Holland, bordering on the North Sea and surrounded by powerful neighbors, has had a stormy history. Despite this the country has emerged today a small, independent and very prosperous nation. Over the centuries a high culture has evolved, particularly in art. From our point of view, and of the utmost importance, was their development of the magnifying lens and subsequently the microscope. The importance of the latter to modern biology and medicine can certainly not be overrated. The capital is The Hague (Den Haag), but Amsterdam is by far the largest, and in many ways the most important city.


Location – 15 kilometers northeast of The Hague and 35 kilometers southwest of Amsterdam.
Train – From the Hague or Amsterdam direct.
Road – Take the E10 from The Hague or Amsterdam and exit at Leiden.

Leiden is on what is referred to as the Old Rhine, and is connected by canals to Holland’s two chief ports, Rotterdam and Amsterdam. It is an ancient town, criss-crossed with canals, and its industries are mainly weaving and bulb growing. As well as these industries it is an academic town containing the oldest and most important university in Holland. The University of Leiden was founded in 1575 as a reward to the inhabitants for their courageous defense against the Spaniards in 1574. It quickly established an international reputation, which it has maintained ever since.

Museum Boerhaave

(The National Museum for the History of Science)
University of Leiden
Steenstraat 1a
Opening hours:
Monday – Saturday, 10.00 – 16.00
Sundays, 13.00 – 15.00
The times may however, vary with the seasons.
Small charge for admission.

This museum is near the railway station, and is part of the university. It is one of the top medical museums in the world. It is particularly famous for its collection of microscopes, and most of all for the fact that one can see here some of the original microscopes of Antoni van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723). It is natural that he is somewhat of a Dutch hero.

Antoni van Leeuwenhoek was born in Delft into a middle class artisan family. He had an average education for the time, and in 1654 at the age of 22 set up as a shopkeeper. In the same year he married Barbara de May, the daughter of an English cloth merchant. In 1660, at the age of 28, he gave up shopkeeping and entered the civil service. In one capacity or another he remained in this for the rest of his life. In 1666 his wife died, but five years later he was married again to Cornelia Swalmius, whom he outlived by 29 years.

Until Leeuwenhoek was nearly 40 we have no knowledge that he did anything which could be described as scientific. However, at that time he started, quite independently on his own, to grind simple lenses and construct these in the form of what we now call microscopes. He ground over 500 lenses during the rest of his life, and the magnifying power of these was truly remarkable. One of his lenses survives which has a magnifying power of 270! Having accomplished this remarkable feat, he set out to explore, in an amateur’s way, a whole new vista of biology which was opened up to him. In particular, he discovered what we now call microorganisms and understood their nature. He clearly saw and described a whole range of these, including bacteria, protozoa, rotifers and many more. Of equal importance, he was probably the first person to ever see sperm, and over a period of 40 years he accurately described these in arthropods, mollusks, fishes, amphibians, birds and mammals. He certainly knew they had a reproductive function, though it is questionable whether he understood the true nature of the fertilization of an egg by a sperm. Having seen all this, it is a pity, though perhaps inevitable for his time, that he had no concept of a cell.

Leeuwenhoek had no scientific training, never attended a university and had little idea of how to make his discoveries known. However, in 1676 he communicated some of his findings in a letter to the President of the Royal Society of London (see under London). In subsequent years he wrote over 100 letters to the Royal Society, and it is a great tribute to that body that they published these letters so that his observations and theories gradually became known. In his later years the importance of his work became widely recognized, and he was internationally honored. However, this in no way altered the nature of his simple and industrious life in Delft, where he died in 1723 at the age of 91.

Leeuwenhoek’s biological contributions were great, but his microscopes were perhaps even greater. He would have been happy to know that over two centuries later, during World War II, and while under Nazi occupation, his native countrymen made the next major advance in microscopy by developing the “Phase-contrast” microscope.

The displays at the Museum Boerhaave are extensive and include astronomy, medicine, biology and microscopy. The medical displays illustrate the development of such things as kidney machines, electrocardiograms, pharmacology, ophthalmology, dentistry, treatments of many kinds and various instrumentations. All in all remarkable, and beautifully prepared exhibits.

The microscope collections are extensive. The “pièce de résistance” is a case containing two microscopes made and used by Antoni van Leeuwenhoek himself, one in brass with a magnification of 125, and one in silver with a magnification of 80. There is also an exact copy of one of Leeuwenhoek’s microscopes with a magnification of 70. It is focused on the wing of a fly, and the visitor is permitted to look through this and see what Leeuwenhoek himself actually saw which was a great deal! Then there are displays of lens grinders, reading glasses going back to the 15th century, hand drawn illustrations of plants and animals done by early microscopists and the progression of these into the 19th and 20th centuries. There are also displays showing the complete progression of the microscope in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, with examples from the major manufacturers of different countries. Finally there is a large historical library with some priceless holdings going back as far as 1484.
We have certainly seen no finer biological and medical museum in any country, and with the help of its enthusiastic, knowledgeable and cooperative staff it is a pleasure to visit.

The Botanical Garden of the University of Leiden

Rapenburg 13
Opening hours:
Monday – Saturday, 9.00 – 16.00
Sundays, 10.00 – 16.00
The times may however, vary with the seasons.
Small charge for admission.

This botanical garden was founded in 1587, which makes it one of the oldest in Europe, and it has played a large role in the development of medicine and horticulture in Holland.

In concluding this very short account of historical biology and medicine in Holland, we must point out that there are other places of interest which we have not yet been able to visit. However, some are mentioned in local guides, and we hope they will appear in later editions of this book.