Eye to Eye with a 350-Year Old Cow: Leeuwenhoek’s Specimens and Original Microscope Reunited

Unknown artist for Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, section of an optical nerve of a cow, 4 December 1674. Graphite and ink on paper. 303 x 215 mm. London, Royal Society archives, EL/L1/9. Photo credit ©The Royal Society. This is the drawing of a section of an optical nerve of a cow that Antoni van Leeuwenhoek had made by an anonymous artist in Delft. This is the image he sent to the Royal Society in the same letter in which he sent the specimens. The drawing together with his written description was supposed to guide the observations made by the Fellows of the Royal Society when they would observe his specimens in London. We can easily recognise the larger and smaller holes and the sieve-like form which he described. Comparing the photograph with the drawing, it is easy to distinguish the thicker outer layer of the nerve and the uneven holes in the middle of the nerve section.
Unknown artist for Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, section of an optical nerve of a cow, 4 December 1674. Graphite and ink on paper. 303 x 215 mm. London, Royal Society archives, EL/L1/9. Photo credit ©The Royal Society.
This is the drawing of a section of an optical nerve of a cow that Antoni van Leeuwenhoek had made by an anonymous artist in Delft. This is the image he sent to the Royal Society in the same letter in which he sent the specimens. The drawing together with his written description was supposed to guide the observations made by the Fellows of the Royal Society when they would observe his specimens in London. We can easily recognise the larger and smaller holes and the sieve-like form which he described. Comparing the photograph with the drawing, it is easy to distinguish the thicker outer layer of the nerve and the uneven holes in the middle of the nerve section.
Original Leeuwenhoek microscope with specimen envelopes sent by Antoni van Leeuwenhoek to the Royal Society in London between 1674 and 1687. The microscope is kept at Rijksmuseum Boerhaave in Leiden, the specimens are from the Royal Society in London. Photo credit ©Wim van Egmond
Original Leeuwenhoek microscope with specimen envelopes sent by Antoni van Leeuwenhoek to the Royal Society in London between 1674 and 1687. The microscope is kept at Rijksmuseum Boerhaave in Leiden, the specimens are from the Royal Society in London.
Photo credit ©Wim van Egmond

What may be the earliest surviving objects seen by microscope – specimens prepared and viewed by the early Dutch naturalist Antoni van Leeuwenhoek – have been reunited with one of his original microscopes for a state of the art photoshoot. This event allowed science historians to recapture the ‘look’ of seventeenth-century science, recording the moment digitally on film and with stunning high-resolution colour photographs for the first time.

Delft-based naturalist Antoni van Leeuwenhoek was one of the first generation of serious microscope users, famous for his high-powered single-lens instruments that enabled him to see the natural world down to the scale of large bacteria. As evidence for his 1670s and 1680s observations, narrated in letters to the London’s Royal Society, he sent a variety of specimens: cows’ optic nerves, sections of cork and elder, and ‘dried phlegm from a barrel’. In September 2019, these materials, in their original packages, flew back across the North Sea to Leiden and the Rijksmuseum Boerhaave—the Dutch national museum of the history of science and medicine—where they were reunited with an original Leeuwenhoek microscope. The museum provided the opportunity for taking photographs through the original microscope, as well as the shooting of moving images. 

Section of optic nerve of a cow
Section of an optical nerve of a cow. This compound image is created with focus stacking photography. Photo credit ©Wim van Egmond.
Leeuwenhoek made this specimen himself. He dried the optical nerve before cutting it in slices, and described how he saw “many openings, very similar to a leather sieve with large and small holes, with the only difference that the holes in the nerve are not round and they are not of the same size.” (Leeuwenhoek to the Royal Society on 4 December 1674).

Science and art historian Dr Sietske Fransen, former ‘Making Visible: The visual and graphic practices of the early Royal Society‘ postdoc at CRASSH and now Leader of the Max Planck Research Group ‘Visualizing Science in Media Revolutions’ at the Bibliotheca Hertziana – Max Planck Institute for Art History orchestrated the event. She conducted readings of Leeuwenhoek’s letters, while photographer Wim van Egmond and Rijksmuseum Boerhaave curator Tiemen Cocquyt were entrusted with the exceedingly delicate operation of filming through the priceless original silver microscope. In combining words and images, the team hope to arrive at a better understanding of Leeuwenhoek’s groundbreaking observations and his use of artists to capture microscope views.  

Cork specimen, photographed through the original Leeuwenhoek microscope with lighting from below, closely resembling imagery that Leeuwenhoek might have observed himself. The center of the image is more in focus than the outside due to field curvature of the original Leeuwenhoek lens. Photo credit ©Wim van Egmond. ​In his letter from 1 June 1674 to the Royal Society, Leeuwenhoek explains how he cut very small particles off a cork with a sharp shaving knife, which he enclosed with the letter.
Cork specimen, photographed through the original Leeuwenhoek microscope with lighting from below, closely resembling imagery that Leeuwenhoek might have observed himself. The center of the image is more in focus than the outside due to field curvature of the original Leeuwenhoek lens. Photo credit ©Wim van Egmond.
​In his letter from 1 June 1674 to the Royal Society, Leeuwenhoek explains how he cut very small particles off a cork with a sharp shaving knife, which he enclosed with the letter.

Professor Sachiko Kusukawa is the Principle Investigator of ‘Making Visible: The visual and graphic practices of the early Royal Society’, a four-year project based at the University of Cambridge dedicated to understanding the illustrative practices of the early Royal Society. She said of the photoshoot: “This event is a result of a network of scholars brought together by the ‘Making Visible’ project, an interdisciplinary research project supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council of the United Kingdom. It shows what can be achieved through true European collaboration, thanks to the Royal Society, Rijksmuseum Boerhaave, the University of Cambridge (CRASSH) and the Bibliotheca Hertziana – Max Planck Institute for Art History.”

Antoni van Leeuwenhoek was learning how and what to see through a microscope by comparing his own observations with the images printed in Robert Hooke's Micrographia: or some physiological descriptions of minute bodies made by magnifying glasses with observations and inquiries thereupon. This richly illustrated book on microscopy was published by the Royal Society in 1665. Photo credit ©The Royal Society.
Antoni van Leeuwenhoek was learning how and what to see through a microscope by comparing his own observations with the images printed in Robert Hooke’s Micrographia: or some physiological descriptions of minute bodies made by magnifying glasses with observations and inquiries thereupon. This richly illustrated book on microscopy was published by the Royal Society in 1665. Photo credit ©The Royal Society.

Amito Haarhuis, Director of the Rijksmuseum Boerhaave, commented: “With his microscopes, Van Leeuwenhoek opened a whole new world, the microcosmos. He made it possible to see things that no human being had seen before. Thanks to this wonderful project and thanks to the latest technology, we are finally able to see in full detail what Van Leeuwenhoek might have seen 350 years ago. We couldn’t be more excited!”

Keith Moore, the Royal Society’s Librarian said: Our first colour views of the sections cut by Leeuwenhoek’s razor, with the lens made by the same hand, was a heart-stopping moment. The Royal Society will look forward to sharing the excitement with audiences in the run-up to the anniversary of this great Dutch scientist in 2023.

Jan Verkolje, Portrait of Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, 1686. Mezzotint. 296 x 227 mm. London, Royal Society archives. Photo credit ©The Royal Society.
Jan Verkolje, Portrait of Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, 1686. Mezzotint. 296 x 227 mm. London, Royal Society archives. Photo credit ©The Royal Society.

Some Background

Although Leeuwenhoek’s specimens have been imaged before, this is the first time that the latest digital techniques have been applied to the surviving specimens. Each item was recorded with still images before being filmed with a modern camera, through an original Leeuwenhoek microscope. These moving images allow researchers to replicate the changing light conditions and specimen orientation that were possible while using one of Leeuwenhoek’s hand-held devices. It is the closest recreation to date of Leeuwenhoek’s working conditions.

Antoni van Leeuwenhoek (1632 – 1723) was born in Delft, Netherlands, where he lived and worked. His interest in lens-making may have been spurred by his connection with the textile trade. He became adept at hand-crafting single-lens microscopes. In these small instruments, the lens was held within silver or brass plates. Specimens were manipulated using an ingenious pin and screw arrangement: brought close to the eye they proved to be a powerful research tool. Very few Leeuwenhoek microscopes survive and today, they are among the treasures of Early Modern science in European museums.

Leeuwenhoek sent his many observations to the Royal Society in London, for publication in the journal Philosophical Transactions. Although the written descriptions were Leeuwenhoek’s own, he collaborated with artists to capture what he was seeing in original drawings, which were engraved for wider dissemination. In a fifty-year period from the 1670s to the 1720s, Leeuwenhoek became the first, or one of the first, to see many aspects of life: he described ‘animalcules’ (micro-organisms such as rotifers), human and animal spermatozoa and investigated the structure of plants. Leeuwenhoek became a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1680.

The specimens under the lens were:

• Cork sections and elder pith, 1 June 1674
• Optic nerves of cows, 4 December 1674
• Cotton seeds, dissected by Leeuwenhoek, 2 April 1686
• ‘Heavenly paper’ [algae mats], 17 October 1687

Rijksmuseum Boerhaave is the national museum of the history of science and medicine in the Netherlands and one of the most important scientific and medical history collections in the world, home to four of the 11 remaining original Leeuwenhoek microscopes.

Footnote

Although Leeuwenhoek’s specimens have been imaged before [1], this is the first time that the latest digital techniques have been applied to the surviving specimens.
[1] Brian J. Ford, ‘The Van Leeuwenhoek Specimens’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society,36 (1981), 37-59; see also further work by him at http://www.brianjford.com/wavbiblio.htm

Supported by

The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funds world-class, independent researchers in a wide range of subjects: history, archaeology, digital content, philosophy, languages, design, heritage, area studies, the creative and performing arts, and much more. This financial year the AHRC will spend approximately £98 million to fund research and postgraduate training, in collaboration with a number of partners. The quality and range of research supported by this investment of public funds not only provides social and cultural benefits and contributes to the economic success of the UK but also to the culture and welfare of societies around the globe.

Rijksmuseum Boerhaave www.rijksmuseumboerhaave.nl is the Netherlands’ national museum of the history of science and medicine. With a world-famous collection spanning five centuries of research and innovation and based on close collaboration with prominent modern scientists, Rijksmuseum Boerhaave offers visitors of all ages a fascinating insight into the world of science. The museum is winner of the European Museum of the Year Award 2019.

Bibliotheca Hertziana – Max Planck Institute for Art History in Rome promotes scientific research in the field of Italian and global history of art and architecture. Established in 1913 as a private foundation by Henriette Hertz (1846–1913), today the Bibliotheca Hertziana is part of the German Max Planck Society and one of the world’s most renowned research institutions for art history. Its impressive specialized library and vast photographic collection are an outstanding scientific resource for art historians from all over the world. 

The Royal Society is a self-governing Fellowship of many of the world’s most distinguished scientists drawn from all areas of science, engineering, and medicine. The Society’s fundamental purpose, as it has been since its foundation in 1660, is to recognise, promote, and support excellence in science and to encourage the development and use of science for the benefit of humanity. 

An Image Interview with Louisiane Ferlier

Plate from first volume of the Philosophical Transactions, 1665

Can you tell us briefly about yourself and your background?

Dr Louisiane Ferlier, Digitisation Project Manager at the Royal Society, in charge of the Royal Society Journal Collections: Science in the making. I have come to the project as an historian of ideas, my research investigates the role of religious institutions in the circulation of knowledge in the 17th century.

Which picture have you chosen, and what does it show? 

I have chosen the engraved plate inserted with issue 5 of the first volume of the Philosophical Transactions. It is composed of four figures corresponding to three articles from the issue published by Henry Oldenburg on July 3rd 1665.

Figure 1 relates to an article by Robert Moray entitled ‘An Account, how Adits & Mines are wrought at Liege without Air-shafts’. It shows a brick chimney and details how air, ash and minerals circulate within it.

Figure 2 and 3 are connected to the previous article as they show the promising invention by a Monsieur Du Son of a tool to ‘break easily and speedily the hardest Rocks’ which was communicated to Oldenburg by Moray. Resembling a stake, the tool was to be used as a chisel to drill through hard rocks when constructing mineshafts.

Figure 4 is the best known of the group and illustrates a two-part article communicating Robert Boyle’s description of a monstrous calf. The calf was born with a monstrous head described in the article as having ‘no sign of any Nose (…) the two Eyes were united into one Double Eye […] Lastly, that just above the Eyes, as it were in the midst of the Forehead, was a very deep depression, and out of that grew a kind of double Purse or Bagg.’ Alerted by the farmer of the monstrous birth, Boyle ordered for the head to be cut and preserved in alcohol.

Why have you chosen this image? 

This image frames powerfully the variety of topics discussed during the early meetings of the Royal Society and the wide range of scientific illustrations that can be found within the Philosophical Transactions. The juxtaposition of figures representing engineering tools next to the sketch of a zoological wonder captures the origins of the two strands of science which were separated into the A and B sides of the Philosophical Transactions in 1887 (A = mathematical, physical and engineering sciences and B = biological sciences).

I find that this juxtaposition creates a particularly interesting tableau reflecting the complexity of disciplinary boundaries in the early modern period. Considered as a single plate within a single publication, the plate unites scientific illustrations vastly different in their aims, executions as well as subjects. And, taken separately, each of the figures would lead us to discover a different network of correspondents, witnesses and collaborators, all supporting science in the making in a different way.

How does this image resonate with you in the context of your work or research?

The aim of the project I manage at the Royal Society is to create a new digital archive of its original journal collections. Illustrations such as this one are what motivated me to join the project in the first place. The archive will contain this image, its related articles and several thousands of others in high definition. It will allow researchers, curious visitors and future scholars to wonder about this strange creature, and wander from its representation to its fascinating description by Boyle. Or, to discover that mines are discussed throughout the history of the Royal Society and that a fascinating history of mining could be retraced from this illustration to the twentieth century through the pages of the Philosophical Transactions.

In many ways this image symbolizes the richness of the Philosophical Transactions as an archive of science.

Do you know anything about the making-process of the image? Does knowing how the image was created affect your understanding of the image?

I also picked this image precisely because I know very little about the original draughtsman of each figure as they could have been drawn by various people. The digging tool for instance could have been drawn by Monsieur du Son, its inventor, or equally, by Moray who communicated it to Oldenburg. The calf’s head, although it is described by Boyle, could have been drawn by another observer after it was preserved in alcohol (which would explain why the observer did not include the rest of the body, which Boyle did see before he had the head removed). The many hands through which each sketch must have travelled before that of the engraver are unknown, and even the engraver did not sign this specific plate.

This is an ideal example of a puzzle to offer to the ‘Making visible project’ where each piece is, in itself, another puzzle. Knowing about the specific of the making-process would reveal much about the circulation of knowledge in the early modern period.

What significance does the image have for the historical understanding of the relationship between knowledge-making and image-making?

The composite nature of the plate displays side by side two technical drawings and a natural history drawing. Much of the scholarship which discusses early image-making focuses on natural history but technical drawings used fascinating techniques to ‘truly’ and ‘faithfully’ represent science in the making. The engraving also encapsulates the complexity of scientific illustrations: without a scale or measures dedicated to each figure, the tool is of the same proportions to the shaft and the calf’s head with its dark lines attracts any viewer’s eye away from the technical drawings. The composition of the plate therefore transforms the experience of each figure. Moreover, each figure depends very heavily on its description included in the related articles to make any sense, yet, there is no explicit reference on the plate to the article.

Do you have any additional thoughts or comments on the image you would like to share?

I always thought that representing the calf’s head in profile was a strange choice: if the calf has no nose and a single eye, a front-facing view would be an easier perspective to depict the monstrosity. Accentuating the twisted tongue and the protuberance on the forehead, I find that the profile view makes him look nearly mischievous: as if he was pulling its tongue and winking at the reader.

An Image Interview with Katy Barrett

 

Map of the Philippines from the Philosophical Transactions, 1708
Map of the Philippines from the Philosophical Transactions 26, 1708

Can you tell us briefly about yourself and your background?

Dr Katy Barrett, Curator of Art at Royal Museums Greenwich. I’m a historian of art and science, coming out of a research background that’s also spread across history of collecting, anthropology, numismatics and natural history. I work on the 17th and 18th centuries, on maritime and exploration art, scientific illustration and visual culture. I’m interested, at the broadest level in how images and texts worked together, and how images were part of knowledge-making in the period. In the 21st century, I’m interested in how interdisciplinary collaboration and digital humanities allow us to conduct, discuss and disseminate ideas. I blog and tweet as Spoons on Trays.

Which picture have you chosen, and what does it show? 

My image is ‘A Map of the New Philippine Islands’ published in the Philosophical Transactions in January 1708. It was contributed along with extracts of two letters from Jesuit missionaries describing the newly ‘discovered’ islands shown in the map, how it had been constructed and an account of the indigenous inhabitants who had shared this knowledge. It shows the group of islands between what were then the Moluccos, the Old Philippines, and the Marianas, and mixes a variety of information in showing the ocean space. The plate is engraved by A. Johnston.

What strikes you about this image? Why does it interest you?

What is striking about this image is how it mixes indigenous knowledge with conventions of European mapmaking and engraving. The map is situated in relationship to the equator (or equinoctial line) running horizontally across the bottom, and the grid of degrees of latitude up each side. Longitude is mentioned in the text but not shown visually. Otherwise, however, the islands are shown based on the number of days taken to travel around the circumference or from the nearest neighbour. Their shapes and relationships, most notably are, as Father Le Gobien tells us, ‘not made by Europeans, for none have yet been upon these Islands, but by the Islanders themselves … Some of the most skilful of ’em ranged upon a Table as many little Stones as there are Islands belonging to their Country; and marked out, as well as they could, the Name of each, it’s Extent, and Distance from the others’ (Philosophical Transactions, 1708-1709, 26, p.197).

How does this image resonate with you in the context of your work or research?

This resonates for me on two levels. One is the complex mixing of different types and processes of knowledge, and the attempt to map an indigenous knowledge of ocean and island space within a European convention that was itself in development in the period. I would love to have been a fly on the wall at the meeting where this knowledge was conveyed. The other is in what is left unsaid in the process of image making. We are told that ‘the Map, thus traced out by the Indians … is here ingraved’, but so much is missing from that trail of inscription. The indigenous contributors laid out stones on a table, we’re told, but someone then had to interpret that on paper and combine it with European ideas. What was A. Johnston then given to engrave and when? We must bear in mind that one of the letters was originally written in 1697, what has happened to the image in the intervening ten years?

What significance does the image have for the historical understanding of the relationship between knowledge-making and image-making?

This helps to make us think very carefully about how we understand and explain such images. The process of making this image is fundamental to how readers of the Philosophical Transactions would then understand these New Philippine Islands as well as their inhabitants. In the making of this map, the indigenous contributors are unusually visible, discussed as part of a larger project of cultural understanding and missionary conversion. It is the, presumably European, draughtsmen and engravers who are obscured.

Do you have any additional thoughts or comments on the image you would like to share?

I’d also love to know if a copy of this map made it back to the Filipino makers!

 

This is the first in a series of “Interview blogs” in which we ask historians, art historians, curators, and scientists to comment on images related to the Royal Society. We are interested in the different ways the interviewees respond to (sometimes the same) images.