Why did Leeuwenhoek publish his own letters?

On August 27, 1685, the Royal Society issued number 174 of Philosophical Transactions. It had a letter by Leeuwenhoek titled "An Abstract of a Letter of Mr. Leeuwenhoeck Fellow of the R. Society, Dated March 30th. 1685. to the R. S. concerning Generation by an Insect". It would be seven years before they published another even though Leeuwenhoek sent them over two dozen letters during that period. Why?

A year earlier, Leeuwenhoek had a few of his letters published in Leiden. We don't know whether Leeuwenhoek paid for the publication or the printer and bookseller Daniel van Gaesbeeck assumed some of the risk by performing services that would be re-paid from sales. Several factors suggest that Leeuwenhoek self-published. Three of the factors relate more to him:

Did you know?

Only forty of Leeuwenhoek's letters appeared both in Philosophical Transactions, where they were excerpted and translated by the Royal Society, and in one of the self-published volumes, where they were complete and their publication was supervised by Leeuwenhoek.

  • He could afford it.
  • He did everything else himself, ground his own lenses and prepared his own specimens.
  • Looking at the chronological flow, the publications get increasingly standardized across time. If all of these volumes had been independent publishing events spanning four decades made by six different booksellers and even more typesetters and printers in two different towns, there would be more variety. Someone was carrying the learning from one publication to the next and the only person that could have been was Leeuwenhoek.

The rest of these factors relate to how the world was understanding him:

  • The editors of Philosophical Transactions did not publish all of his letters.
  • They published excerpts only, usually omitting the opening and closing paragraphs, sometimes more.
  • The letters were in only English and occasionally a Latin translation.
  • The excerpts and summaries published in French were very short and hardly representative of his painstaking labor. They had few of the figures. For example, most of the articles published in French in Journal des Sçavans, without any figures, were extracted from an article appearing earlier in 1679 in Recueil d'Expériences et Observations sur le Combat, which was itself extracted from the Philosophical Transactions translations of five of Leeuwenhoek's Dutch manuscripts.

Leeuwenhoek couldn't read English and French, but he could clearly see on length alone that the articles in those languages were much less than he had originally written.

By contrast, the volumes published in Leiden and Delft during Leeuwenhoek's lifetime in Dutch and Latin were unselected and unedited. They have all the letters written during certain time periods and every word of all the letters for which the manuscripts have survived. The figures have more detail, probably because Leeuwenhoek was there to work with the engraver, who may well have been the person who made the original red chalk drawing while looking through the microscope at the actual specimen.

Of the letters Leeuwenhoek wrote between ...
# in his
# in
1673 - 1679
1680 - Apr 1702
Apr 1702 - June 1712
Nov 1712 - 1719
1720 - 1722

After his daughter Maria died, her estate executors auctioned Leeuwenhoek's microscopes. At the end of the 1747 catalog, a box of Leeuwenhoek's papers was offered for sale: some manuscripts of unpublished letters "arranged in tidy and good order", along with the copper plates belonging to them and the Latin translations. There are several gaps that he could have been ready to fill, most prominently the first 27 letters in his numbering system.

Finally, after Leeuwenhoek died, only one volume was re-published. If publishers were making money from selling his letters, why did they suddenly stop with a trove of unpublished letters ready for typesetting in Leeuwenhoek's old comptoire? It is curious that Maria cared enough about her father's legacy to fund the memorial in the Oude Kerk but not enough to publish these letters. Nor did any of the people who paid for the privilege of owning a genuine Leeuwenhoek microscope.

The table above right makes it clear. When Leeuwenhoek wasn't getting published in London in Philosophical Transactions, he was getting published in Delft, probably by himself. These were the periods when astronomer Edmond Halley was editor. Beginning in the mid-1680's, Leeuwenhoek pursued a steady schedule of translations and self-publishing for the rest of his career.