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

World’s oldest surgery

Trepanning is the world's oldest surgery. A procedure in which a hole up to two inches in diameter is cut in the skull, trepanning is known to have been performed at least 8,500 years ago, and trepanned skulls have been found all over the world.

Why it was performed all those years ago is a mystery. Healing at many of the wounds tells us that at least some subjects survived — and in some places, there were many subjects.

Perhaps the ancients knew that trepanning, also known as trephination, could relieve pressure on a swollen brain. Perhaps they were hoping to rid one of their clan members of evil spirits, or cure mental illness, or clean up a head wound.

Trepanning has been performed throughout history. A modern trephination movement, founded in the Netherlands in the 1960s, holds that cutting a hole in adults' heads allows their consciousness to expand. That movement has its adherents in the United States as well.