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Leeuwenhoek, Antoni van

1. Dates
Born: Delft, 24 Oct. 1632
Died: Delft, 26 August 1723
Dateinfo: Dates Certain
Lifespan: 91
2. Father
Occupation: Artisan
Philips Thomiszoon Leeuwenhoek, a basketmaker, that is, an artisan.
One source says that the father belonged to the prosperous middle class of artisans, brewers, and public officials. I don't find this enough to venture any estimate of his economic condition.
The father died when Antoni was five or six.
3. Nationality
Birth: Dutch
Career: Dutch
Death: Dutch
4. Education
Schooling: No University
No university education. He was apprenticed to a cloth merchant at sixteen, and himself became a shopkeeper in Delft in 1653-54, before he was twenty-two.
5. Religion
Affiliation: Calvinist. He was baptized and buried in Calvinist churches, and his second wife was the daughter of the Calvinist minister.
6. Scientific Disciplines
Primary: Microscopy, Entomology, Embryology
Subordinate: Botany, Zoology, Anatomy
He began grinding lenses and observing about 1668.
7. Means of Support
Primary: Merchant, Government, Personal Means
He set up as a draper in Delft before he was twenty-two, and apparently he maintained his shop most of the rest of his life. Rooseboom (in Schierbeek) thinks that he may have inherited money from his mother's family and closed up the business.
In 1660 he was appointed Usher to the Aldermen of Delft; he continued to draw this salary (originally 314 guilders) until his death. In 1669 he became further surveyor to the court of Holland. He continued in the service of Delft in various capacities (many utilizing his ability in mathematics) all his life, and in his old age he received a pension from the city. Most of the authorities agree in treating these positions as sinecures bestowed on Leeuwenhoek by the city magistrates; however, Rooseboom does not treat them as sinecures, but as real positions offering real (though modest) remuneration-- c.800 guilders per year when all are added up. She does agree that some of the positions were sinecures, possibly deriving from the relation of Leeuwenhoek's first wife to the inner circles of Delft.
Rooseboom also offers evidence that Leeuwenhoek had an estate that offered further modest income--perhaps 500 guilders per year. And she finds evidence that the estate (probably through careful management) grew. Leeuwenhoek certainly lived in comfort.
8. Patronage
Type: Magistrates
In addition to the sinecures above, the city, which recognized his scientific achievements, frequently rewarded him upon the publication of books, which he dedicated to the city administration.
9. Technological Involvement
Type: Instrumentation
There is no question that he developed the capacity to grind powerful lenses (or magnifying glasses), and he also designed ingenious appartus to display specimens before the lenses. Note, however, that he kept his methods secret, so that he did not leave any tradition at all behind him.
He also devised a "counter: which allowed him to count the number of creatures in a very small sample and then to extrapolate by ratios to a larger volume.
10. Scientific Societies
Membership: Royal Society
Because of his language limitations (he knew only Dutch), Leeuwenhoek worked in virtual isolation, often ignorant of what other scientists were doing. Nevertheless he did maintain an extensive correspondence, especially with the Royal Society in London. His letters were translated from the Phil Trans into French and Latin. After 1685 Leeuwenhoek himself published Latin translations (obviously not his own work) of his letters.
He was elected FRS in 1680. The fellowship was clearly his greatest pride. He mentioned it on his title pages and had it mentioned on his tomb stone.
  1. G.C. Gerrits, Grote nederlanders bij de opbouw der natuurwetenschapen, (Leiden, 1948), 130-5.
  2. C. Dobell, Anthony van Leeuwenhoek and his "Little Animals," (London: Staples Press, 1932).
  3. Nieuw Nederlandsch Biographisch Woordenboek.
  4. A. Schierbeek, Measuring the Invisible World. The Life and Works of Antoni van Leeuwenhoek FRS, (London, 1959). An English version, shortened, of the original Dutch. Maria Rooseboom wrote the biographical chapter in this book.
Not Available and Not Consulted
  1. A. Schierbeek, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek. Zijn leven en zijn werken, 2 vols. (Lochem, 1950-51).
Compiled by:
Richard S. Westfall
Department of History and Philosophy of Science
Indiana University

Note: the creators of the Galileo Project and this catalogue cannot answer email on geneological questions.

1995 Al Van Helden
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