Ento. 101: Who?(II) – Aristotle to the end of the 17th century

Entomologists from Aristotle to the end of the 17th century.

Not only can we thank Aristotle for the term ‘entomology’, he is also the first person we know to have written about insects and other arthropods in an empirical way. Aristotle (384 – 322 BCE) placed animals in two defining groups – those with blood, which corresponds with the vertebrates, and those that are bloodless, which we identify as invertebrates. His works are a mixture of accurate observations, riddled with errors. Aristotle deals with insects in book IV of The History of Animals, and in he covers classification in On the Parts of Animals. In On the Generation of Animals he deals with reproduction, and here we can see a common error in understanding:

“Of these, all which are produced by union of animals of the same kind generate also after their kind, but all which are not produced by animals, but from decaying matter, generate indeed, but produce another kind, and the offspring is neither male nor female; such are some of the insects.”

Spontaneous generation – a misconception that was to linger for over 2000 years…

Tommaso da modena, ritratti di somenicani (vescovo) 1352 150cm, treviso, ex convento di san niccolò, sala del capitoloPrior to the 17th century books dedicated to insects displayed images and a rudimentary classification system still based on Aristotle. Through the medieval era insects were sometimes displayed as decoration in books, but there was not much new beyond what Aristotle had previously presented. Albertus Magnus’ (1200 – 1280),  De Animalibus; Vincentius Bellonacensis‘ (1190 – 1264?), Speculum Naturale and Georgius Agricola’s (1494-1555)  De animantibus subterraneis liber all included insects, but they did not step outside of folklore, biblical accounts, or what had already been presented by the Greeks.

A Hoefnagel engraving

In 1592, Jacob Hoefnagel (1575 – 1630) published Diversae Insectarum Volatium icones ad vivum accuratissimè depictae per celeberrimum pictorem (“Flying insects accurately displayed after the paintings by the most celebrated painter”) which featured engravings based on the works of his father Joris Hoefnagel (1542 – 1601), who had at one time been commissioned to illustrate items in the Kunstkammer of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II. Examples of his amazing insect paintings can be seen online at the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

A good example of the difficulties in publishing a book in this era can be seen in Insectorum sive Minimorum Animalium Theatrum (‘The Theater of Insects’) which was begun by Conrad Gesner (1516-1565).  When Gesner died, his English assistant, Thomas Penny, purchased the manuscript and began incorporating additional information from notes provided by Edward Wotton. However, Penny died in 1585, with the manuscript still incomplete. His neighbour, Thomas Muffet completed the manuscript, but failed to get it published before his own death in 1604. Muffet’s apothecary sold it to Sir Theodore Mayerne, who finally had it published in 1634.


Aldrovandi’s Cabinet of Curiosities

The Father of European natural history is said to be Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522 – 1605), a professor of natural history at Bologna, Italy. He was known for his extensive ‘theatre of nature’ (see ‘kunstkammer’ or cabinet of curiosity), which numbered 18 000 specimens when he catalogued the collection in 1595. His major work, released in 1602, was De animalibus insectis libri septem, cum singulorum iconibus ad vivum expressis (“The seventh book of animals: insects, with each specimen illustrated” ). This book contains an illustration of the first known insect dissection: the silk gland of the silkworm. Aldrovandi is also said to have observed the cocoons of parasitoid wasps on a caterpillar, which he incorrectly interpreted as eggs.

It was in the 17th century that we see the birth of scientific entomology, a century where observations and research into the life-cycles and anatomies of insects began to gain strength. What triggered this new approach to bugs? Beyond the world-changing development of the printing press and the slow lapse of the Renaissance,  the desire for experimental evidence increased. We can attribute the rise of scientific entomology to two things: the collection fads that produced the exotic ‘Cabinets of Curiosities’ (which were the antecedents of natural history museums) and the development of lenses and the microscope.

The paradigm shift in how we viewed insects was the outcome of the use of magnifying lenses. Prior to the invention of the microscope, insects were  often viewed as simple and beneath notice – perhaps used in art and decoration – but not generally worthy of scrutiny. Lenses allowed us to see that the complexity of these little creatures could equal or surpass larger life forms, and they permitted us to view the world from a different perspective.

Stelluti’s bees,1630

While the history of the development of the microscope is misty, it is often attributed to Hans Lippershey and Hans Janssen of the Netherlands in 1590. Galileo is said to have developed a microscope in 1624, and it may have contributed to the first publication of insects as viewed with a microscope. It arrived in a broadsheet entitled The Apiarium (1625), a gift to the new Pope Urban VIII. This written study was produced by Federico Cesi (1585-1630) and Francesco Stelluti (1577-1651), and it was Stelluti who later in 1630, produced the first known microscopic drawings of bee anatomy. Galileo and Stelluti were all members of the Accademia dei Lincei , the Accademy of Lynxes (or ‘Lynx-eyed’), the first science academy, founded in 1603 by Cesi.

Others whose interests were primarily with optics also began turning to bugs. In 1644, the astronomer Giovan Batttista Odierna documented the fly’s eye, in the booklet L’occhio della mosca, which was illustrated with five small woodcuts. In 1646 Francesco Fontana, another astronomer, used the microscope to study a number of subjects including the spider’s eye.

Hooke’s Daddylonglegs

Robert Hooke (1635 – 1703), England’s da Vinci, spent some time behind the microscope as well and he went on to produce the first truly popular science book, Micrographia, published by the Royal Society in 1665. Among other things, Micrographia illustrated the bee’s sting; the fly’s eye, wings and feet; dorsal and ventral views of a daddy-longlegs; silverfish, mites and a pseudoscorpion; gnats, mosquito larva, a micro-moth, an ant, a louse, plant mites, scale and the infamous flea. His book was to influence many, including the Dutch cloth merchant, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek.

Johannes Goedaert (1620 -1668), was a Dutch painter known  for his illustrations of insects. He had collected caterpillars and other larva and had observed the metamorphosis of 140 species of insects which he presented  in  Metamorphosis et Historia Naturalis Insectorum – in three volumes – between 1662 and 1667. One  illustration showed the emergence of parasitoids from a cocoon, but he did not understand this process.

Marcello Malpighi (1628 – 1694) is a good example of how disruptive the transition between the ideas of the Renaissance and the Age of Reason could be. While studying at Bologna, his empirical approach to anatomy was to conflict with the scholars who were intent on not contradicting the ancient authority, Galen (130 – 216?). After receiving his doctorate, Malpighi went to teach at the Cimento Academy in Pisa, where he was first introduced to the microscope. In 1659 he returned to Bologna as a professor of theoretical medicine where, through the use of the microscope, the  first of his famous discoveries were made. However, the tensions at Bologna still existed, so Malpighi moved to Medina to continue his work. In 1666 he once more returned to Bologna as professor of practical medicine, and it is here that his study of insect anatomy began. In 1669, with encouragement of the Royal Society, he published Dissertatio Epistolica De Bombyce, (‘A discourse on the silk-worm’) which was the first published account of the internal structure of an invertebrate, and the first book released with a single insect as its subject. In De Bombyce, Malphigi revealed, for the first time ever, the insect breathing system (the spiracles and connecting trachae), the nerve cord and ganglia, along with the second portrayal of the silk glands.

While Malpighi’s book was moving through Europe,  Jan Swammerdam (1637 – 1680) was preparing his own book in Leiden. Historia Insectorum Generalis (1669) was written in Dutch rather than Latin and it examined the life stages of insects. Before publication, Swammerdam appears to have obtained a copy of Malpighi’s book and it inspired Swammerdam to take up the microscope and look below the insect surface. A product of his time, his work was infused with religious sentiments. Yet even within  his short life, riven with mysticism, Swammerdam did more than any other 17th century scientist to reveal the complexity of the world of invertebrates. When he died in 1680 he left behind  a monograph on the may-fly, Ephemeri Vita (1675); an unpublished treatise on honey bees and all his other unpublished work that later formed the Bybel der Natuure (English), which was eventually edited and released by Herman Boerhaave in 1737. Concerning honeybees, Swammerdam determined that the ‘King’ bee was in fact, a queen, but he never managed to observe her mating. Swammerdam’s work refuted spontaneous generation and he re-defined metamorphosis by recognising that the different stages –  egg, larva, pupa, adult – were the stages of growth of one individual rather than different organisms. He was the first to correctly describe  the parasitoid life cycle, even though Leeuwenhoek was first to publish on this. Swammerdam is also remembered for the quality of his dissections and the microscopical techniques he developed to perform them.

The history of Antoni van Leeuwenhoek’s (1632 – 1723) background and accomplishments are well known and easily accessible, so I won’t dwell on that here. Perhaps inspired by Hooke’s Micrographia (1665), Leeuwenhoek began to develop simple single-lens microscopes to look at the world around him. While Leeuwenhoek is best known for his early discoveries of microorganisms, he was a generalist at heart and he turned his amazing microscopes to a variety of subjects, including insects and spiders. In 1673 some of his observations were shared with the Royal Society by Reginald de Graaf, which were then published in the Philosophical  Transactions. This first letter included descriptions of  mould, the sting and eye of a bee and a louse – not dissimilar to some of  Hooke’s Micrographia specimens. However Leeuwenhoek did not stop there —  amoung other things, he later went on to observe the composite eye of the fly, scales on the wings of moths, the wing tracheae, the insect origins of cochineal, the web-making equipment of the spider, the anatomy  and reproduction of the flea, the formation of oak galls, the life cycle of the grain weevil, ants, the parasitoid life cycle and viviparous reproduction in aphids. While Leeuwenhoek never published a book of his findings, his letter contributions made him the most published author with the Royal Society, a record that remains to this day. Along with Francesco Redi, Swammerdam and others, Leeuwenhoek contributed to the downfall of Aristotelian abiogenesis.

Throughout Europe, the medieval  tradition of ecclesiastics travelling in search of  higher theological and philosophical learning reiterated itself in the scholars who traveled to find prestigious teachers with more earthly forms of knowledge. Theological centres of learning expanded into natural philosophy with the beginning of the rise of universities. As the technology of the printing press spread, the trickle of  hand-copied books of knowledge became a torrent. Scientific societies began to encourage research and they helped members to publish their findings. The resulting web of scientific interaction began to drive back the intellectual dependence on theology and Greek thought. The 18th century was to see a surge in all the sciences, with new insights into biological development and morphology and the beginnings of a universal classification system.

Next: Ento. 101 – Who? III – The 18th century to Darwin.


– See links in article for sources and more information.

A Dictionary of Entomology by G. Gordh and D.H. Headrick. Cabi Publishing, 2001.

– Images from Wikimedia Commons, unless otherwise indicated.

Edited and corrected 16 January, 2011.

© Adrian Thysse (scroll down for more information)

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