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Journal of the History of Biology

, Volume 16, Issue 2, pp 185–224 | Cite as

Images and ideas: Leeuwenhoek's perception of the spermatozoa

  • Edward G. Ruestow
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References

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    Henry Power, Experimental Philosophy, in Three Books (London: printed by T. Roycroft for John Martin and James Allestry, 1664), p. [xviii] in “The Preface to the Ingenious Reader.”Google Scholar
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    Leeuwenhoek to Henry Oldenburg, 4 December 1674, in Leeuwenhoek, A.d.B., I, 202–203.Google Scholar
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    Leeuwenhoek to Henry Oldenburg, 22 January 1675, ibid., pp. 210–211; Leeuwenhoek to Henry Oldenburg, 26 March 1675, ibid., pp. 278–279; Leeuwenhoek to Henry Oldenburg, 20 December 1675, ibid., pp. 330–331; Leeuwenhoek to Nehemiah Grew, 25 April 1679, ibid., III, 22–23.Google Scholar
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    Leeuwenhoek to the Royal Society, 30 March 1685, ibid., V, 150–153.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., pp. 280–283; Leeuwenhoek to Lambert van Velthuysen, 13 June 1679, ibid., III, 74–75; Leeuwenhoek to Herman van Zoelen, 17 December 1698, in Leeuwenhoek, Sevende Vervolg, p. 65. The donor of the specimen was a patient afflicted with gonorrhea, and since the discharge symptomatic of the disease was often identified with semen, it is not unlikely that the specimen was in fact this gonococcal discharge. (Regarding the instruction at Leiden in particular, see Ham's own relative Theodorus Craanen, Tractatus physico-medicus de homine [Leiden: Petrus vander Aa, 1689], p. 750, and Gysbertus van Tol, Disputatio medica inauguralis, de gonorrhoea virulenta [Leiden: Vidua & Haeredes Johannis Elsevirii, 1674], Caput I, S. 5; see also Regnier de Graaf, Tractatus de virorum organis generationi inservientibus, in Opera omnia [Leiden: Officina Hackiana, 1677], pp. 88–89.) I am grateful to Dr. F. Marc Laforce of the University of Colorado School of Medicine for reassurance that it is not unusual to find spermatozoa in such discharge. It is possible that Ham himself had already made other observations of spermatozoa in healthy specimens of semen, for Fridericus Schrader of Helmstad, who had enrolled in the medical school at Leiden shortly after Ham's visit (his second, in fact) to Leeuwenhoek and graduated two years later, wrote in 1681 that his “very dear friend” Ham had first discovered spermatozoa in the Netherlands in the semen of a rooster. (Album studiosorum Academiae Lugduno Batavae MDLXXV-MDCCCLXXV [The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1875], col. 616; “Catalogus promotorum,” in P. C. Molhuysen, ed., Bronnen tot de Geschiedenis der Leidsche Universiteit [The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1913–1924], III, 331.) Ham had also told him, Schrader added, that he had found all the spermatozoa dead in the semen of those suffering from “virulent” gonorrhea. (Fridericus Schrader, Dissertatio epistolica de microscopiorum usu in naturali scientia & anatome [Göttingen: Sumptibus Bartholdi Fuhrmanns, typis Johannis Christophori Hampii, 1681], pp. 34–35.) On 12 January 1679 in Bologna, moreover, Marcello Malpighi noted the report of a “German friend” (Schrader?) that “animals like extremely small toads, dead and deprived of motion”, could be observed in the semen of those with gonorrhea. (Howard B. Adelmann, Marcello Malpighi and the Evolution of Embryology [Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1966], I, 420.) According to Leeuwenhoek, however, both he and Ham had observed living spermatozoa in the specimen that the latter had brought, and Ham had judged that they lived perhaps twenty-four hours; Ham also reported having observed them dead after the patient had taken turpentine (Leeuwenhoek to William Brouncker, November 1677, in Leeuwenhoek, A.d.B., II, 282–283.) See also note 24.Google Scholar
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    Leeuwenhoek to William Brouncker, November 1677, in Leeuwenhoek, A.d.B., II, 284–291.Google Scholar
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    Pieter Rabus, friend and admirer of Leeuwenhoek as well as publisher of the Dutch-language periodical De Boekzaal van Europe, restrained his discussion of some of Leeuwenhoek's later observations because he knew the Boekzaal was also seen by “delicate eyes” (De Boekzaal van Europe, VII [July-December 1695], 473) and suggested to Leeuwenhoek that he translate certain of his ideas on the impregnation of the female into Latin to make them known to the world. (Leeuwenhoek to Pieter Rabus, 30 November 1694, in Leeuwenheok, Vijfde Vervolg der Brieven [Delft: Henrik van Krooneveld, 1696], pp. 12–13.) In the bilingual catalogue of Leeuwenhoek's microscopes auctioned at Delft in 1747, preparations of spermatozoa and of the genitalia of fleas and lice were also specified in the Latin but not in the more modest Dutch text. (Catalogus van het vermaarde Cabinet van Vergrootglasen, met zeer veel Moeite, en Kosten in veele Jaren geïnventeert, gemaakt, en nagelaten door wylen den Heer Anthony van Leeuwenhoek [Delft: Reinier Boitet, 1747], items 24, 28, 33, 35, pp. 10–11, 12–13, 14–15.)Google Scholar
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    Leeuwenhoek to William Brouncker, November 1677, in Leeuwenhoek, A.d.B., II, 290–293. He was apparently reassured, for Leeuwenhoek's subsequent letters would deal unabashedly with his investigations of sex-related matters, and in 1679 he showed the spermatozoa of a dog to no one less than the visiting Duke of York. (Leeuwenhoek to Robert Hooke, 13 October 1679, ibid., III, 106–109.) But he would continue on occasion to censor his speculations, for he feared not only their impropriety but “that the world, which is coarse and vicious enough, might use the knowledge of nature for its own ruin and increasingly debauch itself in depravity.” (Leeuwenhoek to Pieter Rabus, 30 November 1694, in Leeuwenhoek, Vijfde Vervolg, p. 13.)Google Scholar
  21. 21.
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    Ibid.; Christiaan Huygens, Dioptrica, in Oeuvres complètes, published by the Société Hollandaise des Sciences (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1888–1950), XIII, 524–527. For other examples of the spermatozoa being exalted above all of Leeuwenhoek's other observations, see Martin Folkes, “Some Account of Mr. Leeuwenhoek's Curious Microscopes, Lately Presented to the Royal Society,” Phil. Trans., 380 (November–December 1723), 449; Rudolphus Forsten, Oratio de belgarum meritis in oeconomia corporis humani extricanda (Harderwijk: Joannes Mooien, 1776), pp. 47–48.Google Scholar
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    Christiaan expressed his sense of the importance of the spermatozoa and their relevance to the generation of animals in announcing their discovery the following year in Paris. (Christiaan Huygens, “Extrait d'une Lettre de M. Huguens de l'Acad. R. des Sciences à l'Auteur du Journal, touchant une nouvelle maniere de Microscope qu'il a apporté de Hollande,” J. Sçavans, 15 August 1678, vol. 6, Amsterdam ed. [1679], 347.) Fridericus Schrader (see note 17) related that Ham, having first discovered the spermatozoa in the semen of a rooster, told him that he had also investigated the semen of sterile men, finding in it no spermatozoa at all, as well as the semen of those suffering from virulent gonorrhea: (Fridericus Schrader, De microscopiorum usu, pp. 34–35.) If this is so, such a line of inquiry certainly suggests an interest in a possible connection between the spermatozoa and generation, although the date of these investigations is not disclosed.Google Scholar
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    Leeuwenhoek to William Brouncker, November 1677, ibid., pp. 292–297; Leeuwenhoek to Nehemiah Grew, 18 March 1678, ibid., pp. 336–337. The English translation given in A.d.B., II, for Leeuwenhoek's letter of 31 May 1678 to Nehemiah Grew introduces a very misleading idea. Leeuwenhoek's reference on p. 362 to spermatozoa among the ostensible vessels of the semen acquires in translation (p. 363) the sense that the spermatozoa came to be among the vessels “by their escaping from the vessels” when the latter were broken, suggesting that the spermatozoa had been contained within the vessels (see 362n29 and 363n9 in this volume of the A.d.B.). I find nothing in the original Dutch passage to justify the introduction of the cited phrase or the attendant implication. Leeuwenhoek initially wrote that he had observed the spermatozoa primarily in the thinner, fluid part of the semen around the thicker part, which, composed of vessels, was in fact too densely packed, he surmised, to allow the spermatozoa to move in it. (Leeuwenhoek to William Brouncker, November 1677, ibid., pp. 284–287, 292–293.) In his letter to Grew, Leeuwenhoek is attempting to explain how some spermatozoa were also found among the vessels. The answer he offers is that when the vessels were broken apart in the semen spilled as the male animal mounted the female, the spermatozoa were able to swim in among them. Since he had earlier observed (or so he reported) that these vessels, when exposed to the air for a few moments, turned into a watery substance and oily globules like those he had seen among the putative vessels of the spinal marrow as well, he conjectured that the vessels of the semen might in fact carry animal spirits (ibid., pp. 294–297), presumably because the nerves and supposed vessels of the spinal cord were widely believed to carry these spirits. Leeuwenhoek indicated that the “body” — that is, the head — of the spermatozoa he had drawn for the Royal Society was perhaps slightly thicker than the prominent vessels of the semen he had drawn, the smaller of which, however, were so small as to escape his isght. (Leeuwenhoek to Nehemiah Grew, 31 May 1678, ibid., pp. 364–367.) True to the near-equivalence of diameters thus suggested, he described the diameter of these prominent vessels as less than a hundredth the diameter of a large grain of sand (ibid.) and also judged that such a grain of sand would be larger in volume than a million spermatozoa. (Leeuwenhoek to William Brouncker, November 1677, ibid., pp. 286–287.)Google Scholar
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    I have been able to locate no Dutch translation of de Graaf's De mulierum organis generationi inservientibus tractatus novus earlier than that in his posthumous Alle de Wercken (Amsterdam: Abraham Abrahamse), published in 1686. Nor have I been able to find a Dutch translation of Harvey's Exercitationes de generatione animalium.Google Scholar
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  83. 83.
    Ibid., pp. 114–117. In 1695 he also wrote of having observed in the transparent fluid of early mussel eggs an abundance of small animalcules that he took for spermatozoa. (Leeuwenhoek to the Elector Palatine, 18 September 1695, in Leeuwenhoek, Vijde Vervolg, p. 147.) The first observations of spermatozoa penetrating and within an ovum did not come until the nineteenth century. See F. J. Cole, Early Theories of Sexual Generation (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1930), pp. 193–195; Charles W. Bodemer, “The Microscope in Early Embryological Investigation,” Gynecol. Invest., 4 (1973), 204–205. The mammalian ovum had itself been observed for the first time only shortly before. See George Sarton, “The Discovery of the Mammalian Egg and the Foundation of Modern Embryology”, Isis, 16 (1931), 315–[378].Google Scholar
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    Leeuwenhoek to the Royal Society, 30 March 1685, ibid., V, 198–201; de Graaf, De mulierum organis, pp. 400–401; H. D. Jocelyn and B. P. Setchell, notes to Regnier de Graaf on the Human Reproductive Organs (J. Reproduct. Fert. suppl. no. 17; Oxford, etc.: Blackwell Scientific Publications, 1972), 206n275.Google Scholar
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    Leeuwenhoek to the Royal Society, 13 July 1685, in Leeuwenhoek, A.d.B., V, 246–247; Leeuwenhoek to the Royal Society, 6 August 1687, ibid., VII, 34–35; Leeuwenhoek to the Royal Society, 12 January 1689, ibid., VIII, 110–111; Leeuwenhoek to Antonio Magliabechi, 18 September 1691, ibid., pp. 176, 184–185; Leeuwenhoek to the Royal Society, 7 March 1692, ibid., pp. 328–329. See also Leeuwenhoek to Antoni Cink, 24 October 1713, in Leeuwenhoek, Send-Brieven, p. 88.Google Scholar
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    Leeuwenhoek to Nehemiah Grew, 18 March 1678, ibid., II, 340–341; Leeuwenhoek to Nehemiah Grew, 27 September 1678, ibid., pp. 390–391; Leeuwenhoek to Constantijn Huygens, 20 May 1679, ibid., III, 56–67; Leeuwenhoek to Robert Hooke, 3 March 1682, ibid., pp. 396–397; Leeuwenhoek to the Royal Society, 25 July 1684, ibid., IV, 274–275; Leeuwenhoek to the Royal Society, 5 January 1685, ibid., V, 20–21.Google Scholar
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    Leeuwenhoek's comment footnoted immediately above might suggest that he already had in mind the idea of a preformed man in the spermatozoa, although elsewhere he similarly equated the complexity of microscopic animals in general with that of larger animals, including the human body. (Leeuwenhoek to Robert Hooke, 3 March 1682, ibid., pp. 396–397; Leeuwenhoek to Constantijn Huygens, 20 May 1679, ibid., pp. 58–59.) Thus no implications beyong a simple emphasis on the complexity of the spermatozoa can be ascribed with confidence to the cited passage. In 1683 Leeuwenhoek wrote that the inner body of the spermatozoa acquired the form of a man as “a whole other nature” (een geheel ander wesen) that is already provided with the heart and entrails, “indeed, all the perfection,” of a man. (Leeuwenhoek to Christopher Wren, 22 January 1683, ibid., IV, 16–17.) Whether the spermatozoa had all that perfection before assuming their new nature, however, is not clear.Google Scholar
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    Malebranche noted that the transformation of the egg into a chick was infinitely more difficult than the preservation of a chick that was already entirely formed. (Malebranche, La Recherche de la vérité, in Oeuvres complètes, II, 105.)Google Scholar
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Copyright information

© D. Reidel Publishing Company 1983

Authors and Affiliations

  • Edward G. Ruestow
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of HistoryUniversity of ColoradoBoulder

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