|(Latin), German GEORG BAUER (b. March 24, 1494, Clauchau, Saxony--d. Nov. 21, 1555, Chemnitz), German scholar and scientist known as "the father of mineralogy." While a highly educated classicist and humanist, well regarded by scholars of his own and later times, he was yet singularly independent of the theories of ancient authorities. He was indeed among the first to found a natural science upon observation, as opposed to speculation. His De re metallica dealt chiefly with the arts of mining and smelting; his De natura fossilium, considered the first mineralogy textbook, presented the first scientific classification of minerals (based on their physical properties) and described many new minerals, their occurrence and mutual relationships.|
|Agricola was born of obscure parentage. From
1514 to 1518 he studied classics, philosophy, and philology at the University
of Leipzig, which had recently been exposed to the Humanist revival. Following
the custom of the times, he latinized his name to Georgius Agricola. After
teaching Latin and Greek from 1518 to 1522 in a school in Zwickau, he returned
to Leipzig to begin the study of medicine but found the university in disarray
because of theological quarrels. A lifelong Catholic, he left in 1523 for
more congenial surroundings in Italy. He studied medicine, natural science,
and philosophy in Bologna and Padua, finishing with clinical studies in
For two years he worked at the Aldine Press in Venice, principally in preparing an edition of Galen's works on medicine (published in 1525). In this task he collaborated with John Clement, who had been Thomas More's secretary during the writing of Utopia. More's book may well have influenced Agricola to concern himself later with the laws and social customs of the Saxon mining district. In Italy he also met and won the friendship of the great scholar Erasmus, who encouraged him to write and later published several of his books. (Erasmus wrote an introduction to Agricola's first book, the mineralogical treatise Bermannus. Agricola shared that honour with More and only three other scholars.)
In 1526 he returned to Saxony, and from 1527 to 1533 he was town physician in Joachimsthal, a burgeoning mining town in the richest metal-mining district of Europe. Partly in the hope of finding new drugs among the ores and minerals of his adopted district (a hope eventually to be disappointed), he spent all his spare time visiting mines and smelting plants, talking to the better educated miners, and reading classical authors on mining. These years shaped the rest of his life and provided the subject matter for most of his books, beginning with Bermannus; sive, de re metallica (1530), a treatise on the Erzgebirge mining district. There are indications that he owned a share in a silver mine.
He appears not to have been particularly distinguished as a physician, though in this pursuit he made use of direct observation rather than of received authority. He introduced the practice of quarantine into Germany, and his books make many references to miners' occupational diseases. In 1533 he became town physician in Chemnitz, where he remained to the end of his life.
In 1546 Duke Maurice, elector of Saxony, appointed Agricola burgomaster (mayor) of Chemnitz. He also served as an emissary in the Protestant ruler Maurice's ambiguous negotiations with Charles V, the Holy Roman emperor. The religious wars of the period rapidly eroded the tolerance that had hitherto prevailed in the Protestant German states, a tolerance from which Agricola had benefitted
Apart from his diplomatic role, Agricola took only limited interest in politics. His youthful "Turkish Speech" of 1529, a vigorous call to the Holy Roman emperor Ferdinand I to undertake a war against the Turks, was a patriotic hymn to Germany and a call to political and religious unity. It made a great impression on the public and was often reprinted
|Agricola's magnum opus, for which the treatise
Bermannus was a prelude, was De re metallica, published posthumously
in 1556. In it, among other things, Agricola surveys historical and classical
allusions to metals and assesses the content and distribution of metal
mines in antiquity. He treats the pattern of ownership and the system of
law governing Saxon mines, together with the details of their day-to-day
labour management. He was mainly concerned, however, with mining and metallurgy,
and he discussed the geology of ore bodies, surveying, mine construction,
pumping, and ventilation. There is much on the application of waterpower.
He describes the assaying of ores, the methods used for enriching ores
before smelting, and procedures for smelting and refining a number of metals;
and he concludes with a discussion of the production of glass and of a
variety of chemicals used in smelting operations.
In De natura fossilium (the book on which rests his right to be regarded as the father of mineralogy), Agricola offers a classification of minerals (called "fossils" at that time) in terms of geometrical form (spheres, cones, plates). He was probably the first to distinguish between "simple" substances and "compounds." In Agricola's day, chemical knowledge was almost nonexistent, and there was no proper chemical analysis (other than analysis of ores by the use of fire), so the classification of ores was necessarily crude.
No detailed life of Agricola has been published in English. A German
biography is H. Hartmann, Georg Agricola, 1494-1555 (1953). The
most important source is the work published by the East German Academy
of sciences on the occasion of the 400th anniversary of his death, Georgius
Agricola, 1494-1555, zu Seinem 400. Todestag 21. Nov. (1955), which
contains a number of essays on Agricola's life and work, including his
diplomatic activity. F.D. Adams, The Birth and Development of the Geological
Sciences (1938), is informative on Agricola's contribution to geology.
Of his books, only De re metallica and De natura fossilium have
as yet been translated into English.
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