Robert Hooke (1635-1703)

Robert Hooke, ‘Micrographia’ (1665). Credit: Science Museum Library, London.

Robert Hooke is famous for pioneering microscopy and cell science. He coined the term ’cell’ to describe the basic unit of life.

Hooke was born on the Isle of Wight, and was expected to join the Church, like his father and three brothers. However, as a boy he was fascinated by nature and mechanical objects. He also loved drawing. When his father died in 1648, Hooke was left enough money for an apprenticeship as a painter in London. A few months later he entered Westminster School.

In 1653, Hooke joined Oxford University as a chorister. He got involved in scientific research, inspired by natural philosophers such as Robert Boyle. He attended meetings with other scientists, and in 1662 this group became the Royal Society. Hooke performed three or four experiments at each meeting, making him the first paid professional research scientist. His professional title was Curator of the Royal Society because he looked after its scientific instruments.

In 1665, Hooke published his famous Micrographia. He had made detailed studies of natural and inanimate objects using a microscope, and the book contained precise drawings and descriptions of his observations. In his study of petrified wood, Hooke noticed small regular compartments which he termed cells.

Hooke was also an architect, surveyor and builder. He worked with Sir Christopher Wren to rebuild London following the Great Fire. However, many of the buildings Hooke designed were demolished in the 1800s. These included the Royal College of Physicians (1678) and the second Bethlem (Bedlam) Hospital (1674).