Best rejection letter ever, or science urban legend?


Antonie van Leeuwenhoek by Jan Verkolje. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.

Antonie van Leeuwenhoek by Jan Verkolje. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.

Trying to find some background on Van Leeuwenhoek’s discovery of Volvox, I came across the following on Wikipedia:

Despite the initial success of Van Leeuwenhoek’s relationship with the Royal Society, this relationship was soon severely strained. In 1676, his credibility was questioned when he sent the Royal Society a copy of his first observations of microscopic single-celled organisms. Previously, the existence of single-celled organisms was entirely unknown. Thus, even with his established reputation with the Royal Society as a reliable observer, his observations of microscopic life were initially met with both skepticism and open ridicule.[12]

Reference 12 is a link to this document, with the following note: “The Secretary of the Royal Society, London, wrote the following letter to Van Leeuwenhoek, on the 20th of October, 1676” followed by the full text of the alleged letter:

WikipediaVanLeeuwenhoek

The account of the rejection letter from the secretary of the Royal Society is repeated without caveat, sometimes as a ‘hang in there’ message to frustrated scientists, on Science Clarified, Target Health, The Skope, Science Musings, medlibrary.org [it’s worth noting that this entry is a word-for-word copy of the Wikipedia article], and pediaview.com [also a copy of the Wikipedia article]. In The Joy of Science, the letter is introduced as ‘the worst rejection letter ever written’:

…when he attempted to publish his findings in the proceedings of the prestigious London-based Royal Academy of Sciences, he received what may have been the worst rejection letter ever written:

Dear Mr. Anthony van Leeuwenhoek,
Your letter of October 10th has been received here with amusement. Your account of myriad “little animals” seen swimming in rainwater, with the aid of your so-called “microscope,” caused the members of the society considerable merriment when read at our most recent meeting. Your novel descriptions of the sundry anatomies and occupations of these invisible creatures led one member to imagine that your “rainwater” might have contained an ample portion of distilled spirits–imbibed by the investigator. Another member raised a glass of clear water and exclaimed, “Behold, the Africk of Leeuwenhoek.” For myself, I withhold judgment as to the sobriety of your observations and the veracity of your instrument. However, a vote having been taken among the members–accompanied I regret to inform you, by considerable giggling–it has been decided not to publish your communication in the Proceedings of this esteemed society. However, all here wish your “little animals” health, prodigality and good husbandry by their ingenious “discoverer.”

I would say the best rejection letter ever written. In The Demon Under the Microscope, though, the letter is introduced as follows:

Three centuries later a twentieth-century wit wrote a lampoon of what the Royal Society’s secretary might well have responded:

Wait a second, up to this point every source treats this letter as a legitimate communication from the Royal Society to Van Leeuwenhoek. This book treats it as a joke, but without identifying the source, other than “a twentieth-century wit.” Well, that narrows it down. A bit of Google-fu reveals this, which identifies the source as Chet Raymo’s science column in the Boston Globe, Monday, Sept. 21 1992 p. 30 (Boston Globe archives are behind a paywall, so I can’t confirm this; if anyone can find the original article, please post a link or screenshot).

Coincidentally, the sentiment of the Globe article is one that will be familiar to readers of the Friday Golden Fleece (sorry I haven’t kept up with that; it’s a lot of work):

The [SETI] project has been a frequent target for budget cuts, and full-funding is still in doubt. As project manager Michael Klein admits, the search for intelligent aliens has “a high giggle factor,” meaning that not every politician takes the project seriously.

One must suppose that Columbus himself had to contend with the giggle factor. Surely, some advisors in the court of Isabel and Ferdinand tittered gleefully when the Genoese navigator said he would reach the East by sailing west. If not for the giggle factor, he might have been supplied with something more than three tiny, worm infested ships.

Given there has probably always been a giggle factor, it is interesting to imagine how it might have influenced other decisive moments in the history of science, such as the discovery of microbes, law and genetics, and relativity.

Perhaps in a letter such as this from Henry Oldenburg, Secretary of the Royal Society, London, to Anthony Van Leeuwenhoek, Delft, Holland, 20th of October, 1676:

In a nutshell, just about any scientific study can be made to sound silly; there’s no necessary relationship between a study’s ‘giggle factor’ and its eventual value. And Chet Raymo only beat me to that point by 23 years.

But wait! Science Musings is Chet Raymo’s blog! The ‘Oldenburg letter’ is reprinted in a post from 2005 (“Unfortunate moments in the history of science“), which includes similar satirical rejection letters to Gregor Mendel and Albert Einstein.

I’m kind of sorry that the letter isn’t real; it’s a good story. It’s also a good reminder of the value of running down primary sources. Anyone want to go fix the Wikipedia article?

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