The Leeuwenhoek name: What about the "van"?

Modern biographers point out that Antony began using the van after he achieved international fame in the 1680's. Some imply that the lowly, self-taught shopkeeper felt the need to tart up his name, a bit of social climbing revealing of his character. Like the Vermeer connection, that makes a good story, but it's a little more complicated.

Some historical context

The modern system of family names was only beginning in the Netherlands in the 1600's. Most Dutch families used patronymics, the father's name plus zoon for sons and dochter for daughters, abbreviated zn. and dr. and often written with what looks like a flourish at the end of the name.

Many Dutch families, from all social classes, began including a prefix, usually a preposition, preceding a place name or occupation name. Johannes van der Meer ("from the lake") blended into Johannes Vermeer, for example. For them, the patronymic might be the middle name. Or they might use it only sometimes. Other family members might keep using the patronymic exclusively.

Antony was not the first person in his family to use the van. In fact, the first time that the family name appears in the public records, it had a van. For a will in 1621, grandfather Thonis and his son Huijch both used van Leeuwenhouck. Huijch used the same last name in 1628 when his daughter Geertruij was baptized. Of the two dozen relatives named with some variant of Leeuwenhoek in the Delft baptism, marriage, and burial records, ten of them used the van at least some of the time. For example:

  • when his sister baptized her first child in 1647, she is registered as Margrieta van Leeuwenhouck.
  • when his sister Catherina registered her betrothal and marriage to Claes van Leeuwen in 1655, she used the van.
  • when the Weeskamer dealt with the estate of Leeuwenhoek's first wife in 1667, the document refers to him with the van.

These uses of van came long before Antony started writing to the Royal Society let alone achieved enough fame to get pretentious.

While many Dutch families have the surname van Leeuwen, only Antony's has the surname van Leeuwenhoek. It survives today, but barely.