Leeuwenhoek sometimes had testy relationships with people. The curiosity that got rewarded when he was picking at a flea in his study was not always welcome in social settings. In this letter, Leeuwenhoek told a story about a traveling show that came through Delft one day in 1683.
A child, about ten years old, has been in a travelling show in these parts. The child's entire body (except its head, they said), was covered with large fish-scales, and because people made quite a fuss to me about this miracle, I went to see it.
I found it to be, however, quite different from what they had told me, for I could not discern anywhere on the body parts that resembled fishscales, neither with my naked eye nor with my ordinary spectacles. For when I observed the so-called scales, especially on the inside of the hands and the soles of the feet, I found that they were very irregular, and as it were only consisted of thick, accumulated callus, and that the body was covered with short excrescences, which in some places looked like long warts.
I asked them to pull off one of these last-named parts from the body, but they refused this, pretending that it would bleed. I searched the child's slippers and at last found on the table where the child sat a particle, called scale by the people who showed the child, and kept it carefully.
I examined the child closely which did not please the showmen. I was also told that these so-called scales dropped off four times a year and that new ones grew at once; also that every day many of these scales lay in the child's bed.
One or two days afterwards I sent another (in order to take away any suspicion about myself) to buy some of the shed scales regardless of money; even if a ‘shilling’ should be paid for a particle no larger than a pin's head I should be pleased (as I was not satisfied with one so-called scale).
At first this seemed to please the show-people, but when the scales were called for at the appointed time, the answer was: we do not want to give scales.
So I had to be satisfied with this single scale and could convince myself after several observations that it consisted only of ordinary or normal scales - such as cover our body - that had stuck together; for when I afterwards put the aforesaid particle in water for a few hours, the little scales would come off at the least touch, numbering thousands of laminae, more distinctly visible than before. But these scales were covered, more than commonly, with globules, and consequently bore a close resemblance to the scales composing the callus in the inside of our hands.
And I concluded that the cause of these so-called scales was that the child, when it was a little baby, had not been cleaned; also that the child's body now is treated with certain substances to make the peeling scales stick together, while, moreover, the child's body is smeared with a blackish substance that it may be the more hideous.
Also that the child has as little exercise as possible, for on examining the child's buttocks I found there hardly any of those particles which they call scales with which the other parts of the body are covered. This I judged to be caused by the fact that the child, by sitting on its buttocks, prevented the scales from adhering to its body as they were rubbed off.
And I am fully convinced that if the child were cleaned with hot water and soap all the scales with which the world is cheated would drop off in a few hours.