The Correspondence of Anthonie van Leeuwenhoek

Primary Contributors:

ePistolarium, CKCC project, Huygens ING, The Hague

Anthonie van Leeuwenhoek, by Jan Verkolje. 1680–6. Oil on canvas, 56 by 47.5cm. (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam).

Anthonie van Leeuwenhoek (1632–1723)

This Dutch microbiologist, who is known primarily for his work on the microscope, was born in Delft. His father died when he was five and, after a brief education, van Leeuwenhoek was apprenticed to a draper in Amsterdam. He returned to Delft in 1654, where he set up his own business. It was here that he began his work on lens-making. Following an introduction from Reinier de Graaf to The Royal Society in London, Leeuwenhoek corresponded on his findings, in Dutch, for translation and publication in English in the Philosophical Transactions. He was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1680.

Partners and Additional Contributors

The Circulation of Knowledge project [CKCC] was established in 2008 as a partnership between the Descartes Centre at the University of Utrecht, the Koninklijke Bibliotheek (National Library of the Netherlands), the Huygens Institute for the History of the Netherlands (Huygens ING), the Data Archiving and Networked Services (DANS), and the University of Amsterdam (UvA). The project began by digitizing the metadata and curating existing full-text transcriptions of c.20,000 letters to or from nine prominent intellectuals resident in the seventeenth-century Dutch Republic. In 2013, this material was published as open access in a sophisticated web application — the ePistolarium — which provides scholars with multiple means of exploring and analysing both metadata and full texts across all nine correspondences. As well as conducting full-text searches, mapping and graphing the metadata, and extracting people mentioned, the ePistolarium is capable of interrogating the entire corpus to analyse and visualize co-citation networks, and produces the results of keyword extraction and experimental topic-modelling.

CKCC’s 20,020 records represent the largest single dataset contributed to EMLO during the second phase of Cultures of Knowledge.  The re-publication of these records within EMLO marks the inauguration of the rolling incorporation of major new catalogues which will continue into 2015 and beyond.  As well as integrating CKCC’s metadata into an expansive union catalogue, EMLO’s records link back to the original letter texts published within the ePistolarium.

The metadata and transcripts for Antoni van Leeuwenhoek’s correspondence were supplied to the ePistolarium by Huygens ING and Utrecht University under the supervision of Lodewijk Palm. EMLO would like to thank Walter Ravenek for his careful preparation of CKCC metadata, Miranda Lewis for her work on the people and place records associated with the correspondence, and Philip Beeley for his help with the preparation of this introductory text.

Key Bibliographic Source(s)

The metadata and texts for the 282 transcriptions published in the ePistolarium were taken from Alle de brieven van Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, ed. L.C. Palm (Amsterdam, 1939–).


Van Leeuwenhoek did not publish his findings and as a result his letters are the main source of information regarding his work. Metadata for the letters, which range from 1673 to 1707, are published in EMLO and each record links to the transcription in the ePistolarium. Written largely in Dutch (92.3%), with a small number in Latin, many of the letters were translated into English and published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London.

It should be noted in the dating of this correspondence that the Gregorian calendar has been used throughout.

Further resources


Alle de brieven van Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, ed. L.C. Palm, 12 vols (Amsterdam, 1939–).

Palm, L.C.,  ‘Leeuwenhoek, Antoni van (1632–1723)’, in Encyclopedia of the Scientific Revolution. From Copernicus to Newton (2000).

A critical edition of Van Leeuwenhoek’s letters, with a modern translation in English, is in preparation.

For a full bibliography, see the Digitale Bibliotheek voor de Nederlandse letteren.

Other resources

A replica of Leeuwenhoek’s microscope may be seen at the Science Museum, London.

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