Form and Content
Alma Smith Payne’s Discoverer of the Unseen World: A Biography of Antoni van Leeuwenhoek is a scientific biography dealing mainly with Leeuwenhoek’s life between 1673 and 1723, when he made his major contributions to microscopy. Payne begins her account with a chapter placing Leeuwenhoek in the scientific context of the seventeenth century, and what little is known of his personal life is outlined in the second chapter. The central ten chapters of the book follow a rough chronological sequence but are focused on the various themes of Leeuwenhoek’s scientific life and work. The final two chapters assess Leeuwenhoek’s contribution to the subsequent history of microscopy. Discoverer of the Unseen World is illustrated with several line drawings of characters and places by Donn Albright, although readers might have been better aided by illustrations of Leeuwenhoek’s unusual microscope and the microorganisms that he observed.
A successful cloth merchant in Delft, The Netherlands, Leeuwenhoek taught himself the rudiments of lens grinding and sometime in the 1660’s began to produce his unique single-lens microscopes, with which he examined a wide variety of natural objects. Payne narrates the growing interest in his work, which came to the attention of the Dutch scientists Regnier de Graaf and Christiaan Huygens. In 1673, these men reported Leeuwenhoek’s discoveries to the Royal Society of London, whose Philosophical Transactions was the premier scientific journal of the time. Payne emphasizes Leeuwenhoek’s status as a non-university-educated amateur at science who could read and write only in Dutch and not in the preferred scientific language of Latin. Nevertheless, he seized the attention of the learned individuals of Europe with his remarkable observations, which were communicated in a series of letters written to Philosophical Transactions over a fifty-year period.
In Discoverer of the Unseen World, Payne discusses three main avenues of Leeuwenhoek’s microscopic research: his work on “animalcules” or microscopic organisms, his investigation of blood, and his contributions to the debate over generation. She details the number and variety of phenomena that he investigated, as well as his exhaustive trial-and-error research techniques, by relying mainly on Leeuwenhoek’s own accounts. The Delft cloth merchant finally received recognition from the scientific community when he was more than fifty years old, and he continued his research and letter writing right up to his death at the age of ninety.