Jan Swammerdam (1637-1680)

The Swammerdam Institute for Life Sciences is named after the 17th century Dutch biologist and microscopist Jan Swammerdam.


Jan Swammerdam was born in Amsterdam in 1637. He studied medicine at the University of Leiden, where he excelled in anatomical dissections. In 1679, he defended his thesis on respiration at the same university. However, to annoyance of his father, he would never start a medical practice but rather devoted his life to experimental scientific research.


Swammerdam made many anatomical and medical discoveries. He was an anatomical expert, who understood fixation and developed a novel method for preserving specimens by injecting hollow structures with hot wax. He further made pioneering dissections of the female genital tract, and described the anatomy of the uterus in detail.

Using the microscope, he also started to study a completely new field: the world of insects. Contrary to the then prevailing idea, Swammerdam showed that insects had internal organs and were just as complex as larger creatures. Furthermore, he was the first to show the process of metamorphosis as a gradual anatomical change of the same individual.


Jan Swammerdam combined anatomical work with physiological experiments. He was a pioneer in neurophysiology and developmental biology - terms that did not yet exist in his time. It was then believed that muscle contraction was mediated by spiritus animalis, a fluid or gas that flowed from the brain to the muscle. Swammerdam showed, using a frog nerve-muscle preparation, that muscle volume does not increase after excitation, which argues against the concept of spiritus animalis.


Biblia Naturae

The scientific work of Jan Swammerdam was strongly influenced by his religious views. For him, studying the creatures of the earth revealed God's greatness. When giving a detailed description of lice, he saw the hand of God in this delicate anatomy. Swammerdam even left science for a year to dedicate his life to spirituality.

Biblia Naturae

In 1680, at the age of 43, Jan Swammerdam died of malaria. Much of his research on entomology was brought together by Herman Boerhaave in the book Biblia Naturae (The Bible of Nature) after his death.

Dangerous knowledge (Original title of the book "Gevaarlijke kennis")

Auteur; Luuc Kooijmans (Historicus)<br> ISBN 9789035132504 (Uitgeverij Prometheus - Bert Bakker)

Insight and fear in the days of Jan Swammerdam.

Author; Luuc Kooijmans - Historian (winner of the Great History Price 2008)

Shortly after the end of the Second World War, a diary dating from 1659 was found in Florence. It was written by a young man who had become disillusioned with the commonly accepted view of the universe, earth and mankind as passed down through the centuries from the Bible and Classical authorities such as Aristotle and Galen. The diary’s author resolved to dispense with all so-called facts culled from books and to investigate matters for himself. Jan Swammerdam, the son of an Amsterdam pharmacist, had a similar hunger for independent knowledge. Both of these young men managed to unravel natural phenomena that had baffled humanity for centuries. But Jan Swammerdam eventually subjugated himself to the authority of a prophet, and the author of the Florentine diary ended up a bishop.
These men were by no means the only scholars to face the unforeseen consequences of their youthful ambitions. In many cases, such aspirations led to doubt, fear or embitterment. Clearly, the independent quest for knowledge had its perils. In Gevaarlijke kennis (Dangerous Knowledge), historian Luuc Kooijmans explains why. The book touches on a wide range of subjects, from the discovery that the heart is a muscle to belief in millenarism, and from unlocking the mystery of metamorphosis to the limitations of the human mind.


Documentary The Golden Age about Jan Swammerdam narrated by Hans Goedkoop

Broadcasted by NTR & VPRO on February 19, 2013

See also:

1 August 2013