Learning to see

By Sietske Fransen

Drawing of a cross-section of a worm, by Sietske
Drawing of a cross-section of a worm, by Sietske

At the age of 18 I started my undergraduate degree. I had wanted to become a gynaecologist for many years and had therefore signed up to study Medicine at the University of Nijmegen (in the Netherlands). However, about six months before the end of high school, I realised I was more interested in how things work inside bodies, and why people get ill, than in how to deal with diseases at the patient’s end. So, I changed my course to Biology at Utrecht University, to learn all about the workings of living organisms.

Drawing of a locust, by Sietske
Drawing of a locust, by Sietske

At the time, the first year of Biology was build up from the smallest to the largest systems, meaning that we started with Organic Chemistry in September and ended with Ecology at the end of our first year. And over the last four months of year one, we also had the courses Zoology I & II. In my memory (I might be wrong…) this included “practica” on every afternoon from Tuesday till Friday.

The main thing we did during those practical hours was looking at organisms and their anatomies, with the naked eye and the microscope. Dissecting all types of small animals (from lugworms to rats) was extremely informative, however, most of the specimens would come on pre-prepared microscope slides. Looking at these slides we could observe all the different types of tissues and cells in the different organisms of the animal kingdom. In other parts of our course we would be reading or hearing about them, but actually seeing things ourselves was a very important part of our education.

Drawing of a squid, by Sietske
Drawing of a squid, by Sietske

At the time, the ordeal felt like a critique of my drawing skills, but I now understand that I was not taught to draw (nor expected to draw well), but rather educated to observe and see. To be able to distinguish the different organs in a worm, a squid, and a locust, is one thing. However, the process of distinguishing different cell types under a microscope, is quite another. Hence, our long afternoons of dissecting, microscopy and drawing, were all about learning to see.

Malpighian corpuscles, drawn by Sietske
Malpighian corpuscles, drawn by Sietske

This has become all the more apparent to me since I started working on the Making Visible project. I have begun to admire even more the men who started using microscopes and telescopes in the seventeenth century and described what they saw. The things they saw through these devices had never been seen before by them or any previous philosopher. No text book would help them in the right direction, for them no lecturer who spoke about that exact object that same morning. This makes it all the more surprising then to find their names in modern biology books, such as the renal or Malpighian corpuscle (a part of the kidney), which, three hundred years after Malpighi’s first observation, I still had to draw at university.

With this blog post I am not getting to any answers or spectacular new observations, but rather to formulating questions which I would like investigate during the coming years of our project. I am wondering whether the seventeenth-century anatomists and microscopists were educated in drawing. Were those who took a medical degree at university or those Fellows of the Royal Society who could be described as ‘amateurs’, ‘liefhebbers’, or gentlemen, taught how to draw specimens? And did they need these artistic skills, or did they rather need an education in seeing and observing? And maybe the two are joined exercises?

Sperm drawn by Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, Letter to the Royal Society, 31 May 1678, EL/L1/36
Sperm drawn by Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, Letter to the Royal Society, 31 May 1678, EL/L1/36

Antoni van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723), the Dutch microscopist and most prolific correspondent of the early Royal Society, did not go to university and specifically stated in his first letter to the Royal Society that he is not a draughtsman himself and that he therefore hired skilled people to draw his observations. However, some of his own drawings, such as this drawing of male sperm, do not come across as bad drawings, and in fact seem to demonstrate a certain degree of skill. Therefore, I am curious to understand more about the seventeenth-century notion of the skilled draughtsman. Also these draughtsmen had never seen the specimens under the microscope, but they were, at least according to Van Leeuwenhoek, better skilled in drawing. So what is the relation between observation and the registration of these observations, and how was a seventeenth-century “scientist” educated and prepared to do both?

By looking at Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, as well as Regnier de Graaf (1641-1673) and Jan Swammerdam (1637-1680), two other Dutch microscopists who corresponded with the Fellows of the Royal Society, I will investigate their skills in observation and drawing, and the way in which they report about their own skills in their letters. Hopefully this investigation will give us a better sense of the education Dutch anatomists and microscopists received in terms of drawing skills, and also which skills of observation they expected from their readers.