Posts in category A.J. Kluyver

Material relating to Kluyver’s work and/or lab

Delft University’s Biological Labs 1: The “Palace of Light” on the Nieuwelaan.

At the beginning of 2016, the Laboratory for Microbiology, together with the rest of the Department of Biotechnology, will move out of its current building, destination the new Faulty building on the outskirts of Delft. This seems like a good moment to take a look at the previous lab where so many breakthroughs were made. It was known as the “Palace of Light” because people worked late into the night.

We are fortunate that, thanks to a commemorative book published when Beijerinck was a fairly new Professor and photographs taken just before the department moved out, we know what it looked like. At the time it was built, it was the most expensive laboratory in the University. An extension was added in 1911.

Beijerinck’s laboratory

Part of the building, on the left of the top photo, was the Professor’s house. The garden sloped gently down to a large canal (the canal’s edge can be seen as a white line across the bottom of the picture). It was in the greenhouse in this garden that the tobacco plants were grown for Beijerinck’s work on the Tobacco Mosaic Virus, and many famous microbial species were isolated from the soil and mud of the garden and canal.

We have a few pictures of the inside of the lab in Beijerinck’s time.

After Kluyver’s death and before everybody moved to the new (and current) building, everything was photographed. The photos are all numbered with corresponding floor plans so that we know not only which room is shown, but where the photographer was standing to take the picture. This is just a small sample.

The building (without the extension) is still there. After a number of trials and tribulations including the building of a major bridge close to the front door of Beijerinck and Kluyver’s house, it is now apartments. To mark the 100th anniversary of Beijerinck’s appointment, a plaque was unveiled next to the original laboratory door.

Celebrating Professors

During the first half of the 20th century, it seems to have been customary to make certificates, posters or books to commemorate special events. The Archive includes a number of photo albums showing laboratories in the University or even abroad, but three examples stand out, not least because of the considerable amount of work that went into them.

The first is a book made for Kluyver by three of his pupils (van Niel, Leeflang and Struyk) a few years after he became Delft’s Professor of Microbiology. The book compares Beijerinck’s 19th century approach to the wonders to be found in 1 gram of soil with Kluyver’s 20th century approach to the wonders associated with 1 gram of carbinol. That’s not students kneeling outside the Professor’s door in the 4th page, but representatives of industry!





The second is a handmade poster (about the size of a large double bed) that was made to mark the 25th anniversary of Kluyver’s inaugural lecture. It shows notable features from those 25 years, including sketches of the laboratory, Kluyver’s most famous work (The Unity in Diversity) and his inaugural address (“Rede”) in which he emphasized the importance of applied research. Every rectangle represents a story.


The Kluyver Flask (still used for growing submerged, well-mixed cultures) and a shaker for closed jars containing oxygen-free cultures are shown. During the Dutch “Starvation Winter” at the end of World War II, Delft’s Yeast and Spirits Factory gave their staff soup made from yeast extract at lunch time, and as one of their advisors, Kluyver regularly benefited from this at weekly meetings. Lastly, at a time when it was usual to stand if a Professor came into the room, the staff’s affection for Kluyver shines through in several squares teasing him about his smoking!

A book to mark van Iterson’s 25th anniversary as a Professor also falls into this category despite being essentially a photo album because the makers included all of his PhD students, postdocs and co-workers from other countries, showing who they were, what they did and what happened to them afterwards. van Iterson’s conviction that the primary job of a Professor is to teach is obvious from the fact that there’s 160 pages, each with one or more person on it. The example here shows J.E. van Amstel, the first woman to be granted a Doctorate in Delft.



Here there be surprises!

Thanks to the hard work of volunteers over the last couple of decades, the catalogues for the various collections in the Archive are gradually becoming more detailed, and this continues, in combination with document scanning. Also, now that we’re going to be moving to another building at the end of the year, the current team has been investigating cupboards and boxes that were fairly low down the priority list. We’re often surprised by what we find. Many things shed light on how things were done in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, others are simply curiosities which may add to our questions even as they answer others. For example, letters by van Iterson to an instrument maker explained the envelope full of paper discs labelled “anorthoscope” and we then discovered in the Instrument Catalogue that we still have one! Anorthoscopes might be considered to be a forerunner of movies where the user turned a handle and figures on paper discs seemed to walk or run. Judging by the results of internet searches, they’re largely considered to be toys, but van Iterson was obviously using them for some sort of research, although we still aren’t sure what! The images with this post show examples of other finds.

In roughly chronological order:

Beijerinck started as a botanist (the discipline of microbiology hadn’t really been invented then) and wrote his PhD thesis on plant galls. It was obviously a subject close to his heart since he kept his samples, including a couple of boxes containing 19th century pillboxes full of different sorts of gall.

Beijerinck’s work on TMV is credited as being the first to establish that the causative effect of Tobacco Mosaic Disease was self-replicating and thus not a chemical. That we have his lab journals is well-known, but we also have the plates used to illustrate that first paper (and many others). There’s actually 5 plates in this set, each slightly different so that the published image was correctly coloured.

A fairly recent gift to the collection was a set of brown notebooks that were found after the death of the donor’s relative. These proved to be a full set of lecture notes made by a student during Beijerinck’s microbiology lecture series. We’ve also been given the set of notes that Kluyver made for his speeches when his PhD students were awarded their Doctorates, among other things. I love the moment when someone comes through the door and says “someone I know is clearing a house and wants to know whether the museum wants this”…

Harry Barker spent a year with Kluyver in the 1930s, doing some of his early work on methane-producing bacteria, and his slides are among a pile of microscope preparations from that period that turned up in a cupboard. As well as the slides, we have glass bottles containing chemicals, preparations and samples, including a very early enzyme extract labelled “lactase”. There was still measurable activity in the sample when it was tested in 1989 despite the fact that storage conditions have been less than optimal over the century since it was made.

During WW2, Kluyver was Chairman of a committee that tried to maintain contact with the students who’d been taken as forced labour to work in Germany. We still have many of the papers relating to that time, including the card indexes showing where the students were, and where they were working, as well as correspondence from students and the authorities. (Ignore the key, it’s just there to hold the papers flat.)

When Mrs van Iterson visited the laboratory (quite a long time ago), she commented (more than once) that she wished that her husband had had a computer. When one looks at the drawings and calculations (made with nothing more than graph paper, log tables and a slide rule) it’s easy to see why. His work on phyllotaxis is still regarded as relevant today, and is a tribute to the days and days of patient calculation and drawing that formed the foundations of modern mathematical modelling.

Glass negatives galore!

Small projector set up for glass negatives.

Small projector set up for glass negatives.

Glass negatives.

Glass negatives.


Our glass negative collection (about 27,000 of them) dates from the mid-1880s to the 1960s (when they were being used with the electron microscope. It covers a remarkably wide range of topics including Beijerinck’s gall wasps, light microscopy, travel (especially van Iterson’s working trip to Indonesia) to images from publications – essentially what any group of Professors would have in their Powerpoint collections today. The quality of the images is amazing – it has been possible to enlarge pictures to A0 without grain or blurring.

Later posts will showcase the individual collections of the three Professors, this is just a taster to show examples of what we have.










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