The Social, Cultural, and Economic Contexts of van Leeuwenhoek’s Discoveries

From the Lecture Series: Turning Points in Modern History

By Vejas Liulevicius P.h.D., University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Van Leeuwenhoek, the father of microbiology, had a great zest for scientific methods and observations. Throughout the years, he refined his microscopes to get a more exact picture of the organisms. He was so dedicated to his cause that, in order to prove his theories, he kept a few worms in his pockets to observe them constantly. But what is the place of his work in the social, scientific context that he lived in? How did he influence his society, and how did the social, cultural, and economic conditions affect his work?

'The Geographer' by Johannes Vermeer.
‘The Geographer’, a famous painting by Johannes Vermeer, a friend of van Leeuwenhoek.
It is believed by many historians to be a picture of van Leeuwenhoek.
(Image: Johannes Vermeer/Public domain)

The Political Context of van Leeuwenhoek’s Discoveries

The context in which van Leeuwenhoek worked can be investigated from various aspects, namely economic, cultural, and even military. In all these aspects, the Netherlands was in its Golden Age.

The Dutch had gained their national pride by overcoming two great obstacles. The first one was their dominance by the Spanish Empire. After an eighty-year-long struggle, they had finally managed to gain independence in 1648.

The second obstacle they overcame was nature. The lands that were below sea level were always at risk of being flooded by tides. They curbed the tides by building dikes and used the water in their windmills.

A significant consequence of these two victories was that they were shared by all people, not just a powerful minority of the feudal elite.

This is a transcript from the video series Turning Points in Modern History. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Cultural Context of Van Leeuwenhoek’s Discoveries

The Dutch rebellion against the Spanish Empire involved both Catholics and Calvinists, who were Protestants. Other Protestant branches were also involved. This religiously diverse movement increased tolerance of religions for others, which was unique around Europe. This openness later led to Amsterdam becoming a safe haven for other religions, including Jews who were escaping from persecution.

Another cultural aspect of the Dutch Golden Age involves visual arts. Johannes Vermeer, who was van Leeuwenhoek’s friend, was a prominent genre painter. Instead of painting snobbish aristocrats, he depicted middle-class life with photorealistic details. Some experts believe that he used the camera obscura for his paintings. Although his art was not recognized for two centuries after his death, his legacy is still present in our time. He was close to van Leeuwenhoek and even portrayed him in a painting called The Geographer.

Learn more about the diversity of early Christianity.

The Economic Context of Van Leeuwenhoek’s Discoveries

The Netherlands was also a dominant power in global commerce. Instead of relying on agriculture, the country was involved in trade. It spread its dominance from Northern Europe to the Mediterranean and then to the whole world. The Dutch East India Company (VOC) was a dominant trading force around the world and one of the first companies to explore the East Indies for trades.

Because Dutch culture was influenced by Calvinism, which honored rigid religious rules, the increasing wealth was morally challenging for them. They could not reconcile their growing welfare with their austere religious teachings that demanded atonement and denial of self. This conflict led to an obsession with cleanliness. Their streets and homes were so immaculately clean that it seemd odd to other nations. Simon Schama, the British historian, attributes this obsession to the conflict between their prosperous material lives and their religious teachings.

Flag of the Dutch East India Company (VOC).
The Dutch East India Company (VOC) was a leading trading company when van Leeuwenhoek made his discoveries. (Image: Himasaram/Public domain)

Van Leeuwenhoek’s Influence in History

Van Leeuwenhoek had a great influence throughout history. He is called the father of microbiology and he drew attention to the microscopic world. His work provided the basis for the Germ Theory postulated by Robert Koch.

He also nullified the religious view of spontaneous generation. This view was shaped by religious views on creation. But he discovered that every living thing is made of small units called cells.

Van Leeuwenhoek’s advancements shifted the intellectual authority from classic texts to material things that were examined through experiments, observations, and assessments. He devoted all his life to “discovering the things that are buried from our eyes” and to satisfy a “craving after knowledge”. He was never after fame or money. After he died, his 26 microscopes were sent to the Royal Society, as was ordered in his will.

A 1677 letter from van Leeuwenhoek to the Royal Society.
One of van Leeuwenhoek’s letters to the Royal Society. He wrote hundreds of letters to the society, and they were published in newspapers.
(Image: Mike Peel (www.mikepeel.net)/Public domain)

Van Leeuwenhoek’s work also inspired scientists in other disciplines to pay attention to the world of tiny particles. Atomic theory is one of those disciplines that appreciated the world of tiny things.

Learn more about Gutenberg’s print revolution.

Common Questions about The Social, Cultural, and Economic contexts of Leeuwenhoek’s Discoveries

Q: How did the discoveries of Antonie van Leeuwenhoek affect human life?

The discoveries of van Leeuwenhoek greatly affected human life by identifying bacteria and microbes. Other scientists continued to work on these living things to discover that they were sources of many illnesses.

Q: Why is van Leeuwenhoek famous?

Antonie van Leeuwenhoek is famous because he created a major turning point in the course of science. He introduced microbiology and discovered bacteria.

Q: Who discovered bacteria?

Antonie van Leeuwenhoek discovered bacteria. He was trying to find out why pepper is spicy. He soaked pepper in water for a while and then accidentally discovered small living things in motion. They were then called bacteria.

Q: Why is van Leeuwenhoek known as the father of the microscope?

Although the microscope had been invented a few decades earlier, he advanced the technology to increase the magnification power. He made a lot of different microscopes, and one of them could magnify things 226 times.

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