- The Fabric of Life: Microscopy in the Seventeenth Century
The seventeenth century saw the development and deployment of two chief optical instruments: the telescope and the microscope. The telescope—which revealed the unseen world at great distances beyond our own—has received a great deal of attention, but the microscope—which revealed the unseen world all around us—has, until recently, remained far less studied by historians. This dichotomy might well be taken as an effect of the preeminence too often, and uncritically, accorded physics and astronomy (in preference to the life sciences and chemistry) in grand narratives of the Scientific Revolution, but even in the seventeenth century, microscopy seems to have enjoyed only a brief period of florescence.
Recent work (e.g., Catherine Wilson’s The Invisible World ) has begun to direct the attention of historians to the issues and problems surrounding early modern microscopy. Marian Fournier’s book thus joins the ranks of a new generation of microscope studies. Fournier concentrates on the work of five leading microscopists of the seventeenth century: Robert Hooke, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, Marcello Malpighi, Jan Swammerdam, and Nehemiah Grew. She outlines the development of the microscope and its various contrivances, noting that technological changes did not influence scientific activity, but rather that renewed interest in the questions that microscopy could answer spurred improvements of the optical system. The desire to extend the “mechanical philosophy” to living systems spurred the search for mechanical systems in the microscopic workings of plants and animals. Fournier argues that once the “fabric” of [End Page 115] living systems had been uncovered, the microscope had fulfilled its function in that inquiry and appeared to go into decline—even though, as she points out, by ca. 1700 the microscope had become a “fairly regular tool in anatomy and natural history” (p. 198). She also notes, intriguingly, that the Royal Society of London played an important role in encouraging all five of the chief microscopists and in disseminating their results.
The book finishes with useful appendices cataloging publications on microscopy dating from 1665 to 1750. The first lists books, while the last three cite articles published in the Journal des sçavans, the Philosophical Transactions, and the Miscellanea curiosa. These bibliographies will undoubtedly prove essential reference materials for all future microscope studies.
Readers may find the book’s organization slightly erratic, for there is some repetition (and occasional contradictions) between chapters regarding the five chief characters. It might have been better in practice to have treated each historical figure all at once in his own chapter, rather than dividing up several chapters into brief sections detailing only one aspect of each scientist. Beyond this stylistic point, the specialist in early modern science may find troubling the rather absolute nature of the categories that Fournier constructs, which often reflect a somewhat older historiographic perspective on the Scientific Revolution. Characters are too frequently simplistically wholeheartedly committed to one or another philosophical system, usually Baconian methodology. Baconianism is uncomplicatedly identified as the Royal Society’s programme, atomism and mechanism are conflated, and the mechanical philosophy is too easily invoked as a single and unproblematic whole. In these ways, the book does not develop the nuanced perspective that characterizes the best of the current generation of early modern studies. Nonetheless, historical studies of microscopy are still quite young, and even if further or more sophisticated interpretations would have been welcome, Fournier has succeeded in providing a very useful and commendably text-based overview of the perceptions and deployments of microscopy in the early modern period. Her book is sure to spur and enrich further studies.