Posts tagged Beijerinck

The parting of the ways…

At the end of March 1958, two years after Kluyver’s death, the Laboratory for Microbiology moved out of the building where he and Beijerinck had worked. Kluyver had been heavily involved in the design and planning of the new building, but it was his successor, Torsten Wikén, who took possession.

The new laboratory was attached to the new Department of Biochemistry, the Department of Applied Botany previously erected for Van Iterson and the associated  Botanic Garden dedicated to applied botany.

Professor Wikén’s new office was given new furniture, and the contents of the office used by Beijerinck and Kluyver were stored in a purpose-built room in the microbiology attic. Since the 1980s, this collection has gradually been organised and merged with similar material left by Van Iterson when he retired and a few related donations, giving us what is known today as the Delft School of Microbiology Archives and the Museum known as the “Kamer van Beijerinck” (Beijerinck’s office). None of it would have been possible without the hard work of a legion of volunteers who have sorted and researched different areas of the collection.

Kamer van Beijerinck

The collection has attracted visitors ranging from individual researchers from as far afield as the USA and Japan to biotechnology students in their first year with their parents and visitors from schools. It’s provided material for TV programmes, exhibitions, publications and postage stamps as well as a couple of PhD theses… Visitors to the Department of Biotechnology have frequently been brought to see the collection during their visits, as have participants in some of the Delft Advanced Courses.

All good things eventually come to an end, and it is finally time for the Archive-Museum and the Department of Biotechnology to part company. Biotechnology is moving to a brand new Faculty building on the outskirts of Delft, uniting with other Faculty Departments. The Archive-Museum  is moving around the corner to the old Department of Mining building, now the Delft Science Centre where the collection will occupy second floor rooms over the main entrance, next door to the minerals collection of the Department of Mining.

Regular readers of this blog will know that digitisation and cataloguing of the collection has been an on-going process and we’ve frequently been surprised as volunteers have found manuscripts and odd equipment as they’ve catalogued the contents of boxes. As we prepare for the move this is still true, and readers will no doubt be hearing about some of our more unusual discoveries (e.g. the papers relating to the unmasking of a cold war spy in the Department) in later posts.

Saying farewell to the Julianalaan will be sad in some ways (most of my scientific career was spent there), but our new rooms will be better lit and considerably less dusty. The Museum will be more accessible as it will no longer be necessary to walk through an active biotechnological laboratory to reach it. Last and not least, the move is giving us a chance to sort the document collection more logically, something that researchers who’ve visited us in search of specific documents will appreciate!

Delft’s Biological Labs 2: The originals..

Sadly, there are no pictures of the first “microbiological laboratory” and the building was demolished at the start of the 1890s, but by collecting the occasional descriptive comments from Antoni van Leeuwenhoek’s letters, we can gain a glimpse of the room where so many types of microorganism were seen for the first time. The following is an extract from our book “Antoni van Leeuwenhoek: Master of the Miniscule” which is scheduled for publication by Brill, Leiden ( in April, 2016.

Van Leeuwenhoek’s home and workshop

    Antoni van Leeuwenhoek worked in his comptoir. The word literally means a counting or writing room, but it was actually his workshop. It was located in an annex to his house so that he would not be disturbed. The room was partitioned off with wainscoting, with a hole to accommodate the spring pole of his lathe. The bottom two of the four windows overlooking the street could be opened upwards, and were fitted with wooden shutters.  His workshop could be closed off “so that little or no air enters from outside”, but if he was working with a candle, he preferred to open them a little, and cover the window with curtains.

     His letters and the inventory of the house compiled after the death of his daughter Maria reveal some of the equipment and materials that he used. As well as his lens and microscope making equipment, there was a small furnace to extract gold and silver from ore, a barometer, a salt water aquarium, sharp blades, chemicals (including the distillate “brandewijn” for conservation and saffron for colouring), and a collection of specimens ranging from minerals to the testicles of a rat preserved in spirits. He had a balance with weights, a glass-blowing table with a lamp, and an anvil for the production of his microscopes, and all of his surveying equipment.

    Many of the objects that Van Leeuwenhoek studied came from the immediate surroundings of his home. He had two gardens, one adjoining the house with a well and another outside the city. He kept a green parrot for a long time and examined the excrement of the sparrows in his yard after feeding them. Delft’s fish market was just across the canal from his house.  Since he regularly attended the dissection demonstrations at the neighbouring Anatomy Theatre, it seems likely that he brought samples home. Additionally, in a few of his letters he mentioned that sailors returning from voyages brought him exotic samples.

map centre

The star shows the position of Van Leeuwenhoek’s house in relation to the Town Hall, where he worked, the marketplace and the Old Church where he is buried.

The Microbiology Laboratory

Beijerinck originally came to Delft in 1885 to set up and run a microbiological laboratory in J.C. van Marken’s Yeast Factory. Van Marken and his wife were enlightened employers, providing their workers and their families with on-site houses, education, medical and social facilities. Van Marken made it a point of honour to keep all of his staff informed about the factory by means of an internal paper called “De Fabrieksbode”. In 1885 he wrote an article about the need for proper bacteriological studies, edited extracts of which follow:

I would like to explain the need for the appointment of Dr. Mr. W. Beijerink as Chief of the Bacteriological Laboratory of the Yeast Factory…..

I have previously discussed the idea that “life is a struggle”, in this case between yeast and against harmful bacteria. The day on which the last harmful bacteria has been expelled from our

factory will be a cause for celebration and a public holiday….

We would have a quality supply of yeast, which would overcome the sharpest competition; our yeast would be able to circle the world in 80 days, without spoiling.

So fight the harmful bacteria!“

      Van Marken’s attitude to results seems remarkably relaxed, contrasting with the attitudes of modern industry. He went on to say:

”Whatever the case, the arrival of the scholar, Dr Beyerinck must be appreciated in more ways than one. We must not have exaggerated expectations of his activities in and for our factory, but have faith that in maybe one, five or even ten years, some day a ray of light will be cast into the darkness of the fermentation business and bring incalculable advantages to our company.”

It cannot be claimed that Beijerinck was happy as an industrial scientist. He felt responsible if errors incurred financial losses, and his interests were much wider than required by his job. As can be seen from the table below and his laboratory journals, he seems to have normally had several unrelated lines of research running at any one time. Only the rows marked * involved work needed by the Factory.


Sunsets (Were the spectacular sunsets of the time due to dust from Krakatoa?)

Root nodules and their bacteria

Plant galls

Grasses, carrots, gardenias, barley

Algae, protozoa in drinking water, hydrogen peroxide in living organisms

*Fermentation, butanol fermentation, Saccharomyces associated with beer, Schizosaccharomyces octosporus

Lactase, maltase, blue cheese bacteria, kefir

Photobacteria, sulfate reduction

*Methods: auxanograms, gelatine plates, Chamberland filters, sampling stratified cultures, microbiochemical analysis.

When his sisters, Henriette and Johanna, visited him in his laboratory, Henriette reported that he “sat there, surrounded by a mass of retorts, bottles and glasses, boxes, corks and heating apparatus, so that it looked like the workshop of an alchemist”.

beij gb 1s

Eventually, Van Marken and a few others managed to persuade the Delft Polytechnic (now Delft University of Technology) that they really needed a Department of Microbiology with Beijerinck as its Professor. Until his new lab was ready, he continued to use the laboratory at the Yeast Factory. Their support continued for the rest of his life – when Beijerinck retired, the Yeast Factory paid for the construction of a laboratory in the garden of his retirement house in Gorssel.

Applied Botany

After his appointment as a Professor, Van Iterson initially worked in Beijerinck’s lab , but in 1908 he was given space in a house at Oude Delft 81, a building used for temporary accommodation by the Polytechnic. As can be seen from the photographs, the rooms were small and not really suitable for use as teaching laboratories. The office, and the library were tiny, and the greenhouse was far too small for a Department called “Applied Botany”. It wasn’t until 1911, when he was offered a job in Java, that the Polytechnic agreed to start work on a purpose-built laboratory and Botanic garden. Both finally opened in 1917. At the time of writing, the laboratory is now part of Delft University’s Department of Biotechnology, but the Department will move to a new building later this year. The Garden’s website is HERE.


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.

The art of Henriette Beijerinck

The laboratory was well supplied with printed botanic wall charts, but there was always a need for things that weren’t available. During Beijerinck’s professorship, his sister Henriette provided most of his display material, generally as large (A1 or A2 in modern terms) watercolours. Henriette Beijerinck was a qualified art teacher who presumably had private pupils, and in addition to material to illustrate lectures, also provided illustrations for several books.

Professor Beijerinck’s earliest publications (while he was working at the Wageningen Agricultural Collece) were about the improvement of grains for agriculture, and our collection contains a number of drawings of seedheads. Since they are not signed, they could be by Henrietta, or even by Martinus. The image above left shows (clockwise from bottom left) wheat, European spelt and duram wheat. Beijerinck’s doctoral thesis (and a lifelong subject of research) was about plant galls and the collection includes quite a few pictures of galls. The illustration  above right shows moss galls caused by Rhodites rosa gall wasp on young rose leaves.

Henriette also painted assorted microorganisms (see, for examples, the blog post about possible life in comets), but her most beautiful works are the botanic charts. These three images are among the best.


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.

The Delft School of Microbiology Archives

The “Delft School of Microbiology” is based on the work of our first three biological Professors – Beijerinck, van Iterson and Kluyver. The Archive is a collection of  their papers, teaching aids, furniture and other materials and functions as a small museum in the Department of Biotechnology.

At the moment, the collection is being digitised and catalogued. This blog will report on some of the interesting and sometimes unexpected things to be found in the collection.

We’ll also cast an occaisional glance at our honorary member, the original Delft microscopist and microbiologist, Antonie van Leeuwenhoek.



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