HE had received only a basic education and spoke only Dutch, but Antoni van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723) is today recognised as the greatest of the pioneering microscopists of the 17th century.
Using his own simple instruments, it was Van Leeuwenhoek who
first observed such wonders as muscle fibres, red blood corpuscles,
bacteria, protozoa and spermatozoa - which he called "little
Accounts vary as to his career path, but he seems to have worked
as a surveyor, a beer and wine gauger, a minor civil servant and as
an apprentice to a cloth merchant, where he learnt to examine
fabrics with a magnifying glass. At some point he was to learn how
to grind and blow lenses and in 1671 had constructed the microscope
that would open a way into the world of micro-organisms.
It was relatively simple - two lenses held between riveted
silver plates - but focusing was achieved by a screw mechanism.
Given his lack of a formal education, his claims were at first
dismissed as fanciful. However, a letter announcing his discoveries
of animacules, or "little animals", living in rainwater, was
eventually translated into English and published in the Royal
Society's Philosophical Transactions. He was elected a Fellow in
Van Leeuwenhoek would present his microscopes to Queen Mary and
to Peter the Great, and gave 26 silver examples to the Royal
Society - all now lost. In all, he is thought to have made some 550
microscopes, mostly in brass, though very few seem to have
The appearance of a silver example in a mixed book, picture,
print and scientific instrument sale at Christie's South
Kensington on April 8 was thus a very special event.
Just nine 17th century Van Leeuwenhoek microscopes are now
recorded, and only three of them are in silver. One is in the
Deutsches Museum in Munich, another in the Boerhaave Museum in
Leiden, while the example at South Kensington was found in a box of
laboratory impedimenta from the Zoological Department of Leiden
University in 1978, when it was purchased around that time by the
Reproductions of Van Leeuwenhoek instruments were made in the
1880s (the example in the Carl Zeiss collections at Jena is
believed to be a copy), but potential buyers at Christie's were
reassured by the presence of two 19th century Dutch sale marks, the
earlier of which identifies it as having been sold at auction
between 1814 and 1831. It is also thought to have been the
microscope featured in an 1875 Harting exhibition catalogue and the
example recorded in the collection of the Dutch zoologist R.T.
Putting a value on such a rarity would have been difficult, but
in the end the saleroom suggested £70,000-100,000. It sold on the
day for £260,000.
By Ian McKay