The vanishing link between animalcules and disease before the 19th century

Lesley A. Robertson*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)
10 Downloads (Pure)


When Antoni van Leeuwenhoek began his work with microscopes in the late 17th century, western medicine was mostly based on the work of a Roman doctor called Galen (129-199 ad), theological interpretation, superstition, and folk remedies. During modern discussions of Van Leeuwenhoek's work, a common question from listeners is why it took so long for the link between Van Leeuwenhoek's discoveries and infectious disease to be accepted. Published literature, examples of which are discussed here, shows that many researchers, doctors, and others reported the link, even during Van Leeuwenhoek's lifetime. However, it was frequently not taken seriously by the most influential people. The scientific establishment included a faction of the Royal Society of London who called themselves the 'Mechanical Philosophers'. They ridiculed those reporting animalcule-linked infection, dismissing them as 'Contagionists'. The medical establishment also included many influential people with a lot to lose if they changed their established approaches, and many quack doctors. Most religious ministers were strongly orthodox, some even claiming that helping the sick angered God. A major problem, of course, was that technology and biological understanding also lagged far behind. Despite the fact that the use of vaccination was under active discussion in the Royal Society at the time of Van Leeuwenhoek's death and quarantine was in regular use, a possible microbial connection was apparently not considered. It was not until late in the 19th century, that Robert Koch (1843-1910) isolated Bacillus anthracis, proved that it caused anthrax, and was believed. This paper follows a lecture given during the online Microbe Forum in June 2021, and illustrates the difficulties of establishing the true link between Van Leeuwenhoek's animalcules and infectious disease in humans, animals, and plants.

Original languageEnglish
Number of pages8
JournalFEMS Microbiology Letters
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2022

Bibliographical note

Green Open Access added to TU Delft Institutional Repository ‘You share, we take care!’ – Taverne project
Otherwise as indicated in the copyright section: the publisher is the copyright holder of this work and the author uses the Dutch legislation to make this work public.


  • animalcules
  • fake cures
  • Leeuwenhoek
  • microorganisms
  • plague
  • smallpox


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