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The wacky history of cell theory - Lauren Royal-Woods

One of the great things about science

is that when scientists make a discovery,

it's not always in a prescribed manner,

as in, only in a laboratory under strict settings,

with white lab coats

and all sorts of neat science gizmos that go, "Beep!"

In reality,

the events and people involved

in some of the major scientific discoveries

are as weird and varied as they get.

My case in point:

The Weird History of the Cell Theory.

There are three parts to the cell theory.

One: all organisms are composed of one or more cells.

Two: the cell is the basic unit of structure

and organization in organisms.

And three: all cells come from preexisting cells.

To be honest, this all sounds incredibly boring

until you dig a little deeper

into how the world of microscopic organisms,

and this theory came to be.

It all started in the early 1600s in the Netherlands,

where a spectacle maker named Zacharias Janssen

is said to have come up with the first compound microscope,

along with the first telescope.

Both claims are often disputed,

as apparently he wasn't the only bored guy

with a ton of glass lenses to play with at the time.

Despite this,

the microscope soon became a hot item

that every naturalist or scientist at the time wanted to play with,

making it much like the iPad of its day.

One such person

was a fellow Dutchman by the name of Anton van Leeuwenhoek,

who heard about these microscope doohickeys,

and instead of going out and buying one,

he decided to make his own.

And it was a strange little contraption indeed,

as it looked more like a tiny paddle the size of a sunglass lens.

If he had stuck two together,

it probably would have made a wicked set of sunglasses

that you couldn't see much out of.

Anyhoo, once Leeuwenhoek had his microscope ready,

he went to town,

looking at anything and everything he could with them,

including the gunk on his teeth.

Yes, you heard right.

He actually discovered bacteria

by looking at dental scrapings,

which, when you keep in mind

that people didn't brush their teeth much -- if at all -- back then,

he must have had a lovely bunch of bacteria to look at.

When he wrote about his discovery,

he didn't call them bacteria, as we know them today.

But he called them "animalcules,"

because they looked like little animals to him.

While Leeuwenhoek was staring at his teeth gunk,

he was also sending letters to a scientific colleague in England,

by the name of Robert Hooke.

Hooke was a guy who really loved all aspects of science,

so he dabbled in a little bit of everything, including physics,

chemistry and biology.

Thus it is Hooke who we can thank for the term "the cell,"

as he was looking at a piece of cork under his microscope,

and the little chambers he saw reminded him of cells,

or the rooms monks slept in in their monasteries.

Think college dorm rooms,

but without the TVs, computers and really annoying roommates.

Hooke was something of an underappreciated scientist

of his day --

something he brought upon himself,

as he made the mistake of locking horns

with one of the most famous scientists ever, Sir Isaac Newton.

Remember when I said Hooke dabbled in many different fields?

Well, after Newton published a groundbreaking book

on how planets move due to gravity,

Hooke made the claim

that Newton had been inspired by Hooke's work in physics.

Newton, to say the least, did not like that,

which sparked a tense relationship between the two

that lasted even after Hooke died,

as quite a bit of Hooke's research -- as well as his only portrait --

was ... misplaced, due to Newton.

Much of it was rediscovered, thankfully, after Newton's time,

but not his portrait,

as, sadly, no one knows what Robert Hooke looked like.

Fast-forward to the 1800s,

where two German scientists discovered something

that today we might find rather obvious,

but helped tie together what we now know as the cell theory.

The first scientist was Matthias Schleiden,

a botanist who liked to study plants under a microscope.

From his years of studying different plant species,

it finally dawned on him

that every single plant he had looked at

were all made of cells.

At the same time,

on the other end of Germany was Theodor Schwann,

a scientist who not only studied slides of animal cells

under the microscope

and got a special type of nerve cell named after him,

but also invented rebreathers for firefighters,

and had a kickin' pair of sideburns.

After studying animal cells for a while,

he, too, came to the conclusion

that all animals were made of cells.

Immediately, he reached out via snail mail,

as Twitter had yet to be invented,

to other scientists working in the same field with Schleiden,

who got back to him,

and the two started working on the beginnings of the cell theory.

A bone of contention arose between them.

As for the last part of the cell theory --

that cells come from preexisting cells --

Schleiden didn't exactly subscribe to that thought,

as he swore cells came from free-cell formation,

where they just kind of spontaneously crystallized into existence.

That's when another scientist named Rudolph Virchow,

stepped in with research showing that cells did come from other cells,

research that was actually -- hmm ... How to put it? --

"borrowed without permission"

from a Jewish scientist by the name of Robert Remak,

which led to two more feuding scientists.

Thus, from teeth gunk to torquing off Newton,

crystallization to Schwann cells,

the cell theory came to be an important part of biology today.

Some things we know about science today may seem boring,

but how we came to know them is incredibly fascinating.

So if something bores you,

dig deeper.

It's probably got a really weird story behind it somewhere.