Book - A History of Science 5
The seventeenth century was not to close, however, without another discovery in science, which, when applied to the causation of disease almost two centuries later, revolutionized therapeutics more completely than any one discovery. This was the discovery of microbes, by Antonius von Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723), in 1683. Von Leeuwenhoek discovered that "in the white matter between his teeth" there were millions of microscopic "animals"--more, in fact, than "there were human beings in the united Netherlands," and all "moving in the most delightful manner." There can be no question that he saw them, for we can recognize in his descriptions of these various forms of little "animals" the four principal forms of microbes--the long and short rods of bacilli and bacteria, the spheres of micrococci, and the corkscrew spirillum.
The presence of these microbes in his mouth greatly annoyed Antonius, and he tried various methods of getting rid of them, such as using vinegar and hot coffee. In doing this he little suspected that he was anticipating modern antiseptic surgery by a century and three-quarters, and to be attempting what antiseptic surgery is now able to accomplish. For the fundamental principle of antisepsis is the use of medicines for ridding wounds of similar microscopic organisms. Von Leenwenhoek was only temporarily successful in his attempts, however, and took occasion to communicate his discovery to the Royal Society of England, hoping that they would be "interested in this novelty." Probably they were, but not sufficiently so for any member to pursue any protracted investigations or reach any satisfactory conclusions, and the whole matter was practically forgotten until the middle of the nineteenth century.