The Leeuwenhoek name: What about the "van"?

Modern biographers point out that Antony began using the van after he achieved international fame in the 1680's. Some imply that the lowly, self-taught shopkeeper felt the need to tart up his name, a bit of social climbing revealing of his character. Like the Vermeer connection, it makes a good story, but it's a little more complicated.

Some historical context

The modern system of family names was only beginning in the Netherlands in the 1600's. Most Dutch families used patronymics, the father's name plus zoon for sons and dochter for daughters, abbreviated zn. and dr. and often written with what looks like a flourish at the end of the name.

Many Dutch families at the time, from all social classes, began including a prefix, usually a preposition such as van, sometimes an article such as de, preceding a place name or occupation, for example. Johannes van der Meer ("from the lake") blended into Johannes Vermeer, for example. For people in those families, the patronymic might be the middle name. Or they might use it only sometimes. Other members of the same family might keep using the patronymic exclusively.

Antony was not the first person in his family to use the van. In fact, the first time that the family name appeared in the public records in 1628, it had a van. When Antony's great-uncle Jan got married in 1634, he registered as Jan Philips van Leeuwenhouck. On the detail on the left (click to enlarge), his entry is the fourth of the five marriages recorded on that page, the second from the bottom.

Of the two dozen relatives named with some variant of Leeuwenhoek in the Delft baptism, marriage, and burial records, about half of them used the van at least some of the time. For example:

  • Antony's uncle Huijch used van Leeuwenhouck in 1628 when his daughter Geertruij was baptized.
  • For a will in 1643, his grandfather Thonis and Thonis's son Huijch both used van Leeuwenhouck.
  • when his sister baptized her first child in 1647, she is registered as Margrieta van Leeuwenhouck.
  • when his sister Catherina registered her betrothal and marriage to Claes van Leeuwen in 1655, she used the van.
  • when the Weeskamer dealt with the estate of Leeuwenhoek's first wife in 1667, the document referred to him with the van.

These uses of van came long before Antony started writing to the Royal Society let alone achieved enough fame to get pretentious. As early as June 1655, the 22-year-old was referred to as "Anthonij van Leeuwenhoeck" in the Weeskamer records of his mortgage payments on the Gulden Hoofd.

While many Dutch families have the surname van Leeuwen, only Antony's has the surname van Leeuwenhoek. It survives today, but barely. According to the according to the Meertens Institute's Database of Surnames in The Netherlands, in 2007, 76 people in the Netherlands used the surname Leeuwenhoek (right; click to enlarge).