Jan Swammerdam (1637-1680)

This project will yield a fresh account of Swammerdam’s life – the first new biography in nearly 300 years. Based on extensive research, the publication will review Swammerdam’s life in its broader social and scientific context.

In 1678 Jan Swammerdam wrote to a friend: ‘Ik presenteer U Edele alhier den Almaghtigen Vinger GODS in de Anatomie van een Luys; waarin Gy wonderen op wonderen op een gestapelt sult vinden, en de Wysheid Gods in een kleen puncte klaarlyk sien ten toon gestelt’ (‘Herewith I offer you the Omnipotent Finger of God in the anatomy of a louse: wherein you will find miracles heaped on miracles and will see the wisdom of God clearly manifested in a minute point.’). Jan Swammerdam and Antoni van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723) were Europe’s foremost pioneers in the field of microscopy. With the aid of this new instrument, both researchers drew the public’s attention to the world’s minutest details. Whereas Van Leeuwenhoek studied a range of objects, Swammerdam concentrated on the internal anatomy of insects. He was the first to demonstrate – in his book Historia generalis insectorum (1669) – that insects actually had an anatomy rather than emerging from spontaneous generation or some mysterious metamorphosis. During the last decade of his brief life, Swammerdam worked on a comprehensive publication in which he reported on the results of his microscopic research. This work was published posthumously by Herman Boerhaave in 1737-1738 under the title Bybel der Natuure. The biography included in this publication paints Swammerdam as a quiet genius and tormented mystic who died insane. Our understanding of his life has not been revised in any major way since that time.