Wrote Letter 55 of 1687-06-13 (AB 100) to Members of the Royal Society

Date: 
June 13, 1687
Standard reference information
Cole's number: 
55
AB/CL number: 
100
AB/CL volume: 
6

Text of the letter in the original Dutch and in English translation from Alle de Brieven / The Collected Letters at the DBNL - De Digitale Bibliotheek voor de Nederlandse Letteren.

The original manuscript, written and signed by Leeuwenhoek, is preserved at the Royal Society (MS. 1921. L 2. 12).


There is no record in Birch's History that this letter was received or read at a weekly meeting.

Specimens and methods: manna from Heaven

At the beginning of this letter, Leeuwenhoek shared an experience from his childhood.

In my youth I have often eaten a certain small seed that is called Manna, this seed was cooked in fresh milk, and people always assured one, when the subject was broached, that it was a very healthy dish, and that it did not grow; but that in Poland, it fell from the sky at certain times of the year, and that this seed had to be collected on linen sheets in the morning dew before sunrise.

This grain or seed has often been in my thoughts, and I have not been able to accept the tales that are spread about it.

Now it so happens that about two years ago I obtained a few pounds of such manna, and no sooner did I see this seed than I knew the same, and it having been cooked, also the taste, and when I merely looked at the same with the naked eye, I saw that our nation is being greatly deceived about it, for in each small grain I could distinguish the place where the beginning of the plant had lain.


Public reception: "Everybody free in his own feeling."

At the end of this letter, Leeuwenhoek mentioned once again how people reacted to his observations.

Concerning which great and unimaginable perfectness we may say and conclude that all the trees and plants that grow on the earth, have originated from those trees and plants that were made in the beginning of creation. I should perhaps extend my speculations hereupon still further, but that would (I suppose) be objectionable to some people. I will therefore leave everybody free in his own feeling, and break off in the hope that there may be something, in the present, which will be found agreeable.


Figures

The original drawings are lost. The Dutch and Latin editions that Leeuwenhoek published used the same plates. This letter had so many figures, that Leeuwenhoek had them engraved on three plates (below; click to enlarge). They and the figures on the sidebars came from the 1730 fourth edition of Continuatio Epistolarum. In the text, Leeuwenhoek noted that someone else drew the figures.

He also discussed the figures illustrating his observations at greater length than in other letters.

What he did not have drawn

In this and the following letter, Leeuwenhoek suggested that the person who made the drawings was not always able to see what Leeuwenhoek wanted him to draw.

Plates from
Continuatio Epistolarum


Figures 1 - 3


Figures 4 - 10


Figures 11 - 28

I have not had these cut-through roots or stalks in a rye grain drawn, partly because I could not put them so clearly before the draughtsman's (teijckenaer) eyes as those in the wheat. And another reason was, because there was too little difference between those of the rye and wheat, except only that those in the rye were much smaller.

Was Leeuwenhoek's vision better? The "so clearly" suggests that he had trouble finding the focus again. A comment about a drawing later in the same letter supports the focus problem.

The two leaves that were enclosed in the first or outermost leaves, which I have also separated from each other, as it might be possible to demonstrate still smaller leaves in the latter. But I was not able to do that well enough to show it to the draughtsman.

In another case, Leeuwenhoek thought that a drawing was not necessary.

I furthermore went on to examine the barley, whereof I have also taken the beginning of the young plants (after I had bared them of their membrane); and the leaves having been separated, I discovered, therein also, the interior leaves, as I have said of the wheat and rye, and I therefore judged that it was not necessary to have the same drawn.


Limitations of his figures

Oddly enough for an investigator of the minute, the drawings would not always fit on the paper. He was having his letters printed on quarto-sized paper, about today's standard 8 1/2" x 11". In several volumes, he used fold-outs that doubled that size. Nevertheless, they did not fit, as he noted when discussing Fig. 4:

If I were to have the wheat grain drawn in its entirety as it has here been cut through transversely, it would take up far too much space on the paper, for which reason I have here indicated only part of the genuine flour in the wheat grain.

Again, referring to Fig. 11:

I would have had this young plant drawn through the microscope, if it would not (as seen through the microscope) have taken up too much space on the paper. For, whereas the young plants in many seeds take up only little space, or length of the flour (wherein the same lie): it is contrariwise with the young plant in the buckwheat seed, for it is not only with its root and leaves that the same covers the length of the seed: but its leaf or leaves lie so widely extended in the seed, that they even lie stretched along the side of the membrane of the buckwheat.

He continued, referring to Fig. 11:

However, I decided to have the young plant of the buckwheat drawn large enough to be able to recognize the figure and I have also, cut a small piece of the buckwheat on the cross, in order also to indicate thereby the manner in which the embryo lies in the buckwheat. ... Fig: 11. (as I said heretofore) I have had it drawn just big enough to enable one to recognize distinctly the leaves and the beginning of the root or stalk.

At both the beginning and end of the letter, he remarked on his relationship with his draughtsman. Referring to Fig. 2, he noted that he handed his microscope to the engraver.

I separated these interior leaves from each other in such a way that I could not only show them to myself; but I have also put them before a microscope, which I gave into the hands of the engraver, for him to draw these leaves, which previously lay joined inside, but now are separated, just as he would come to see them.

Speaking of Fig. 23, he made a comment about his relationship with his draughtsman:

When the draughtsman (teijckenaer) was drawing this, and some preceding seeds he continually imagined that he was drawing some very tiny flowers, but I left him in that state.


Other publications

While the Royal Society did not publish this letter in Philosophical Transactions, it was extracted twice in foreign journals, as were all the letters in Vervolg der Brieven, Letters 53 through 60. In the year after it was written, Jean Le Clerk published an excerpt, without any figures, in Bibliothèque universelle et historique, vol. 9, pp. 297-301.

In 1689, Otto Mencke pubished a very short extract, again without figures, in Acta eruditorum, vol. 8, p. 172.