Harting, Pieter

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Harting, Pieter

(b. Rotterdam, Netherlands, 27 February 1812; d. Amersfoort, Netherlands, 3 December 1885)

microscopy, zoology.

Harting was the son of Dirk Harting, a tobacco merchant, and Jeanette Blijdenstein. The father died in 1819 and Harting, his two brothers, and one sister moved to Utrecht with their mother, to be near her family.

Harting attended school at Elburg from 1823 until 1828. He started reading medicine at Utrecht University in September 1828, obtaining the doctorate in medicine in 1835 and in obstetrics in 1837. At Utrecht he studied physics under G. Moll, chemistry under G. J. Mulder, and physiology under J. L. C. Schroeder van der Kolk.

From 1835 Harting practiced medicine in the village of Oudewater, although he wished to do research in chemistry and biology. In 1841 he was appointed professor of pharmacy at the Athenaeum in Franeker. When the Athenaeum was closed in 1843, he was transferred to the University of Utrecht but was not appointed to a chair because there was no vacancy. This proved a blessing in disguise for Dutch science, since it enabled Harting to do research in his favorite field, microscopy.

Harting’s work in microscopy was both practical and theoretical. As a student he saw that the microscope was the most important instrument for the development of most sciences, including medicine, zoology, and plant physiology. While practicing medicine in Oudewater he had made his own microscope, and at Utrecht he initiated courses in practical microscopy, which were among the first in the subject at any university in the Netherlands. Harting not only cataloged the different types of microscopes belonging to Utrecht, but he also measured their optical properties of enlargement and, what is more important, their resolving power. To express his results uniformly, he introduced the one-thousandth part of the millimeter, which he called mmm (milli-millimeter), later named μ. As a result of these investigations, in 1848 he began the publication of the multivolume treatise Het Mikroskoop, the first full historical treatment of that subject. Some years later he taught pharmacology, plant physiology, comparative anatomy, and zoology; his colleagues included Buys Ballot and Donders.

In the Physical Institute he discovered the forgotten Leeuwenhoek microscope and the lens which Christiaan Huygens made and used in 1655 to discover the rings of Saturn and one of its satellites. (These instruments are now on exhibition at the Utrecht university museum.)

Harting also did research in geology. He studied the island of Urk (in what was then the Zuider Zee) and the valley of the Eem River. These investigations enabled him to give advice on plans for the reclamation of the Zuider Zee.

For his physiological research Harting constructed the physiometer, an instrument to facilitate the study of the swim bladders of fishes (1872). He also did some important research on pileworms in connection with the enormous damage inflicted by these teredos on the seawalls (1860). Harting was one of the first Dutch supporters of Darwin’s theory of evolution. Two years before Darwin published On the Origin of Species, Harting gave a series of lectures which indicated that he held a theory similar to Darwin’s.

Harting was also interested in anthropology and in 1861 designed the cephalograph, an instrument for measuring the dimensions of human skulls and faces. In his early years at Utrecht he cooperated with G. J. Mulder on experiments to determine the chemical nature of plant cell walls (1846). His last work on plant physiology was a spectroscopic study of chlorophyll (1855).

Harting was appointed to the chair of zoology at Utrecht, and shortly afterward wrote a textbook for his students. In order to obtain more facilities for his pupils to conduct research, he succeeded in having a Dutch subsection established in the international zoological station at Naples in 1874; he also founded a movable zoological station in the Netherlands (1876).

An excellent popularizer of scientific subjects, Harting was one of the founders of Album der Natuur, a periodical dedicated to the popularization of the latest results of scientific research. For several years he lectured for the Natuurkundig Gezelschap and served as its president for some time. Harting was rector of Utrecht University in 1858-1859. He crusaded for cremation and against alcoholism and spiritism. Although he retired in 1882, spending the rest of his life in Amersfoort, he remained active as president of a committee to help the Boers in their war against the British.


A nearly complete list of Harting’s publications, organized according to subject, is in Jaarboek van de K. Akademie van wetenschappen gevestigd to Amsterdam (1888), pp. 36-60. Levensberichten der afgestorvene Medeleden van de Maatschappij der Nederlandsche Letterkunde... (1887), pp. 176-187, contains a bibliography in chronological order.

His major publication in plant physiology is Monographie des marattiacées (Leiden-Dusseldorf, 1853); that on potato blight is in Nieuwe Verhandelingen der Eerste Klasse van het K. Nederlandsche Instituut van wetenschappen, 12 (28 Nov., 12 and 24 Dec. 1846), 203-297. On microscopy, see Bijdrage tot de Geschiedenis der Microscopen in ons Vaderland (Utrecht, 1846); and Het Mikroskoop, deszelfs gebruik, geschiedenis en tegenwoordige toestand, 3 vols. (Utrecht, 1848-1850), vol. IV, Handleiding tot oefening in het onderzoek van plantaardige en dierlijke weefsels (Tiel, 1854), vol. V, De nieuwste verbeteringen van het mikroskoop en zijn gebruik (Tiel, 1858)—vols. I-III translated into German by F. W. Thiele as Das Mikroskop (Brunswick, 1859; 2nd ed., 1866), facs. repro. (Brunswick, 1970).

Among his geological writings are “De bodem onder Amsterdam,” in Nieuwe verhandelingen der Eerste Klasse van het K. Nederlandsche Instituut van wetenschappen, 5 (1852), 73-230; Het eiland Urk, zijn bodem, voortbrengselen en bewoners (Utrecht, 1853); “De bodem van het Eemdal,” in Verslagen en Mededeelingen der K. Akademie van wetenschappen, 8 (1874), 282-290; “Le système eemien,” in Archives des sciences exactes et naturelles (1875), 443-454; and “De geologische en physische gesteldheid van den Zuiderzeebodem, in verband met de voorgenomen droogmaking,” in Verslagen en mededeelingen der K. Akademie van wetenschappen, 11 (1877), 301-325, and 12 (1878), 220-228.

On anthropology, see “Le plan médian de la tête néerlandaise masculine, déterminé d’après une méthode nouvelle,” in Verhandelingen der K. Akademie van wetenschappen, 15 (1875), 1-22. A work on the descent of man is De voorwereldlijke scheppingen (Tiel, 1857), translated into German by J. E. A. Martin (Leipzig, 1859).

Zoological writings are Handboek der vergelijkende ontleedkunde (Tiel, 1854), trans. of Oscar Schmidt, Vergleichende Anatomie; “Verslag over den paalworm uitgegeven door de Natuurkundige Afdeeling...,” in Verslagen en Mededeelingen der K. Akademie van wetenschappen, vol. 9 (1860); and Leerboek van de grondbeginselen der dierkunde in haren geheelen omvang, 3 vols. in 5 pts. (Tiel, 1862-1874).

Other works are De macht van het kleine, zichtbaar in de vorming der korst van onzen Aardbol (Utrecht, 1849; 2nd ed., Amsterdam, 1866), translated into German by A. Schwartz as Die Macht des Kleinen, sichtbar in der Bildung der Rinde unseres Erdballs (Leipzig, 1851); Anno 2065 (Utrecht, 1865), 3rd ed., under the title Anno 2070 (Utrecht, 1870), all eds. written under the pen name Dr. Dioscorides, translated into German as Anno 2066 (Weimar, 1866); and Mijne herinneringen (Amsterdam, 1961), his autobiography, written between 1872 and 1885.

II. Secondary Literature. For information on Harting, see the following works by A. A. W. Hubrecht: a funeral oration in Jaarboek van de K. Akademie van Wetenschappen gevestigd to Amsterdam (1888), pp. 1-35; and “Pieter Harting,” in De Gids, 4th ser., 55 , pt. I (1886), 157-168. Other obituaries include C. H. D. Buys Ballot, in Levensberichten der afgestorvene Medeleden van de Maatschappij der Nederlandsche Letterkunde (1887), pp. 149-175; and H. F. Jonkman, “Pieter Harting,” in Mannen van betekenis in onze dagen (Haarlem, 1886), pp. 319-366.

J. G. van Cittert-Eymers

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