When the so-called Father of Microbiology, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, first witnessed the microbes in a drop of water in which he had suspended some ground nutmeg in order to see, through a microscope which he had fashioned, what it was that gave the spice its flavour, he lacked the language to express what he saw. He resorted to the term "animalcules" to describe the tiny beasts swimming before his eyes. Van Leeuwenhoek, who had never attended university, knew neither Greek nor Latin. He was a draper by trade.
Fearing that he might sound like a madman if he used the language he was familiar with, he sought the advice of his close friend, the artist, Johannes Vermeer, who suggested that he draw what he saw and submit his observations to The Royal Society. He wrote his first letter on September 17, 1683.
Van Leeuwenhoek made observations on plaque taken from between his own teeth: "a little white matter, which is as thick as if 'twere batter." Leeuwenhoek reported how he: "... then most always saw, with great wonder, that in the said matter there were many very little living animalcules (little eels), very prettily a-moving. The biggest sort had a very strong and swift motion, and shot through the water (or spittle) like a pike does through the water. The second sort oft-times spun round like a top and these were far more in number."
Illustration: The Geographer by Johannes Vermeer, 1668-69. It has been suggested that Van Leeuwenhoek is the man portrayed in the painting. Van Leeuwenhoek and Vermeer were born within days of one another and always lived in close proximity in their native Delft. Art historians have long debated whether Vermeer used camera obscura, a technique which may have been introduced to him by Van Leeuwenhoek, to create his intimate and extremely detailed portraits.
Watch Tim's Vermeer, a documentary film about inventor Tim Jenison's efforts to duplicate the painting techniques of Johannes Vermeer, to test his theory that Vermeer painted with the help of optical devices.