Enlightening Neuroscience: Microscopes and Microscopy in the Eighteenth Century

  • Brian J. Ford

Little has ever been written on the history of microscopical neurology. The topic is ordinarily ignored – indeed the terms ‘microscope’ (and microscopy), ‘neuron’ (or neurone), ‘cell’ and ‘histology’ are missing altogether from the index to the overview of the history of neurology by Riese (1959).

Microscopy was born in the years prior to the eighteenth century and nerve specimens were among the first to be examined. The late sixteenth century saw the first descriptions of a recognisable microscope and questions of priority persist, since the study of magnification and of refraction – which preceded the practical application of lenses in scientific instruments – was already a matter of some antiquity (Disney, Hill, & Watson Baker, 1928). The first microscope to be pictured was a compound instrument in 1631, and during the first few years these microscopes were utilised in the quest to unravel the structure of familiar objects – the sting of a nettle or a bee, the wings of a butterfly or bird. We must bear in mind that these were truly macroscopic, rather than microscopic, investigations. Observers were exploring everyday specimens, searching for details the eye could almost discern. Only when the high-power microscope emerged could investigators progress to the most far-reaching development in natural science – the recognition that there were forms of life, and marvellous structures, the existence of which nobody had previously recognised.


Optic Nerve Nerve Fibre Eighteenth Century Animal Spirit Single Lens 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Adams, G. (elder) (1746). Micrographia illustrata. London: Adams.Google Scholar
  2. Adams, G. (younger) (1787). Essays on the microscope. London: Adams.Google Scholar
  3. Anon, (1932–present). Antony van Leeuwenhoek, collected letters. Amsterdam: Swets & Zeitlinger.Google Scholar
  4. Anon (1962). Jan Evangelista Purkynˇe. Prague: State Medical Publishing House.Google Scholar
  5. Baker, H. (1743). The microscope made easy. London: Dodsley, Cooper & Cuff.Google Scholar
  6. Bichat, M. F. X. (1800). Recherches physiologiques sur la vie et la mort. Paris: Brosson, Gabon et Cie.Google Scholar
  7. Bichat, M. F. X. (1800). Treatise on the membranes in general, and of different membranes in particular. Boston: Cummings and Hilliard, 1813. [Translated by John G. Coffin from the original, Traité des membranes en général, et diverse membranes en particulier, Paris].Google Scholar
  8. Bichat, M. F. X. (1800). Anatomie générale appliquée a la physiologie et a la médecine, contenant les additions précédemment publiées par Béclard, et augmentée d’un grand nombre de notes nouvelles par F. Blandin. Paris: J. S. Chaud.Google Scholar
  9. Borreli, G. A. (1681). De Motu animalium. Rome: Angelo Bernabo.Google Scholar
  10. Clay, R. S., & Court, T. H. (1932). The history of the microscope. London: Charles Griffin.Google Scholar
  11. Clerselier, C. (1664). Descartes’ L’Homme. Paris: Angot.Google Scholar
  12. Craanen, T. (1689). Tractatus physico-medicus de homine, etc., Leiden: Petrum vander Aa.Google Scholar
  13. Dell Torre, P. D. G. M. (1776). Nuove osservazione microscopiche, Naples: con Licenza di Superiori.Google Scholar
  14. Descartes, R. (1662). De Homine figuris. Leiden.Google Scholar
  15. Disney, A. N., Hill, C. F., & Watson Baker, W. E. (1928). Origin and development of the microscope, London: Royal Microscopical Society.Google Scholar
  16. Dobell, C. (1932). Antony van Leeuwenhoek and his little animals, London: John Bale, Sons & Danielsson.Google Scholar
  17. Ford, B. J. (1981). The van Leeuwenhoek specimens. Notes & Records of the Royal Society, 36(1), 37–59.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Ford, B. J. (1982). Antony van Leeuwenhoek’s sections of bovine optic nerve. The Microscope, 30:171–184.Google Scholar
  19. Ford, B. J. (1985). Single Lens–Story of the Simple Microscope. London/New York: Heinemann/Harper & Row.Google Scholar
  20. Ford, B. J. (1991). The Leeuwenhoek legacy. Bristol: Biopress & London: Farrand Press.Google Scholar
  21. Gunter, R. T. (1961). Preface to reprint of Micrographia, q.v., Dover Reprint, London: Constable.Google Scholar
  22. Hooke, R. (1665). Micrographia, or some physiological descriptions of minute bodies made by magnifying glasses, etc., London: Martyn & Allestry.Google Scholar
  23. Ledermüller, M. F. (1761). Mikroskopische Gemüths- und Augen-Ergötzung, Bestehend, in ein hundert nach der Natur gezeichneten und mit Farben erleuchteten Kupfertafeln, sammt deren Erklärung, Nürnberg: Selbstverlag.Google Scholar
  24. Leeuwenhoek, L. van (1675). Study of bovine optic nerve published as Fig. 117, Philosophical Transactions, 10. See also the Collected Letters (supra).Google Scholar
  25. Longet, F. A. (1842). Anatomie et Physiologie du Système Nerveux de l’Homme et des Animaux Vertébrés, Paris: Fortin, Masson.Google Scholar
  26. McHenry, L. C. (1969). Garrison’s history of neurology, Springfield, IL: Charles C Thomas.Google Scholar
  27. Malpighi, M. (1686). Omni Opera, Londini: R. Scott.Google Scholar
  28. Monro, A. (primus) (1732). The anatomy of the humane bones. To which are added, an anatomical treatise of the nerves. Edinburgh: William Monro.Google Scholar
  29. Monro, A. (secondus) (1783). Observations on the structure and functions of the nervous system. Edinburgh: Creech.Google Scholar
  30. Montucla, J-E. (1802). Histoire des mathématiques, Paris: Henri Agasse.Google Scholar
  31. Otis, L. (2000). [disusses Brian J Ford work on achromatism and microscopy in] Membranes: Metaphors of invasion in nineteenth-century literature (p. 5). Baltimore, MA: John Hokpins University Press.Google Scholar
  32. Prochaska, G. (1779). De structura nervorum, tractatus anatomicus tabulis aëneis illustratis. Vindobonoe: Groeffler.Google Scholar
  33. Purkynˇe, J. (1837). Über die gangliösen Körperchen in Verschiedenen Teilen des Gehirns. Berliner Versammlung deutscher Naturforscher: 179.Google Scholar
  34. Riese, W., 1959, History of Neurology, New York: MD Publications.Google Scholar
  35. Ruestow, E. G. (1996). The Microscope in the Dutch Republic. Cambridge: University Press.Google Scholar
  36. Wade, N. (2004). Visual science before the neuron. Perception 33, 869–889.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Wechsler, I. S. (1958). An Introduction to the history of neurology [pp. 701–735 in] Textbook of clinical neurology. Philadelphia/London: W. B. Saunders.Google Scholar
  38. Young, J. Z. (1934). Structure of nerve fibres in Sepia, Journal of Physiology, 83: 27P–28P.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  • Brian J. Ford
    • 1
  1. 1.Gonville and Caius CollegeCambridge UniversityUK

Personalised recommendations