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In the 1660s, Robert Hooke looked v a primitive microscopic lense at a thinly reduced piece that cork. He observed a series of walled boxes the reminded the of the tiny rooms, or cellula, occupied by monks. Medical chronicler Dr. Howard Markel discusses Hooke"s coining of the word "cell."


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Unidentified Man: The alphabet has actually only 26 letters. V these 26 magic symbols, however, countless words space written every day.

IRA FLATOW, host:

That music method that it"s time for this month"s illustration of science Diction, the beginning of scientific research words. Our regular guest expert is Howard Markel, professor of history of medicine at the university of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and also director that the facility for the background of medicine there. Welcome to science FRIDAY. Welcome back, Howard.

Dr. HOWARD MARKEL (History of Medicine, university of Michigan): Hey, Ira.

FLATOW: What word do we have actually today?

Prof. MARKEL: Well, the an enig word is cell.

FLATOW: below comes the duck.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. MARKEL: Yeah. Ns was wonder what was out there. Yeah. You know, the basic building block of living life, and that"s our word today.

FLATOW: and also the origin?

Dr. MARKEL: Well, friend know, provided their size, it"s no surprising the someone had to come up with a microscope first and look at them. And also that task fell to the renowned British organic philosopher Robert Hooke. And he to be looking at it in the 17th century. The was actually looking at a thinly reduced piece the cork. And while he to be doing that, he noticed a collection of walled pores the were not very deep yet they consisted of boxes. And also they reminded that of the rooms that monks continued to be in. And also those were referred to as cellula. Interesting, the word also recalls another Latin word celare, and that way to conceal or hide. And also from these origins came words cell, and also it make its literature debut in Hooke"s 1665 book "Micrographia," which was a huge best-seller at the time.

FLATOW: well - therefore what did he actually use to look at these things referred to as cells?

Dr. MARKEL: Well, he was looking at a thinly reduced piece the cork as opposed to...

FLATOW: through a microscope?

Dr. MARKEL: with a microscope, a type of a set of magnifying glasses. The didn"t watch quite like the microscopes today. But people were really interested in using lenses to both look at the stars and the things that were no visible come the nude eye best in former of them.

FLATOW: and also why choose cork?

Dr. MARKEL: Well, because it was so firm, girlfriend know? one of the points that progressed later top top in the 19th century was exactly how to reduced living organization so that you wouldn"t destroy it. And you have actually a really sharp knife or what"s now referred to as a microtome. But you could additionally introduce artefacts if friend didn"t reduced it correctly, you know, small folds or tears, that wouldn"t necessarily represent the life cell.

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. MARKEL: and so a cork is, friend know, sort of wooden and also fixed, and so he can use that and also cut it an extremely thinly and also do his work.

FLATOW: So as soon as was it i found it that also though you can look in ~ a dead object like a item of cork, just how do we know that the same thing is walk on in a living human or being?

Dr. MARKEL: Well, friend know, things progress. You know, a few years later, friend know, the famous Anton van Leeuwenhoek, a lens an equipment in Delft, he began looking in ~ his microscope and saw the an initial living celled organism. It was an algae dubbed spirogyra. He dubbed them small animals.

But that wasn"t yes, really for another century and also a half that doctors and also scientists started looking at these in earnest. And also there was a group of early 19th century German scientists, simply cracker-jack scientists such as Theodor Schwann and Matthias Schleiden, Robert Remak, and most notably, Rudolph Virchow. And they emerged a yes, really novel notion, a revolutionary notion, referred to as cell theory.

And this had actually two an easy points: One that cells are the basic unit of every living things, together we simply said. And another, a Latin expression omnis cellula e cellula, which means all cells come from other cells as with it by method of cabinet division. And they could actually watch the cells dividing under your scopes.

And that was really important because the prevailing concept at the moment was something referred to as spontaneous generation, that part living organisms can simply arise, de novo, indigenous nonliving or, girlfriend know, living matter or what have you.

FLATOW: Right. And that acquired the round rolling and also that"s where we space today.

Dr. MARKEL: Yeah. And also then, girlfriend know, Rudolph Virchow preserved talking about this. And not only talked about normal cellular function which was based on, friend know, physical and also chemical changes, but likewise that condition came from outcomes of a deviation indigenous that typical function. So the really started a whole brand-new field of cellular pathology, that we might cure conditions on the to move level, so to speak, that too, really flew in a smack the a many ideas, due to the fact that the bodily humors...

FLATOW: Yeah.

Dr. MARKEL: ...were still lot in vogue back then.

FLATOW: Well, Howard, thanks for the history. It"s always an excellent that we start out v a word and we get some good history from you.

Dr. MARKEL: Oh, give thanks to you.

FLATOW: Thanks, have actually a great weekend. We"ll see you earlier next month. Dr. Howard Markel is professor of history of medicine at the university of Michigan, and also director the the center for background of medicine there in Ann Arbor.

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