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The Microscope

Published: 19 August 2019

The development of the microscope allowed scientists to make new insights into the body and disease.

It’s not clear who invented the first microscope, but the Dutch spectacle maker Zacharias Janssen (b.1585) is credited with making one of the earliest compound microscopes (ones that used two lenses) around 1600. The earliest microscopes could magnify an object up to 20 or 30 times its normal size.

Oil painting by Ernest Board of Leeuwenhoek with his microscope.

In the 1660s, another Dutchman, Antonie van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723) made microscopes by grinding his own lenses. His simple microscopes were more like magnifying glasses, with only one lens.

But the high-quality, hand-ground lenses could magnify an object by up to 200 times.

Leeuwenhoek observed animal and plant tissue, human sperm and blood cells, minerals, fossils, and many other things that had never been seen before on a microscopic scale.

He presented his findings to the Royal Society in London, where Robert Hooke was also making remarkable discoveries with a microscope. 

Hooke published the ‘Micrographia’ (1665), an astonishing collection of copper-plate illustrations of objects he had observed with his own compound microscope.

While looking at thin slices of cork, Hooke described what he saw as pores:


all perforated and porous, much like a Honey-comb, ... these pores, or cells, ... were indeed the first microscopical pores I ever saw.

He was the first person to use the term ‘cell’ to describe what would later be recognised as the building blocks of all living organisms, plant and animal.

Compound microscope designed by Robert Hooke, 1671–1700, and thought to have been made by Christopher Cock of Covent Garden, London.

More about this object


Microscopic aberrations

Many researchers refused to use the early microscopes because they could not trust what they were seeing. Aberrations and impurities in the lenses caused distortions, which led to errors in observations.

Joseph Jackson Lister

Not much changed in basic microscope design over the next 200 years, but improvements in lens manufacture (such as the use of purer glass) helped to solve problems like colour distortion and poor image resolution. Mirrors were added to compound microscopes to add more light and improve the image. 

But at the start of the 1800s century, the pioneering French pathologist Xavier Bichat, who carried out many investigations into tissue samples and organs, still refused to use a microscope.

Two main problems hindered lens manufacture: image blurring (spherical aberration) and colour separation (chromatic aberration). Around 1830, Joseph Jackson Lister, in collaboration with instrument maker William Tulley, made one of the first microscopes that corrected for both these faults.

With these two major issues resolved, the use of microscopes in science and medicine grew rapidly.

The microscope in the laboratory

From the 1830s, cells and cell theory became the focus of medical and biological research, thanks to the central role of the microscope in laboratory science. Researchers were able to describe the body at the microscopic level more consistently and with greater confidence in what they saw.

Between 1838 and 1839 two German scientists, Mathias Schleiden (1804–81) and Theodor Schwann (1810–82) proposed that cells were the building blocks for plant and animal life.

Figure from Schwann's 'Mikroskopie', 1839

Schwann had a medical training and proposed that understanding cellular behaviour was the key to understanding the body in health and illness.

His theory was taken up by another German researcher, Rudolf Virchow (1821–1902), possibly the most influential teacher of pathology in the 1800s. 

The microscope was at the centre of Virchow’s work on disease processes, he would urge his students to 'learn to see microscopically'. Much of Virchow’s work involved investigating tissue and cells in the laboratory and then relating his findings back to clinical changes in his patients. 

He made use of the latest developments in microscopy such as the use of microtomes to cut very thin slices of tissue and the development of stains to highlight the parts of a cell.

Papanicolaou (pap) stained smear obtained from a needle biopsy of a chordoma of the C2 vertebrae, located at the top of the neck.


The microscope in the field

Sepia photograph of Arthur Hill Hassall, standing Science Museum Group Collection
Carte de visite photograph of Arthur Hill Hassall

Arthur Hill Hassall (1817– 1894) was a British physician, and a pioneer in the use of the microscope as a tool in medicine and public health. In 1846 he published a two-volume study, ‘The Microscopic Anatomy of the Human Body in Health and Disease’, the first English textbook on the subject.

His second book, ‘A microscopical examination of the water supplied to the inhabitants of London and the suburban districts’ (1850), became an influential work in promoting the cause of water reform.

And in the early 1850s he also studied food adulteration, publishing his findings in medical journal The Lancet. The journal's campaign on food adulteration led directly to the 1860 Food Adulteration Act.

Hassall’s investigative work with the microscope showed how laboratory science could be used to gather evidence from the field about health and disease.

A microscopic examination of sewer and Grand Junction Company water by Arthur Hill Hassall

In the 20th century, new instruments such as the electron microscope increased magnification and offered new insights into the body and disease, allowing scientists to see organisms such as viruses for the first time.

And technological innovations in digital technology improved techniques such as microsurgery, which combines surgery and microscopy to allow detailed and precise manipulations inside the body.

Find out more


  • Paul De Kruif and F Gonzalez-Crussi, Microbe Hunters, 2002
  • Lindsey Fitzharris, The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister’s Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine, 2018
  • Laura J Snyder, Eye of the Beholder: Johannes Vermeer, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, and the Reinvention of Seeing, 2015

Part of the Science Museum Group