magnification microscopy into a convincing narrative. In doing so, he reaffirmed the central role of the microscope in the 17th-century inquiry of nature. This allowed him to open up new vistas and become the founder of microbiology.