Journal of the History of Biology

, Volume 1, Issue 1, pp 1–22 | Cite as

Leeuwenhoek as a founder of animal demography

  • Frank N. Egerton

Summary and conclusions

Leeuwenhoek's observations relating to animal population, though scattered through many letters written during a period of over forty years, when seen in toto, were important contributions to the subject now known as animal demography. He maintained enough contact with other scientists to have received encouragement and some helpful suggestions, but the language barrier and the novelty of doing microscopic work forced him to be resourceful, inventive, and original. His multifarious investigations impinged upon population biology before he discovered a direct interest in it. He devised methods for estimating numbers of animalcules, and then he went on to estimate the population of the world. His interest in reproduction was an important avenue by which he approached the subject of reproductive capacity. Other important approaches were his studies of growth, longevity, and life histories. He discovered relationships between aspects of the life history, longevity, and reproductive capacity of several species of insects, notably calanders, scavenger flies, crane flies, aphids, and lice. An important feature of these investigations were the arithmetical calculations which he made of reproductive potentials. In spite of several limitations, these calculations were an important innovation to the study of animal population. In his later years, his investigations came more and more within the sphere of ecology. He made the first significant observations on food chains. It is especially interesting that fish were the subject of these observations, because it was not until the latter half of the nineteenth century that scientists realized that fish ultimately depend upon phytoplankton.

These accomplishments did not pass unnoticed. Although Leeuwenhoek never synthesized his scattered observations concerning population, his originality and perception were appreciated by outstanding biologists of the eighteenth century. The important discussions of population biology by Réaumur, Buffon, and Bonnet all derived inspiration and assistance from the writings of Leeuwenhoek.73 This ingenious Fellow of the Royal Society, “by detecting through diligent application and scrutiny the mysteries of Nature and the secrets of natural philosophy,”74 became one of the founders of animal demography.


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Copyright information

© President and Fellows of Harvard College 1968

Authors and Affiliations

  • Frank N. Egerton
    • 1
  1. 1.Hunt Botanical LibraryCarnegie-Mellon UniversityPittsburghUSA

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