Van Leeuwenhoek’s Discoveries and his Influence on the World

From the Lecture Series: Turning Points in Modern History

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

After van Leeuwenhoek’s observations, experiments and scientific observations had the final word on the natural world. This paradigm shift is often referred to as the Scientific Revolution. This revolution, or as some prefer “movement”, dismissed religious and classical texts as references on the nature and universe.

Columbus day and world map with compass.
Van Leeuwenhoek’s discoveries are more important than Columbus’s.
(Image: Theera Disayarat/Shutterstock)

The Scientific Background of Leeuwenhoek’s Discoveries

The scientific movement had already started when van Leeuwenhoek made his discoveries. In fact, over 100 years before that Nicolaus Copernicus had created a shift in the world of astronomy. In the model that he created on the solar system, he destroyed the established opinion about the whole universe turning around the earth. His theory was denounced as it invalidated the divine nature and position of humans in the universe.

Another astronomer who supported Copernicus’s findings was Galileo Galilei. Using the telescope he had made based on the Dutch models, he observed mountains and craters on the moon. Other things he saw included moons orbiting Jupiter and the sunspots. These observations transformed the prevalent view of the universe, suggesting it was an infinite entity beyond our imaginations.

Sir Isaac Newton continued these revolutionary ideas and published his masterpiece, the Principia in 1687. In this book, he depicted the world in a mechanical, systematic way through the laws of motion and gravitation. He offered a mathematical explanation of the natural phenomena.

Van Leeuwenhoek's microscopes drawn by Henry Baker.
Leeuwenhoek did not have a formal education, but he had a passion for making microscopes. The best of Leeuwenhoek’s handmade microscopes could magnify things 266 times over,
or even better. (Image: Henry Baker (naturalist)/Public domain)

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The Scientific Method

Although all these people created turning points in the history of science, van Leeuwenhoek’s discoveries and observations are of major importance due to his contribution to the scientific method.

The scientific method was first suggested by Francis Bacon, who had a novel way of approaching human knowledge. He favored the inductive method over the deductive way of theorization. The former involves generalizing through the observation of small things; the latter has a top-down approach and starts from general principles and moves toward smaller things.

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

Who was Antonie van Leeuwenhoek?

Born into a middle-class family, van Leeuwenhoek was not a well-educated man. At the age of 16, he left for Amsterdam to work as an apprentice for a cloth merchant.

After he made progress as a merchant, he went back to Delft and set up his own store. Although he didn’t have a formal education, he inspected weights and measures and surveyed lands. It shows that people trusted him for his exact observation.

Over the next 20 years, he engaged in making and refining lenses with high magnitudes. It started as a hobby and turned into a passion, up to the point that he made large numbers of microscopes. His microscopes were so exact that the best of them could magnify 266 times over.

He observed everything that he could find: animal heads, eyes, skins, the plaque on his teeth, lake water, and even his own skin. In those observations, he discovered many interesting facts. For example, by examining the plaque on his teeth, he said that the microorganisms in his mouth outnumbered the people in the Netherlands. That’s why he always cleaned his teeth, so he had healthy, strong teeth at the age of 50. However, he wasn’t regarded as a man of science by his own neighbors. Rather, he was viewed as an eccentric magician who was always talking about imaginary creatures.

A microscopic section of a one-year-old ash tree (Fraxinus) wood, drawing made by van Leeuwenhoek.
A microscopic section of an ash tree wood, drawn by van Leeuwenhoek.
He was a keen observer of anything and everything, and discovered many interesting facts. (Image: Antonie van Leeuwenhoek/Public domain)

Van Leeuwenhoek and the Royal Society of London

But his work was not overlooked by men of science. Van Leeuwenhoek’s scientific work had such a great impact that it even transcended political tensions. At the time, the English and the Dutch had long engaged in wars and conflicts between the trading companies; the Dutch East India Company (VOC) and the English East India Company were fierce rivals. But science didn’t see these tensions.

At that time, the Royal Society of London, which was chartered by the King, had a corresponding member in Delft. Regnier de Graaf was so stunned by van Leeuwenhoek’s work that he urged the Royal Society to write a letter to van Leeuwenhoek and ask him to write about his experiments and findings. Although he was initially met with skepticism, he was finally believed by the Royal Society and became a full fellow of the Royal Society in 1680. For the next 50 years, he wrote hundreds of letters to the society, and they were published in newspapers.

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Common Questions about Van Leeuwenhoek’s Discoveries and his Influence on the World

Q: Why was van Leeuwenhoek’s discovery so important?

Van Leeuwenhoek’s discovery was important because it changed the emphasis of scientific observations from big things to small things. He attracted attention to such tiny things as bacteria, microbes, and cells.

Q: How did Antonie van Leeuwenhoek change the world?

Antonie van Leeuwenhoek changed the world by introducing the science of microbiology. He discovered bacteria and microbes as the smallest living things that had great impacts on human life.

Q: How were the first bacteria discovered?

The first bacteria were discovered by Antonie van Leeuwenhoek. He was trying to find out why pepper is spicy by keeping pepper in water for three weeks. He didn’t get what he wanted. Instead, he found little living things in motion that were later called bacteria.

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.

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