Who discovered the cell?

Anton van Leeuwenhoek- discovery of cells

Cells are the known to be the smallest units of life. Each cell is a universe on its own, containing a nucleus with genetic material, a membrane that protects the contents of the cell, and a cytoplasm that contains the cell’s metabolic machinery. Thanks to decades of scientific research and numerous scientists, we now know that cells are the basic building blocks of life.

But did you know that scientists didn’t discover cells until well into the 18th century? In the 17th century, scientists were still operating under the theory that the body was made up of “humours”—fluids that were supposed to balance each other out to keep the body healthy. However, this theory did not explain how the body could function in the first place. In fact, it was an accepted belief that the body contained “souls” that were responsible for the animal functions. How did we shift from such irrational beliefs to the current world of science that is dominated by cells? Let’s learn about the scientific story of the discovery of cells with numerous scientists.

Robert Hooke 

English microscopist, Robert Hooke, was the first to recognize the small structures that make up plants and animals. He observed cells in cork, and later in slices of human muscle and brain, and realised that these cells were the building blocks of organisms. He was also one of the first to discover bacteria and viruses, which he observed in silkworm eggs. At the age of 27, Hooke became the curator of the Royal Society of London, which was at the time one of the world’s preeminent scientific organisations.

robert hooke discovery of cells

In 1665, Hooke observed a thin slice of cork with a microscope, being porous much like a honeycomb. He called the pores cells because they reminded him of the cells inhabited by monks living in a monastery. In actuality what Hooke had observed were the empty cell walls of dead plant tissue and their walls that had originally been produced by the living cells.

Robert hooke cork cells

Image Source: www.britannica.com/biography/Robert-Hooke

Anton van Leeuwenhoek

Anton van Leeuwenhoek

The father of microscopy, Anton van Leeuwenhoek was a pioneering scientist who discovered microorganisms and described various forms of bacteria, which he obtained from water in which pepper had been soaked and from scrapings of his teeth.

Born in 1632 in the Netherlands, van Leeuwenhoek was an apprentice shoemaker and a seller of fabrics before becoming an assistant to a local doctor. In his spare time, van Leeuwenhoek used to grind lenses and construct simple microscopes of remarkable quality. Leeuwenhoek was the first to examine a drop of pond water under the microscope and observed microscopic organisms in it. He termed these microscopic organisms “animalcules”.  

Anton van Leeuwenhoek- discovery of cells

Image Source: www.behance.net

Matthias Schleiden

Matthias Schleiden was a German lawyer turned botanist. His work on cell walls revolutionised the understanding of plant cells and the structures they build. He was the first to describe and properly classify the various cell walls found in plants. 

In 1838, he concluded that plants were made of cells and that the plant embryo arose from a single cell. The primary functions of plant cells are to take in nutrients, water, and minerals, and to build and support the plant, rather than functioning as independent units.

Matthias Schleiden

Also, check out-10 Definitions from Cell Biology – My Biology Dictionary

Theodor Schwann

Theodor Schwann

In the mid-18th century, Schwann proposed that all living things are made up of cells, which he defined as small, watery sacs surrounded by a membrane. He also discovered that cells are the basic unit of structure and function in plants and animals.

Schwann was also the first person to describe the outer layer of animal cells, now known as the ‘plasma membrane’ (1939). He also concluded that the cell wall was a unique feature of plant cells. Based on his findings, Schwann went on to propose the cell theory.

Cell Theory

The Cell Theory is one of the fundamental theories in the discovery of cells.

It was an attempt to explain how complex organisms are made of cells.  It was first proposed by Theodor Schwann, in 1838. The theory has since been expanded and revised by scientists.

The original two tenets of classical cell theory were:- 

  • All organisms are composed of one or more cells. 
  • The cell is the structural unit of life.

Both the scientists agreed that cells arise from non-cellular material and due to their prominence in the scientific field, it took several years before this claim could be proven wrong by other scientists. 

Rudolf Virchow

Rudolf Virchow was a German physician and pathologist who was a founder of the discipline of cellular pathology. Virchow was also a keen politician and social reformer. He played a major role in the discovery of cells by modifying the classical cell theory proposed by Schwann.

By 1855, he made a convincing case for the third tenet of the cell theory:

Cells can arise only by division from a preexisting cell. (Omnis cellula-e cellula)

Rudolf Virchow

Image Source: www.researchgate.net

Through its third tenet, Virchow gave the final form to cell theory.  Thereby,  paving the way for future scientists to better understand the microscopic world. The discovery of cells gave rise to infinite possibilities in the field of scientific research and cell biology. Every little contribution of every scientist mattered in helping us come so far. 

To summarize, today, we rely on microscopes and other microscopic technologies to better understand our world, and the better we understand our world, the better we are able to improve our lives. 

Team MBD

Watch the discovery of cells- The wacky history of cell theory – Lauren Royal-Woods – YouTube

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