Leeuwenhoek's Biographers

Antony van Leeuwenhoek has had four major biographers over the years: Boitet in 1729, Haaxman in 1875, Dobell in 1932, and Schierbeek in 1950 (Dutch) and 1959 (English).

No troops of ordinary friends

In 1885, a frustrated Benjamin Ward Richardson wrote in his Asclepiad:

"Antony van Leeuwenhoek had

no troops of ordinary friends, none of deadly enemies, to proclaim his fame, as William Harvey had;

no hosts of pupils to spread his name the world over, as Boerhaave had;

no worshipping, idolatrous Boswell, to catch up all his sayings and doings, as Samuel Johnson had;

no museum to carry down the substantial record of his labours as John and William Hunter had;

no Alexander Pope to immortalize him in verse, as Arbuthnot had

no relative to write down his history, as Aitken and Hope had;

no hand, no mind to write his own life and labour, like Goethe, Franklin, and Priestley.

"Above all things, strange is it that Samuel Hoole, who collected and translated the works of Leeuwenhoek into English, reproducing within two handsome volumes the plates with which his author illustrated his papers, did not strive in his day, when there must have been persons living to whom his author was known, did not strive to collect any biographical details."

Reinier Boitet

In Beschryving der Stadt Delft (Description of Delft), Reinier Boitet summarized Leeuwenhoek's life in less than three pages, but he did it in 1729, a few years after Leeuwenhoek died. His sketch remains the only source for biographical details like Leeuwenhoek's education in Warmond and Benthuizen.

P. J. Haaxman

The first attempt at a full-scale biography was Antony van Leeuwenhoek: De Ontdekker der Infusorien by P. J. Haaxman, an apothecary who lived in Rotterdam. It was published in 1875 in Dutch and has not been translated into English. The cover on the right is that of a Nabu Press re-print edition of 2010. Haaxman was related to Leeuwenhoek, whose niece Maria Jans de Molijn married Cornelis Haaxman in 1674. The only source for some of Dobell's biographical information is Haaxman's biography.

Clifford Dobell

In 1932, the 300th anniversary of Leeuwenhoek's birth, Clifford Dobell published Antony van Leeuwenhoek and his "Little animals"; being some account of the father of protozoology and bacteriology and his multifarious discoveries in these disciplines. It remains the best. If you read only one biography, make it Dobell's. The full text is at Archive.org.

While Dobell knew Dutch, he spent only a few weeks in Delft. His archival research was limited to information that Delft archivist L.G.N. Bouricius sent to him. Much has been discovered since then.

A third of Dobell's book is devoted to a line-by-line reading of Leeuwenhoek's most important letter, that of October 9, 1676. As a microbiologist, Dobell was able to explicate Leeuwenhoek's observations in a way that will be hard to surpass. The non-scientific parts of Leeuwenhoek's life are treated in the first hundred pages and several of the appendices.

On p. 12, Dobell wrote:

Outside of Holland little has been written about him [Leeuwenhoek] which is not almost comically inaccurate. The biographical dictionaries are stuffed with ridiculous statements, and most historians of biology have hitherto been content to misprint their mistakes.

On the Internet, those comic inaccuracies are just a few clicks away and they are being multiplied. The Lens on Leeuwenhoek web makes every effort to stick to the documented facts and clearly label speculations and inferences as such.

Abraham Schierbeek

The most recent and most important full-scale biography of Leeuwenhoek is Antoni van Leeuwenhoek: Zijn leven en zijn werken (His life and his work) by Abraham Schierbeek. It was published in two volumes in 1950 and has not been translated.

Schierbeek was a historian with a life-long interest in Leeuwenhoek. He and van Seters wrote the catalog for the major exhibition celebrating Leeuwenhoek's 300th birthday in 1932. After World War II, he was the editor for volumes 3, 4, and 5 of the Collected Letters. Where Dobell's biography focuses almost solely on Leeuwenhoek's dicoveries in protozoology and bacteriology, Zijn leven en zijn werken gives that in-depth treatment to a dozen other areas of L's observations, from invertebrate zoology to ecology, geology, and chemistry. It excels at bringing together the various references threaded through L's hundreds of letters. As with Dobell's biography, on a small part of Schierbeek's is devoted to Leeuwenhoek's life. Much of it is spread through the rest of the two volumes, which concentrates on Leeuwenhoek's science.

In 1959, Schierbeek published a condensed version in English, Measuring The Invisible World. Leeuwenhoek's life in Delft is covered briefly in the opening chapter, written by Maria Rooseboom. The whole book is only twice as long as the biographical section alone in the two-volume Dutch version. It is full of biographical details based on archived documents that Dobell did not consider. Rooseboom had earlier written the article "Leeuwenhoek, the Man: A Son of His Nation and His Time".

Other biographical contributions

While Edward Ruestow's 1996 The Microscope in the Dutch Republic: The Shaping of Discovery covered other topics, it has enough biographical details to qualify. Indeed, Lodewijk Palm recently called it the best biography.

In addition to these science-focused biographies, several researchers have done outstanding work understanding and adding to the documented facts of Leeuwenhoek's life, especially W. H. van Seters and Petra Beydals, conservator of the Historisch Museum in Rotterdam, and A. J. H. Rozemond.

Over the course of thirty years, van Seters wrote four articles about Leeuwenhoek's life in Amsterdam, his second marriage, and his schooling in Warmond. The most helpful is "Leeuwenhoek's afkomst en jeugd" (heritage and youth). It reviews all of the information van Seters uncovered in the Delft archives about Leeuwenhoek's family on his mother's side as far back as great-grandparents in the early 1500's.

Beydals and Rozemond have written about Leeuwenhoek's multiple wills. A year after Dobell's biography, Beydals published "Twee Testamenten". Half-a-century later, Rozemond wrote two articles, "De testamenten and Wilsbeschikkingen". Note also that Beydals took extensive notes over the decades as she found various Leeuwenhoek-related references in the Delft archives. These notes are unsorted in a folder (right) available at the Gemeente Archief Delft.

Two other articles contribute details not found elsewhere. G. A. Lindeboom wrote about the medical condition (ziekte) that killed Leeuwenhoek and is now named after him because of his detailed description. Finally, E. W. van den Burg and G. J. Leeuwenhoek wrote a standard geneological study in 1995.

Although neither has written a full-scale biography, Lodewijk Palm and Brian Ford have repeatedly retold the basics of Leeuwenhoek's life and career in a variety of scholarly and popular publications.

Ford had the good fortune to find several neglected packets of the actual samples of material that Leeuwenhoek sent to the Royal Society three hundred years previously. He studied them thoroughly and publicized them to a popular audience.

Palm, as the editor of the Alle de Brieven/Collected Letters since the mid-1970's, has acted like Leeuwenhoek's press secretary, patiently explaining the basic story over and over.

In 2014, a group of Dutch scientists led by Henk Smit published Van Leeuwenhoek: Groots in het Kleine, which was translated by one of them, Lesley Robertson, in 2016 as Antoni van Leeuwenhoek: Master of the Minuscule. While this biography concentrates on Leeuwenhoek's science, it has biographical details throughout.

More recently, Douglas Anderson published "Still Going Strong: Leeuwenhoek at Eighty", an overview of his later life written for the 80th anniversary of the British microbiology journal named after Leeuwenhoek.

In 2016, Huib Zuidervaart and Douglas Anderson published "Antony van Leeuwenhoek’s microscopes and other scientific instruments: new information from the Delft archives."

The list of sources below has the books and articles mentioned above that add the most to an understanding of Leeuwenhoek's life, as opposed to his science or his letters.

A more complete bibliography of biographical books and articles.