Friday, November 13, 2015

1658: Swammerdam discovers RBCs

Jan Swammerdam (1637-1680)
His father, Jan Jacobzoon Swammerdam (1606-1678) worked as a Dutch pharmacist and had an apothecary shop and a fine collection of naturalia including both animals and insects. This created the perfect environment for his son, Jan Swammerdam, to develop an interest in insects and animals, enough to dissect them and inspect them, and their internals, with the compound microscope.

After he graduated, he apparently had a quarrel with his father, as he wanted to practice medicine.  His father, on the other hand, believed he was too skilled as a scientist, and in the end he won out.  The young Swammerdam "never killed or cure a patient. (21, page 71)

He became a skillful anatomist, zoologist and entomologist, and he would end up describing over 3,000 species of insects, many of which can be read about in the book "Natural History of Insects." (18, page 77) (20)(21, page 71)

He would end up giving up his interest in anatomy for religious purposes after being convinced of its sinfulness after reading the works of Antoinette Bourgnon (1616-1680).  Bourgnon traveled through France, Belgium and Holland trying to sell her brand of Christianity, and many were convinced by her words, including Swammerdam. (17, page 71)(18)(21, page 71)

The young Swammerdam was so into his new religion that he refused to participate in science, even to the point that he did nothing, not even publish, the material he had been working on. (21, page 710)

He ended up selling his collection for a low price before he died of malaria in 1680.  After he did so, the works of Bourgnon were viewed as being so radical that they were forbidden by both the Protestant and Catholic Church by 1699.  (17, page 71)(18)(21, page 71)

However, before he gave up the science, he studied insects and animals in implicit detail, describing them and their anatomy. He was the first to describe the anatomy and life cycle of bees and other insects. (11, page 251) (12, page 366) (18, page 77)

In 1658 he discovered red blood cells in the blood of frogs. In 1664 He discovered valves in the lymphatics. He also studied the heart, lungs, and muscles. (11, page 251)

He postulated that an element (later found to be oxygen) could be carried by blood to the various muscles of the body.  (11, page 251)(12, page 366)

In 1667 he discovered that fetal lungs of mammals sink before a breath has been taken, and float after respiration has taken place.  (11, page 251)(12, page 366)

He also demonstrated that a frog leg could be made to contract, and this proved useful by later investigators, or at least investigators who were privy to his work once it was published posthumously as Bybel der Natuur (Book of Nature) by Herman Boerhaave in 1737. (11, page 251)(12, page 366)

The book contained, said Garrison, "some 53 plates with accurate life histories, giving the finer anatomy of bees, the mayflies, the snail, the clam, the squid and the frog. The drawings in this collection surpass all other contemporary work in exquisite delicacy and accuracy of detail." (11, page 251)(12, page 366)

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  12. Baker, Christopher, editor, "The Great Cultural Eras of the Western World: Absolutism and the Scientific Revolution 1600-1720: A biographical dictionary," 2002, CT, Greenwood Publishing; Herman Boerhavve published Biblia Naturae (Bible of Nature) in 1737, which was a two volume compilation of the works of Jan Swammerdam. Can you read Latin?
  13. Garrison, op cit, 266; (Samuel) Pepy's Diary, Mynors Bright's ed., London, 1900, v, 191
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  17. Affray, Charles, Denis Noble, "Origins of Systems Biology in William Harvey's masterpiece on the Movement of the Heart and the Blood in Animals," April 17, 2009, International Journal of Molecular Sciences, 10(2), pages 1658-1669, found online at,, accessed 7/8/14
  18. Thomsen, Elsebeth, "Niels Stensen--Steno, in the world of collections and museums," from the book "The Revolution in Geology from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment," edited by Gary D. Rosenberg, 2009, U.S.A., The Geological Society of America
  19. "Antoinette Bourignon (1616-1680),",, accessed 7/10/14
  20. Swammerdam, Jan, "Natural History of Insects," 1892, Edinburgh, Printed By R. Morrison Junior
  21. Robinson, William J, "The Medical Critic and Guide," volume 19, January-December, 1916, New York, "Jan Swammerdam (1637-1680), pages 71-72
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