Thursday, February 25, 2010


This is the second in a multi-part blog on the topic of FIRST CREDIT in the sciences.

Antonie Philips van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723) is sometimes credited with inventing the modern microscope. Not so. Leeuwenhoek improved the microscope with his superb lens grinding technique, but he did not invent the microscope and did not make any particularly important modifications to the design of the microscope.

Source: Garrison FH. History of medicine.
WB Saunders, Philadelphia, 1921.

In 1595, fifteen-year old fledgling Dutch lens grinder (and part-time counterfeiter), Zacharias Jansen (1580 - 1638) placed two lenses in a tube, and created the first compound microscope.

Source: Wikipedia (public domain)

This amazing invention sat dormant until 1667, when Robert Hooke (1635 - 1703) studied insects and plant material, particularly cork, with this 72 year old invention. Hooke used the word "cell" to describe the complex, living structures that compose every organism. In 1675 (eight years after Hooke), with improved lenses, Leeuwenhoek studied micro-organisms in water and cells of the human body. Hooke and Leeuwenhoek kick-started modern microscopy, but Zacharias Jansen invented the microscope.

Smallpox was the first disease for which vaccination was successful. As early as 200 B.C.E. in China and 1000 B.C.E. in India, physicians knew that infection with smallpox conferred immunity against subsequent infection. Based on this observation, they were the first to develop a vaccination, administered nasally, of attenuated virus. Arabic doctors developed their own treatment, consisting of transferring material from an infected pox blister to another person via a small cut. Emmanuel Timoni (1670 - 1718) was a physician practicing in Constantinople. He introduced the Arabic vaccination process to West, in 1717. In 1796, Edward Jenner (1749 - 1823) developed a new vaccine, developed from a bovine pox virus (vaccinia) that seemed to confer cross-immunity against smallpox (variola). When you consider that the word, "vaccine", derives from Jenner's choice of inoculum (vaccinia), it seems reasonable to give Jenner the credit for developing the first effective vaccine. Incidentally, Jenner's paper describing his smallpox vaccine was rejected, in 1976, by a peer-reviewed journal (1).

Source: Garrison FH. History of medicine.
WB Saunders, Philadelphia, 1921.

If you want to give credit to the first person to save European lives by immunizing against smallpox, you would need to go 80 years earler than Jenner; to Timoni. To be really fair, you would need to go back many centuries, to the Chinese, Indian and Arabic physicians, to find the origin of human immune treatments.

[1] Altman LK. When peer review produces unsound science. The New York Times June 11, 2002.


© 2010 Jules Berman

key words: history of science , specified life blog , Jules J Berman PhD, MD
Science is not a collection of facts. Science is what facts teach us; what we can learn about our universe, and ourselves, by deductive thinking. From observations of the night sky, made without the aid of telescopes, we can deduce that the universe is expanding, that the universe is not infinitely old, and why black holes exist. Without resorting to experimentation or mathematical analysis, we can deduce that gravity is a curvature in space-time, that the particles that compose light have no mass, that there is a theoretical limit to the number of different elements in the universe, and that the earth is billions of years old. Likewise, simple observations on animals tell us much about the migration of continents, the evolutionary relationships among classes of animals, why the nuclei of cells contain our genetic material, why certain animals are long-lived, why the gestation period of humans is 9 months, and why some diseases are rare and other diseases are common. In “Armchair Science”, the reader is confronted with 129 scientific mysteries, in cosmology, particle physics, chemistry, biology, and medicine. Beginning with simple observations, step-by-step analyses guide the reader toward solutions that are sometimes startling, and always entertaining. “Armchair Science” is written for general readers who are curious about science, and who want to sharpen their deductive skills.