Antoni Van Leeuwenhoek would only have been able to work with his microscopes during day time. With her movie ‘Worm by candlelight’ Dr Lesley Robertson proved this wrong.
One of Robertson’s setups: a 21st century camera, a 17th century microscope, a piece of cardboard and a lamp from Ikea. (Photo: Lesley Robertson)

Antoni Van Leeuwenhoek would only have been able to work with his microscopes during day time. With her movie ‘Worm by candlelight’ Dr Lesley Robertson proved this wrong.

She is a passionate photographer of wildlife, usually capturing birds and occasionally seals and dolphins with her digital camera. This winter however Lesley Robertson, the curator the curator of the Delft School of Microbiology Archive in the Kluyver Laboratory, focussed on something completely different: microscopic worms and protozoa (single celled animals).

This wouldn’t be so remarkable were it not for the fact that Robertson used a replica of a 17th century microscope made by the founding father of microscopy, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek. 

Filmmakers from the BBC visited Robertson’s museum two years ago, when they were making a documentary about Van Leeuwenhoek. “They also filmed microorganisms through a Van Leeuwenhoek microscope,” Robertson says. “But the results were far from perfect, which is understandable since they only had one day for the shooting.” 

Robertson thought she could do better. She mounted her digital camera with a macro lens on a tripod in front of the microscope (magnification 118 times) and focussed on a sample with microorganisms she took from her ‘protozoa farm’, a collection of petri dishes and an old desiccator on her window ledge, filled with greenish water. “The focal depth is extremely small,” says Robertson. “So you have to wait till the organisms swim into focus.” Her efforts (done during many winter lunch break for months) resulted in razor sharp images.

Robertson experimented with different sources of light, including candlelight. In one of her candlelight movies, a worm swims by. “I have no idea what it is. I don’t even know which end is the front” she says, laughing.

Her next attempt will be to film bacteria with a replica that magnifies around 250 times. “It has sometimes been claimed that van Leeuwenhoek couldn’t have seen bacteria with his microscopes. Obviously he could, how else could he ever have drawn them?” 

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