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  • The History of Science and the History of Microscopy
  • Ann La Berge (bio)

In 1865 medical historian Charles Daremberg considered the microscope the consummate instrument of positivism (Daremberg 1865, pp. 300–301). By 1973 historian of the microscope Brian Ford could confidently declare: “Microscopes are everywhere” (Ford 1973, p. 11). Just a few years earlier Savile Bradbury noted the symbolic power of the instrument: “Of all the instruments used by the scientist, the microscope is perhaps the one which most aptly symbolizes this profession to the non-scientist” (Bradbury 1967, p. ix). And he comments that it is strange that such an important symbol of our technology has been largely overlooked by historians of science. From the 1860s to the 1960s the microscope was a dominant symbol of biomedicine—a readily identifiable scientific icon. Yet, curiously, historians of science showed little interest in microscopes and microscopy. They were pursuing other research agendas.

Of course, every historian of science knows about the first great era of microscopy, the late seventeenth century, and the five classical microscopists: Robert Hooke, Nehemiah Grew, Jan Swammerdam, Anton van Leeuwenhoek, and Marcello Malpighi. Most standard accounts of the Scientific Revolution, traditional or revisionist, devote at least some attention to microscopy: the discoveries of Leeuwenhoek, Malpighi’s discovery of the capillaries, Hooke’s Micrographia, the key role of the Royal Society in the era of classical microscopy—just to cite the principal points. 1 It is also common knowledge that this outpouring of microscopical activity was not sustained after the death of the classical microscopists. Sure, some naturalists and physicians used the microscope in the eighteenth century, but most of the activity was among amateurs. With a few notable exceptions, [End Page 111] such as Lyonet, Bonnet, Trembley, Boerhaave, and Haller, the microscope in the eighteenth century was neither a scientific nor a medical instrument.

Catherine Wilson suggests that historians of science in their study of the Scientific Revolution have been dismissive of microscopy, preferring to focus on the physical sciences. As she puts it: “The microscope in the first century of its use appears to have disappointed many historians” (Wilson 1995, p. 69). Certainly the same could be said for the life sciences and medicine in general, William Harvey being the notable exception. Still, it is worth having a look at some representative general treatments of the Scientific Revolution in order better to assess Wilson’s claim.

H. Floris Cohen in his 1994 study of the historiography of the Scientific Revolution does not address microscopy specifically, but he does deal briefly with scientific instruments. He notes that although there are many studies of specific scientific instruments, “only a very small portion is devoted to the discussion of the place of the instrument as such in the history of science in general, or in the Scientific Revolution, in particular” (Cohen 1994, p. 190). In fact Cohen can only turn to two works: the 1953 classic work of Maurice Daumas, Scientific Instruments of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, and the recent work of Albert Van Helden (Van Helden 1983). While acknowledging pioneering contributions by Van Helden and others such as Marian Fournier, Cohen concludes that “the part played by the scientific instrument remains remarkably unexplored” (Cohen 1994, p. 191). Cohen does not venture an explanation as to why this may have been the case, but the explanation seems to follow from his general account of the direction taken by leading students of the Scientific Revolution, to which he refers collectively as “The Great Tradition.”

Within “The Great Tradition” is Herbert Butterfield’s immensely popular The Origins of Modern Science (1957), the publication of a series of lectures Butterfield gave at Cambridge University in 1948. Not surprisingly, Butterfield only mentions the microscope three times: First, he discusses the instrument in conjunction with Malpighi’s discovery of the capillaries—a discovery that confirmed Harvey’s theory of the circulation of the blood. Second, Butterfield cites the microscope as an example, along with the telescope, of the creation of new scientific instruments in the seventeenth century. He notes the microscope’s inadequacies, attributing them to defects in the science of optics. Relying on a technical explanation to explain the shortcomings of...

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