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Rights: University of Waikato
Published 20 November 2007

Robert Hooke's diagrams of cork cells started a frenzy of activity that produced some beautiful first pictures of cells from all sorts of organisms. Here, Nobel prize winner, Sir Paul Nurse shares some of his favourites.


Sir Paul Nurse

As is often the case in science, technology begets discovery. And that applies to the discovery of cells. Because it was the invention of the microscope in the early 17th century, probably in Holland, that led to the discovery of cells. That was by a scientist called Robert Hooke, who was working as the experimentalist for the Royal Society of London.

Now the Royal Society of London was really a gentlemen’s society ,and Hooke was hired to tinker around in the lab. Some of you may be aware of Hooke's Law, for example, involving springs. But what he also did was all sorts of other experiments and observations. And the one that I am going mention today, he made with this microscope ... a simple compound microscope. He took a piece of a plant, a piece of a cork, got a thin slice of it, and looked at it under a microscope - never been done before, at least never recorded before. And what he saw were these little boxes that you see in that black circle up there. These compartments he called cells, because they reminded him of a plan of a monastery, where monks lived in individual cells, and that is what he thought he could see here looking at this.

Having observed these cells, as is so often the case in science, then everybody saw them. And within a few years some fantastic drawings were appearing. This is one which was produced by Nehemiah Grew, a doctor in the 1670s and 1680s. It’s a beautiful picture of a cross section of a vine stem and shows all the tissues that make up a stem of a plant. Other scientists began to look at, for example, the pickings between their teeth. They scraped the pickings between their teeth and looked under the microscope at them. And a very famous one, called Leeuenhoek, saw these. And these were the first pictures of a unicellular organism, of a variety of bacteria