History of Cell Biology


Although egg cells are visible to the naked eye, the history of cell biology is closely coupled to that of microscopy. In nearly 350 years, cell research has produced an extraordinary rich panorama of studies, concepts and representations. Robert Hooke's analogy to honey bee cells, the transition from cellular tissue to single cells around the year 1800, Schleiden and Schwann's establishment of the cell as the elementary unit of life, the prominent status it gained during cytology's expansion to the other fields of biomedical enquiry, Schultze's definition as a clump of protoplasm containing a nucleus, the worlds of endocellular and ultrastructural organisation, the compartmentalization of the cell in the 1950s and 1960s, its role as map for biochemical and molecular research, all these are just few of the many historical answers to the question what a cell is and what it is good for?’

Key Concepts:

  • For the beginning of cell biology as a new research field it was not sufficient to be merely able to see cells.

  • The development of cell biology was coupled with the evolution of optical instruments and of anatomical theory.

  • One indispensable prerequisite for the formulation of the first cell theory was the shift from the concept of cellular tissue to that of cells as single units.

  • Cell research underwent ‘golden ages’ whenever cells were considered the basic units of life.

  • Many outstanding life scientists did not attribute central importance to cells.

  • The study of cells was (and still is) extraordinarily rich in different ways of seeing, describing, depicting and conceiving.

  • Though it originated from a specific theory, the history of cell biology is characterised by its growing independence from general theory.

  • Throughout its history cell biology was characterised by its ability to expand into neighbouring research fields and to integrate their concepts and methods.

Keywords: cell biology; cytoplasm; organelles; cell membrane; cell division; microscopy

Figure 1.

Malpighi's illustration of the trachea (G, H) and the ‘interlacement of utriculi’ (E, F) and fibres (D); below, another layer of utriculi (C) in the tissue of the oak tree. From Malpighi (, I), tab. V, Figure 21. With permission of Biblioteca storica, Dipartimento di Scienze Biologiche, Geologiche e Ambientali, Università di Bologna.

Figure 2.

In 1774, Bonaventura Corti described and depicted an ‘animaluzzo’ (c), the stages of its (cell) division (d–f) and the resulting four new ‘animaluzzi’ (g). From Corti (), tab. II, Figure II. With permission of Biblioteca storica, Dipartimento di Scienze Biologiche, Geologiche e Ambientali, Università di Bologna.

Figure 3.

In his textbooks, Edmund B. Wilson furnished a diagram of the cell. It is a hybrid of characteristics of animal as well as plant cells. From Wilson (), Figure 6. With permission of Biblioteca storica, Dipartimento di Scienze Biologiche, Geologiche e Ambientali, Università di Bologna.



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Further Reading

Alberts B, Johnson A, Lewis J et al. (2007) Molecular Biology of the Cell, 5th edn. New York, NY: Garland Science.

Baker JR (1948–1955) The cell theory: a restatement, history, and critique. Quarterly Journal for Microscopical Sciences 89: 103–125; 90: 87–108; 93: 157–190; 94: 407–440; 96: 449–481.

Bechtel W (2006) Discovering Cell Mechanisms. The Creation of Modern Cell Biology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Corliss JO (1989) The protozoan and the cell: a brief twentieth‐century overview. Journal of the History of Biology 22: 307–323.

Dröscher A (2002) Edmund B. Wilson's the cell and cell‐theory between 1896 and 1925. History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences 24: 357–389.

Duchesneau F (1987) Genèse de la Théorie Cellulaire. Bellarmin: Montreal–Paris.

Gall JG (1996) Views of the Cell: A Pictorial History. Bethesda, MD: American Society for Cell Biology.

Galperin C, Gilbert S and Hoppe B (eds) (1999) Fundamental Changes in Cellular Biology in the 20th Century: Biology of Development, Chemistry and Physics in the Life Sciences. Turnhout: Brepols.

Geison GL (1969) The protoplasmic theory of life and the vitalist‐mechanist debate. Isis 60: 273–292.

Harris H (1999) The Birth of the Cell. New Haven, NY: Yale University Press.

Hughes A (1959) A History of Cytology. London: Abelard‐Schuman.

Jacyna RS (1983) John Goodsir and the making of cellular reality. Journal of the History of Biology 16: 75–99.

Kruta V (1987) The idea of the primary unity of elements in the microscopic structure of animals and plants: J.E. Purkyne and Th. Schwann. Folia Mendeliana Musei Moravia 22: 35–49.

Maienschein J (1991) Cytology in 1924: expansion and collaboration. In: Benson KR, Maienschein J and Rainiger R (eds) The Expansion of American Biology, pp. 23–51. New Brunswick: Rutger University Press.

Mendelson JA (2003) Lives of the cell. Journal of the History of Biology 36: 1–37.

Orel V and Matalova A (1990) Jan Evangelista Purkyne and the origin of the cell theory, September 1–3, 1987. Folia Mendeliana Musei Moravia 24–25: 5–111.

Parnes O (2000) The envisioning of cells. Science in Context 13: 71–92.

Rasmussen N (1997) Picture Control. The Electron Microscope and the Transformation of Biology in America 1940–1960. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Richmond ML (2000) T H Huxley's criticism of German cell theory: an epigenetic and physiological interpretation of cell structure. Journal of the History of Biology 33: 247–289.

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Dröscher, Ariane(Nov 2014) History of Cell Biology. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. http://www.els.net [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0021786.pub2]