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Journal of the History of Biology

, Volume 17, Issue 2, pp 225–248 | Cite as

Leeuwenhoek and the campaign against spontaneous generation

  • Edward G. Ruestow
Article

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Spontaneous Generation 
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References

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    In his letter to Constantijn Huygens, Leeuwenhoek also spoke of observing the unborn already alive within the adult vinegar eels, as did Christiaan Huygens two years later. (Christiaan Huygens, Oeuvres complètes, published by the Société Hollandaise des Sciences [The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1888–1950], XIII, 700.) Henry Baker, however, would later cite only Marcus Antonius Cellius' demonstration of the viviparity of vinegar eels in Rome in 1688. (Henry Baker, Employment for the Microscope [London: R. Dodsley, 1753], p. 250n.)Google Scholar
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    Leeuwenhoek to Henry Oldenburg, 5 October 1677, in Leeuwenhoek, A.d.B., II, 240–243. The passage is confusing. As in the case of the vinegar eels, Leeuwenhoek spoke of these nematodes found in the gut of a true eel as aeltgens, “little eels.” Still, to assume, as did the Royal Society (Thomas Birch, The History of the Royal Society of London [London: A. Miller, 1756–57; reprint ed., Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 1968], III, 347) and apparently, more recently, H. F. Nierstrasz (Leeuwenhoek, A.d.B., II, pp. 240n8, 241n4), that Leeuwenhoek, took the worms in the gut for young eels themselves is to suppose a surprising casualness or ignorance about the mechanisms of sexual generation, and on the very eve of Leeuwenhoek's encounter with spermatozoa. If he perceived them to be young eels, the observation would also have constituted a striking example of preformation, which we might expect to have elicited further comment by Leeuwenhoek even if at some later date. (Indeed, he would specifically reject a very similar idea about mice less than two years later; see below.) As noted in the continuation of the text above, Leeuwenhoek would long remain frustrated by his admitted inability to find the young within true eels, and in what seems to be a reference to the observation in question in later years, when he had finally discovered the true unborn young, he does clearly recall these nematodes as only worms. (Leeuwenhoek to the Royal Society, 24 January 1694, in Leeuwenhoek, Vierde Vervolg der Brieven [Delft: Henrik van Kroonevelt, 1694], p. 612.) Consequently, I believe that in reading this passage a distinction must be made between Palingh en Ael, on the one hand, and aeltge or aeltgens as wormkens, on the other—a distinction that is not always clear in the English translation in A.d.B. I take Leeuwenhoek to mean that he found new little unborn worms within the nematodes and considered a possible analogy between the nematodes and the true eels, the latter then also perhaps bearing their young within them.Google Scholar
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Copyright information

© D. Reidel Publishing Company 1984

Authors and Affiliations

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

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