The things we don’t do in lab


I’ve told the story of Leeuwenhoek’s prudishiness to my students in the past — it’s amusing that the father of microbiology, who had horrified the public with the discovery of ‘animalcules’ living in drinking water, was himself disgusted by what came out of his own body, and was horrified that semen contained squiggly squirmy little creatures. He even wrote to the Royal Society to say he wouldn’t mind if his discovery was suppressed.

“If your Lordship should consider that these observations may disgust or scandalise the learned, I earnestly beg your Lordship to regard them as private and to publish or destroy them as your Lordship sees fit.”

Then there was the bit where he was practically falling all over himself to assure everyone that his sample came from proper conjugal relations, not from the sin of onanism or by any other less than blessed mechanism. It was weird, man.

“Without being snotty, Leeuwenhoek (the ‘van’ is an affectation he adopted later on) was not trained as an experimental thinker,” explained Matthew Cobb, a British zoologist and author of the book “Generation: The Seventeeth Century Scientists Who Unraveled the Secrets of Sex, Life and Growth.” Cobb recalled by email that when Royal Society Secretary Henry Oldenburg asked Leeuwenhoek to look at semen, the Dutch draper initially did not reply “because he felt it was ‘unseemly.'” Even though he eventually overcame his reservations, Leeuwenhoek added so many caveats to his semen research that it is clear he remained somewhat uncomfortable.

“He reassured the Royal Society that he had not obtained the sample by any ‘sinful contrivance’ but by ‘the excess which Nature provided me in my conjugal relations,'” Cobb explained. “He wrote that a mere ‘six heartbeats’ after ejaculation, he found ‘a vast number of living animalcules.” A few months later, he wrote the aforementioned letter saying that he would not at all mind if his discovery was suppressed. After all, in addition to being grossed out, Leeuwenhoek was not under the impression that he had found anything special.

Unfortunately, after laughing at such Puritanism in lecture, I once went to lab and discovered that a student had made a quick trip to the lavatory and made his own slide, which he proudly showed off in class. I had to be the modern prude and explain that we discouraged the collection of human fluids in lab because they are a source of infection and contamination, and handed him a bottle of 70% alcohol and told him to sterilize all the gear he was using and dispose of his sample in the biological waste container.

Comments

  1. wzrd1 says

    Well, one also doesn’t smoke in the lab.
    That’s for chemistry labs of yore, back when saccharine was discovered.
    I’m sure that OSHA teaches that as an example of precisely what not to do…

  2. hemidactylus says

    At least it was done in private and for the sake of Science. But alas comes up against:

  3. pedantik says

    I used to be a high school biology teacher. I once had a student who offered to produce such a specimen to view under the microscope. While I’m sure it would have been informative for everybody, I decided to avoid immediate unemployment, and had to decline his kind offer.

  4. Artor says

    A friend was something of a party girl in college. She had a Biology lab early Monday mornings, and one day they were doing the cheek swab experiment, putting it under a microscope and looking at the cell structures visible. Her lab partner was looking at my friend’s sample, and suddenly blurted out loudly, “That’s a SPERM cell!”

    “Cobb recalled by email that when Royal Society Secretary Henry Oldenburg asked Leeuwenhoek to look at semen, the Dutch draper initially did not reply “because he felt it was ‘unseemly.’”

    Was it unseemly, or un-semen-ly?

  5. says

    Leeuwenhoek must have had a very accepting wife if she was all right with him having a microscope and slide right by the bed to collect a sample immediately after sex.

  6. weylguy says

    “If your right eye offends you, pluck it out.” Matthew 5:29
    If your … hold on a minute.

  7. dangerousbeans says

    “He wrote that a mere ‘six heartbeats’ after ejaculation, he found ‘a vast number of living animalcules.”

    so in additional to everything else here we can also conclude he was a bad lay. <6 seconds from ejaculation to looking at his microscope? well that’s hot

  8. John Morales says

    dangerousbeans, oh, come on!

    Two days of preparation, two hours of cajoling, one hour of foreplay, half an hour of fucking, then a hasty prep for his (very) primitive microscope.

    (Not very good at being salacious, am I? ;) )

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