Edmond Halley wrote Letter L-176 to Leeuwenhoek about a gift from the Royal Society and requesting some portraits

May 25, 1686

The spelling and punctuation have been modernized.

This letter is not in Alle de Brieven / Collected Letters. It is dated 15 May O.S. in London, which was 25 May N.S. in Delft. That places it in the week after the Royal Society decided to send a gift to Leeuwenhoek on May 19, New Style, which was the date in Birch's history.

Two weeks later, Leeuwenhoek responded to this letter and to Colson's visit in Letter L-177 of 10 June 1686.

Four days later, the Royal Society decided to send a gift to L. of Francis Willughby’s De Historia Piscium, which the Royal Society had just published. “It was ordered that signor Malphighi, Mr. Hevelius, Mr. Leewenhoeck, and Mons. Bayle be each of them presented with one copy of Mr. Willughby’s History of Fishes.” See Birch, The History of the Royal Society of London, vol. IV, p. 484.

Leeuwenhoek responded to Halley’s letter in two letters, both addressed to the Royal Society. Letter 93 [51] L-177 of 10 June 1686:

I have duly received Your Honours’ very agreeable letter of 15/25 May, which served only to accompany the token of honour sent me by Your Honours through Mr. Colson. In that same missive Your Honours say, among other things: that this token of honour is merely a sign of respect and gratitude for my constant labours. For this generous and undeserved gift of such a beautiful book I am and remain very greatly obliged.

I send you herewith some more of my modest observations and arguments, which, I presume to hope, will please Your Honours: Together with a few illustrations; and if ever I should have thought that such a great honour would fall to my lot to have my portrait hung, in the room where the friends meet, side by side with other ones, I should not have failed to send it; and I must say once again that I feel very greatly obliged to have received from Your Honours so many marks of honour, and I only wish that I had the capabilities to deserve these.

Leeuwenhoek again references Halley’s letter in Letter L-178 of 10 July 1686:

My last humble missive to you, honoured sirs, was of the 10th of June last, in which I said, amongst other things, that I duly received Your Honours’ esteemed and very agreeable letter of the 15th/25th of May, together with the book. Since which time I have eagerly looked forward to the promised reply to my previous two missives.



Worthy Sir

Since my last of the 2d of March[1] we have recieved your answer thereto, and lately another of the fourteenth courant[2]. The first has been read before the Society[3], and the latter shall be as soon as translated[4]. The remarks that have been made thereon[5], you shall shortly have by the post, this being only intended to accompany a small present, which the Society as a mark of their respect and gratitude for the pains you take to obliging them, has thought fit to send you. Tis a book they have printed lately at their own charges, being the Natural History of Fishes[6] by Mr. Willoughby[7] which you will find a work of great curiosity. The gentleman that has undertaken to deliver it you is a very knowing and curious person, and the Society would esteem it an obligation, if you should think fit to let him view in your most incomparable microscope some of those many curiosities, wherewith from time to time you entertain us, so much to our satisfaction. I have yet one further request to you, which is, that several gentlemen of the Society, who are your admirers, have heard that your picture is of late curiously graved[8], have ordered me to desire of you some few prints to adorn their studies, and one for the Society’s meeting room, where you will be sure to be in good company. What you shall think fit to send, you may please to deliver to this gentleman Mr. Colson[9] for the Society, and they will be sure to come to hand[10].

            Yrs. &c.


[1] Halley’s previous letter to L. is the lost Letter L-170 of 12 March 1686, in Collected Letters, vol. 20.

[2] Letter 90 [49] L-173 of 2 April 1686 and Letter 92 [50] L-175 of 14 May 1686, both in Collected Letters, vol. 6.

[3] The letter of 2 April was presented to the Royal Society at its meeting on 14 April 1686 O.S. “A letter of Mr. Leewenhoeck, dated April 2, 1686, N.S. being an answer to one sent him dated March 2, O.S. and giving an account, among other things, of the texture of bone viewed through a microscope, was produced, and ordered to be translated.” See Birch, The History of the Royal Society of London, vol. IV, pp. 473-74.

[4] At the 12 May 1686 O.S. meeting of the Royal Society, “Part of a letter of Mr. Leewenhoeck, being in answer to one written to him March 2, 1685/6, was read, and the rest referred till another meeting. Another letter of Mr. Leewenhoeck was produced, and ordered to be translated.” This “latter” letter was Letter 92 [50] L-175 of 14 May 1686, which was read at the 26 May 1686 O.S. meeting of the Royal Society. “Part of a letter of Mr. Leewenhoeck was read, giving an account of the texture of bone, observed in his microscopes, which he found composed of four several sorts of pipes or vessels running lengthwise, and ranged in circles about the cavity, and proposing an analogy between the growth of bones and that of wood by the accession of new circles, as it is annually in trees, and comparing the periostreum to the bark of the tree.” See Birch, ibidem, pp. 483, 485-86.

[5] These remarks are not noted in Birch’s History, nor is any letter from the Royal Society to L. known between Letter L-184 of 24 February 1687, in this volume, and Richard Waller’s Letter L-215 of 12 February 1692, Collected Letters, vol. 8, there unnumbered and dated 2 February 1692 O.S. See also the improved Letter L-215 in this volume. This span of five years coincides with Halley’s service as editor of Philosophical Transactions, vol. 16, from 1686 to 1687, during which time he did not publish any letters by L., and the following four years until publication was resumed in 1691 with Waller as editor of volume 17.

[6] De Historia Piscium (The history of fishes) was published in 1686 at the expense of the Royal Society by E Theatro Sheldoniano.

[7] Francis Willughby (1635-1672, also Willoughby) was an English ornithologist and ichthyologist who became a member of the Royal Society in 1661. See the Biog. Reg., Collected Letters, vol. 6, p. 395. After his death, naturalist John Ray (1627-1705), also a member of the Royal Society, edited the book and brought it to publication. It did not sell well, so the Royal Society began giving it away as presents and even in lieu of salary payments to Halley and Hooke. See Birch, ibidem, passim.

[8] In 1685, Jan Verkolje (1650-1693) made an oil portrait of the 53-year-old L. as well as a mezzotint of the same portrait, in reverse and with a few details changed. For a discussion of all the known portraits of L., see Dobell, Little Animals, pp. 346-51.

[9] Collected Letters, vol. 6, p. 387, states that Colson is not known. A member of the Royal Society by the name of John Colson was not born until 1680. His father John Colson had an article in Philosophical Transactions, vol. 11, no. 126, “Observation made of the late solar eclipse on the first of June, 1676”. This John Colson ran a school to train navigators in mathematics at Marsh Yard in Wapping, a district in East London.

[10] Two weeks after Halley wrote to him, L. responded to this letter and to Colson’s visit in Letter 93 [51] L-177 of 10 June 1686, Collected Letters, vol. 6. He referred to the Society’s request for a print of his portrait, but does not indicate that he sent it. It was not until Letter 169 [102] L-295 of 10 July 1696, Collected Letters, vol. 11, that L. found some prints to send. “Further, having learned that some gentlemen were eager to receive two or three portraits of me that had appeared in mezzotint, and having learned afterwards that no printed letters of mine in the Latin language were to be had in London and that people were eager to have them, I could not be idle, but did my utmost and finally obtained six mezzotint prints, since the plate was worn off through frequent printing. I sent these prints as well as the Latin book to London, addressing them, as I am wont to do, to Gresham College. Having received no reply to all these letters, I doubted whether they had given the desired pleasure and therefore, encouraged by learned people, I was induced to communicate some of my discoveries in letters to some distinguished gentlemen, which letters have been published in print.”