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The Standard Story

The familiar story, recounted in textbooks and cell biology courses, declares that Schleiden and Schwann invented the cell theory. Standard accounts tell of these two German innovators, one working on plants and the other on animals, coming up with the theory that cells are the fundamental unit of life. In 1838, the story goes, they put together the available evidence and reasoning to develop what they called the Zellentheorie to ground all of biology, and they were the first to do so.

Everybody likes a good myth, and this one does its job. Schleiden and Schwann did, in fact, respectively study plants and animals and did see and describe cells. They were not the first, however, but drew on earlier observations by Robert Hooke, Anthony Leeuwenhoek, and many others to establish the idea of structural cellular units as bounded by walls. Internally, these seventeenth century microscopists held that cells might consist of some fluid-like or gel-like substance or they might be vesicles full of nothing more than air. What was important is that they each observed vesicles with walls and structure, and came to call them cells.[1]

For decades, textbooks have referred to these two as the fathers or founders of the cell theory, as if they had articulated a theory of the basic units of life. In fact, Schleiden and Schwann saw basic units of living organisms but not basic living units. That is, they did not clearly consider those cells to be “alive” since they did not reproduce themselves but were thought to arise at least at times through a sort of crystallization. The standard story misses the distinction and ascribes more agency and properties of life to the cell then Schleiden and Schwann did themselves. The myth has not changed much, despite new historical studies after a century of cell biology.

  • [1] Harris (1999). Chapters 1 and 2 on early microscopists and early theories.
 
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