The 12th of February is an important anniversary in the history of biology. Today is the birthday of a man who helped to revolutionise the discipline in his time. I am of course speaking of Jan Swammerdam (12.02.1637 – 15.02.1680). Swammerdam was one of a group of anatomists from working in The Netherlands, including Niels Steno, Johannes van Horne, Theoror Kerckring and Reinier De Graaf, who, in the 17th century, laid the foundation to the scientific understanding of biological reproduction.
Swammerdam’s major contribution was his work on the generation of insects Historia Insectorum Generalis. He was also renowned for his techniques of preparing anatomical specimens for demonstration and teaching purposes. Here he developed methods of injecting coloured wax into the veins, arteries and other channels in the body to make them visible to the observer, a 17th century version of plastination.
The later part of Swammerdam’s life was blighted by a bitter priority dispute with De Graaf, a former friend and colleague, as to who deserved the credit for the discovery of the eggs in the ovaries. De Graaf claimed this honour for himself, whereas Swammerdam was of the opinion that this honour belonged to himself and his teacher van Horne. Such priority disputes were unfortunately the lifeblood of 17th century science. As was often the case the dispute was referred to the Royal Society in London, who are celebrating their 350th anniversary this year, for adjudication. The committee appointed to examine the facts came to the, for all parties, surprising conclusion that the honours should go to Steno!
For a very detailed description of this unhappy affair and a very good general description of the unravelling of the complexities of biological reproduction between the 17th and 19th centuries, a necessary preliminary to the theory of evolution, I heartily recommend Matthew Cobb’s The Egg and Sperm Race: The Seventeenth-Century Scientists Who Unravelled the Secrets of Sex, Life and Growth. Or a quick visit to his Swammerdam website.