Visitors to the special exhibition Revealing the Invisible: The History of Glass and the Microscope, currently on view at the Rakow Research Library, can examine portraits of key figures in the history of microscopy alongside the instruments and books they created. Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, Joseph Jackson Lister, and Louis Pasteur all have the honor of their visages in the exhibition. But one prominent scientist is conspicuously absent. Where is Robert Hooke? Why don’t we have a picture of this pioneer in the investigation of the microscopic world and the author of Micrographia, one of the most important books in the history of microscopes?
Rather unusually among major scientists of the 1600s, there are no surviving images of Robert Hooke (English, 1635–1703). Only two written descriptions of his appearance survive. In 1689, John Aubrey described him as follows:
He is but of midling stature, something crooked, and his face but little belowe, but his head is lardge; his eie full and popping, and not quick; a grey eie. He haz a delicate head of haire, browne, and of an excellent moist curl.
The second description, by Richard Waller, appeared in the preface to the publication of posthumous works by Hooke in 1705. Waller noted that:
He was always very pale and lean, and latterly nothing but Skin and Bone, with a meagre Aspect, his Eyes grey and full, with a sharp ingenious Look whilst younger; his Nose but thin, of a moderate height and length; his Mouth meanly wide, and upper Lip thin; his Chin sharp, and Forehead large; his Head of a middle size. He wore his own Hair of a dark Brown colour, very long and hanging neglected over his Face uncut and lank, which about three Year before his Death he cut off, and wore a Periwig.
So: Hooke was thin and somewhat stooped, and he had long brown hair, large, protruding grey eyes, and a pointed, narrow chin.
Years after Hooke’s death, as his reputation increased, people began to speculate about Hooke’s appearance and to wonder why no portrait survived. A rumor emerged — impossible to say when or how — that Hooke’s rival, Isaac Newton (English, 1642-1727), did away with the portrait. Newton may have hid his nemesis’ portrait in storage where it was eventually forgotten, or he may have destroyed it vindictively, hoping to eradicate the memory of Hooke’s accomplishments along with his image. The physicist became president of the Royal Society in 1703, the year of Hooke’s death, so he had both opportunity and motive for such a deed.
Others have let Newton off the hook (so to speak). No contemporary written sources unequivocally document the creation or exhibition of a portrait. It is possible that a portrait of Hooke never existed.
This hasn’t stopped journalists, biographers, and artists from searching for the “missing portrait.” When Time published an image of “Scientist Hooke” in 1939, it attracted the suspicion of the humanist M.F. Ashley Montagu (American, 1905-1999). Montagu soon discredited the engraving, noting the discordance between Aubrey and Waller’s written descriptions and the portrait itself.
Another candidate emerged in the early 2000s, when author Lisa Jardine stumbled upon a little-known portrait in the Natural History Museum in London. Jardine published it on the cover of her biography of Robert Hooke, with a disclaimer that the identification was not irrefutable.
Unfortunately for Jardine (and also Hooke), this attribution was short lived, as historian William Jensen soon recognized the portrait as that of Belgian chemist Jan Baptist van Helmont (1580–1644). Jardine acknowledged the misidentification and changed the cover of her book. Still, the internet is slow to forget, and a web search for “portrait of Robert Hooke” usually turns up van Helmont.
Portraits give context and personality to people whom we otherwise know only through their accomplishments. In the absence of a historical portrait, the artist Rita Greer (British, born 1942) has produced a series of open-source paintings commemorating Robert Hooke. The microscope and Micrographia feature prominently in her depictions.
Revealing the Invisible: The History of Glass and the Microscope is open 9am – 5pm every day through March 19, 2017. This exhibition tells the stories of scientists’ and artists’ exploration of the microscopic world between the 1600s and the late 1800s. Unleash your sense of discovery as you explore the invisible through historic microscopes, rare books, and period illustrations, and take a #cellfie in the Be Microscopic interactive.