Anton van Leeuwenhoek

Anton van Leeuwenhoek was a linen merchant in Delft, the Netherlands, whose passion for science helped make him one of the most important figures in the history of microbiology.

Van Leeuwenhoek saw his first microscope, in use in the fabric trade, in 1653, and he soon bought one of his own. He read Robert Hooke's Micrographia, and it reportedly enthralled him.

Anton van Leeuwenhoek

Anton van Leeuwenhoek

By 1668, he was grinding lenses for his own simple microscopes and looking at every tiny thing he could find. Those two things — his boundless curiosity and the fact that he kept improving his lenses — were critical to his discoveries.

Van Leeuwenhoek was the first to identify microorganisms, notably protists and bacteria, and the first to describe red blood cells and sperm.

Van Leeuwenhoek's discoveries were documented in letters he wrote to Henry Oldenburg, secretary of the Royal Society of London, between 1673 and Van Leeuwenhoek's death in 1723. The letters made him famous, and the Royal Society made him a fellow in 1680.

Over the course of his lifetime, van Leeuwenhoek made at least 500 microscopes. The few that survive are little more than powerful magnifying glasses. However, he developed his own technology for making them, and he never revealed the secrets of their power and brightness.

Portrait by Jan Verkolje from Wikimedia Commons

Childbed fever

"There is not a corner in Britain where this formidable disease has not made many mourners,”  John Mackintosh, an Edinburgh, Scotland "man-midwife" wrote of puerperal or "childbed" fever in the 1820s.

This bacterial disease of the upper genital tract typically began within the first three days after childbirth with abdominal pain, fever and respiratory difficulty, and very often ended with the new mother's death.

Medical writers had been remarking on childbed fever at least since Hippocrates, but in the early modern era, it began to attract attention for a number of reasons. For one, it began to appear in epidemics, with very high mortality rates. For another, accounts of outbreaks were written about and published. And at least some of the new, scientific man-midwives themselves were spreading the disease by going straight from autopsies to the birth chambers of homes and especially of hospitals, without cleaning up at all in between.

There were terrible epidemics of puerperal fever in the German city of Leipzig  in 1652 and 1665, at the Hôtel Dieu in Paris, France, in 1745 and 1746, and at the British Lying-In Hospital in London, England, in 1760. It is possible that these were the first ever epidemics of childbed fever.

“For God’s sake, please breast-feed”

A new study, the subject of a story by Nicholas Wade in The New York Times this week, reveals a little more of the magic of breast milk. It turns out that complex sugars in human milk encourage the growth of "good" bacteria that form a lining in a baby's gut, protecting her from dangerous microbes.

The baby can't digest the complex sugar, but the bifido bacteria can. In an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Bruce German, Carlito Lebrilla and David Mills and colleagues describe the "intriguing strategy" lactation represents — to nourish microbes that can in turn protect a baby who has not yet developed an immune system of his own.

Dr. German told Wade, "We were astonished that milk had so much material that the infant couldn’t digest. Finding that it selectively stimulates the growth of specific bacteria, which are in turn protective of the infant, let us see the genius of the strategy — mothers are recruiting another life-form to baby-sit their baby."

The researchers used mass-spectometry-based tools to examine the structures of the complex sugars in breast milk. Their findings made the researchers think that milk holds even more secrets, even perhaps some that could help struggling newborns or even older humans.

Said Dr. Mills, "It’s all there for a purpose, though we’re still figuring out what that purpose is. So for God’s sake, please breast-feed."