Antonie van Leeuwenhoek’s Discovery of the Smallest Living Things

From the Lecture Series: Turning Points in Modern History

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

In 1676, the world saw a major shift in the way things were observed by human beings. A great discovery was made that was different from what the world had experienced before. It was comparable to the discovery of the Americas, only on the other side of the spectrum. While Columbus made a macro-level discovery, this discovery was on the micro-level, targeting the tiniest things on earth. It was the first time that human beings were able to see a world that had been unknown to them in tiny particles.

Ancient microscope made from oxidized metal and other instruments of an apothecary.
Antonie van Leeuwenhoek’s discoveries created a turning point in the course of science. (Image: Alexey Wraith/Shutterstock)

Who was Antonie van Leeuwenhoek?

Antonie van Leeuwenhoek was from the Netherlands and lived in the country’s third-largest city, Delft. It was a prosperous city due to the construction of canals that carried first-class beer and a whole variety of commodities. A specialty of the city was Delft’s famous pottery, a much cheaper Dutch copy of the Chinese porcelain. The microscope had already been invented and used for several decades. But Antonie van Leeuwenhoek had enhanced it over the years to observe a wide variety of objects.

Learn more about Gutenberg’s print revolution.

How Did Leeuwenhoek Discover Bacteria?

Van Leeuwenhoek had a personal passion for observing things. He was always experimenting with different things and observing them under his microscopes. In his first experiment, he wanted to find out why pepper is hot. Initially he thought that the spicy taste of pepper was due to sharp invisible spikes. Naturally, he found out that he was wrong.

But, he accidentally found something surprising while he was experimenting with pepper. For his experiment, he had kept pepper in water for three weeks to make it soft and ready for the test. While he was looking at the pepper under his microscope, he observed very tiny living things moving around in the water. They were so small that, according to his estimations, a hundred of them put end to end would still be smaller than a grain of sand.

It was the first encounter of human beings with bacteria. He continued to observe how long they lived, how they moved, and what habits they had. Other things that he was first to observe included microbes, red blood cells, sperm cells, and mold spores.

Color portrait of Antonie van Leeuwenhoek.
Antonie van Leeuwenhoek was always observing things under his microscope.
It was during one such observation that he saw the bacteria for the first time.
(Image: Jan Verkolje/Public domain)

This is a transcript from the video series Turning Points in Modern History. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Van Leeuwenhoek’s Discoveries and the Dutch Golden Age

Van Leeuwenhoek made those discoveries in the flourishing socio-economic conditions of that time. The Netherlands was at the height of its Golden Age, which was from 1570 to 1720. The society was experiencing considerable developments in various aspects, even religious tolerance. Society embraced new ideas more freely, which was a great development for that age. The commercial advancements made possible by the Dutch East India Company (the VOC), had made trades of various goods possible. Due to its thriving economy and the small population, Dutch lifestyle was marked with high levels of social and economic welfare.

On the military front, the Dutch had also made great advancements. Following a very long war of 80 years, they had finally gained independence from the Spanish Empire. Also, the system of government was an advanced one. Instead of a kingdom, the United Provinces were a republic, controlled by a merchant elite.

On a cultural level, the country was also ahead of other countries. Rembrandt and Johannes Vermeer were two notable artists that lived and worked in that era.

Memorial of Antonie van Leeuwenhoek in Oude Kerk (Delft).
A memorial of Antonie van Leeuwenhoek in Delft. His discovery of bacteria had considerable implications on the history of science.
(Image: Swadim/CC BY-SA 4.0/Public domain)

The industry of technical equipment production also enjoyed success. The person who invented the first form of telescope around 1600 was a Dutchman. He realized that if he put two glasses of lenses together, he could double the magnification power and observe very far-off objects.

Van Leeuwenhoek’s discoveries took place in a context that tolerated and even embraced new advancements and did not denounce them. The turning point of his discovery was the shift in the way things were celebrated or considered. Up until then, only big things were taken into account, and small things were mostly discarded as insignificant and trivial. This view was even prevalent in visual arts, where important things were magnified in the front, and insignificant ones were minimized in the background. The microorganisms, as the tiniest living things, were now considered as objects of scientific discovery, causing a paradigm shift in the history of science.

This discovery could be considered even more considerable than that of Columbus. He discovered life that no one was ever aware of before. It had implications for humanity as a whole. But, the discovery of Columbus was only important to the Europeans, and at least the Native Americans were aware of it because they lived there.

Learn more about Columbus and the New World.

Common Questions About How Did the Discoveries of Antonie Van Leeuwenhoek Change the World?

Q: What did Leeuwenhoek discover?

The most important thing that Leeuwenhoek discovered was bacteria. He also was first to observe microbes or microorganisms. Apart from the shift that he made in the observation of small things, he observed many varieties of cells.

Q: What is Antonie van Leeuwenhoek known for?

Van Leeuwenhoek is known for his observations and discoveries in the field of microbiology. He is named the father of microbiology since he was the first scientist to draw attention to the world of tiny living things.

Q: When did van Leeuwenhoek invent the microscope?

The microscope had been invented before van Leeuwenhoek. Through his passion for lenses and microscopes, he perfected the device and improved its magnifying power.

Q: What did Antonie van Leeuwenhoek contribute to the cell theory?

He was the first person to examine many cells, including red blood cells. He was also the first person to see the nucleus of these blood cells. Before him, the notion of cells as the building blocks of living things was not widely accepted.

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