Georgius Agricola

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Georgius Agricola
Georgius Agricola.jpg
Georgius Agricola
Georg Pawer

24 March 1494 (1494-03-24)
Died21 November 1555 (1555-11-22) (aged 61)
Scientific career

Georgius Agricola (/əˈɡrɪkələ/; 24 March 1494 – 21 November 1555) was a German mineralogist and metallurgist. He is known as "the father of mineralogy",[1] he was born at Glauchau in Saxony. His birth name was Georg Pawer (Bauer in modern German);[2] Agricola is the Latinized version of his name, by which he was known his entire adult life; Georgius and Georg (from Greek γεωργός (geōrgós)), Agricola (from Latin) and Bauer (from German) all mean "farmer" in their respective languages. He is best known for his book De Re Metallica (1556).

Life and work[edit]

Gifted with a precocious intellect, Agricola early threw himself into the pursuit of the "new learning", with such effect that at the age of 24, he was appointed Rector extraordinarius of Greek at the so-called Great School of Zwickau, and made his appearance as a writer on philology. After four years, he gave up his appointment to pursue his studies at Leipzig, where, as rector, he received the support of the professor of classics, Peter Mosellanus (1493–1525), a celebrated humanist of the time, with whom he had already been in correspondence. Here, he also devoted himself to the study of medicine, physics, and chemistry. He went to Italy from 1524 to 1526, where he took his doctor's degree.

He returned to Zwickau in 1527, and was chosen as town physician at Joachimsthal, a centre of mining and smelting works, his object being partly "to fill in the gaps in the art of healing", and partly to test what had been written about mineralogy by careful observation of ores and the methods of their treatment. His thorough grounding in philology and philosophy had accustomed him to systematic thinking, and this enabled him to construct out of his studies and observations of minerals a logical system which he began to publish in 1528. Agricola's dialogue Bermannus, sive de re metallica dialogus [Bermannus; or a dialogue on metallurgy], (1530) the first attempt to reduce to scientific order the knowledge won by practical work, brought Agricola into notice; it contained an approving letter from Erasmus at the beginning of the book.

In 1530, Prince Maurice of Saxony appointed him historiographer with an annual allowance, and he migrated to Chemnitz, the centre of the mining industry, to widen the range of his observations. The citizens showed their appreciation of his learning by appointing him town physician in 1533. In that year, he published a book about Greek and Roman weights and measures, De Mensuris et Ponderibus.

He was also elected burgomaster of Chemnitz. His popularity was, however, short-lived. Chemnitz was a violent centre of the Protestant movement, while Agricola never wavered in his allegiance to the Roman Catholic Church; he was forced to resign his office. He now lived apart from the contentious movements of the time, devoting himself wholly to learning. His chief interest was still in mineralogy, but he occupied himself also with medical, mathematical, theological and historical subjects, his chief historical work being the Dominatores Saxonici a prima origine ad hanc aetatem, published at Freiberg. In 1544, he published the De ortu et causis subterraneorum, in which he laid the first foundations of a physical geology, and criticized the theories of the ancients. However, he maintained that a certain 'materia pinguis' or 'fatty matter,' set into fermentation by heat, gave birth to fossil organic shapes, as opposed to fossil shells having belonged to living animals.[3] In 1545, he followed with the De natura eorum quae effluunt e terra; in 1546 the De veteribus et novis metallis, a comprehensive account of the discovery and occurrence of minerals and also more commonly known as De Natura Fossilium; in 1548, the De animantibus subterraneis; and in the two following years a number of smaller works on the metals.

A water mill used for raising ore

De re metallica[edit]

Agricola's most famous work, the De re metallica libri xii was published the year after his death, in 1556; it was perhaps finished in 1550, since the dedication to the elector and his brother is dated to that year. The delay is thought to be due to the book's many woodcuts. The work is a systematic, illustrated treatise on mining and extractive metallurgy. It shows processes to extract ores from the ground, and metals from ore.

Until that time, Pliny the Elder's work Historia Naturalis was the main source of information on metals and mining techniques. Agricola acknowledged his debt to ancient authors, such as Pliny and Theophrastus, and made numerous references to Roman works. In geology, Agricola described and illustrated how ore veins occur in and on the ground. He described prospecting for ore veins and surveying in detail, as well as washing the ores to collect the heavier valuable minerals, such as gold and tin. The work shows water mills used in mining, such as the machine for lifting men and material into and out of a mine shaft. Water mills found application especially in crushing ores to release the fine particles of gold and other heavy minerals, as well as working giant bellows to force air into the confined spaces of underground workings.

Agricola described mining methods which are now obsolete, such as fire-setting, which involved building fires against hard rock faces. The hot rock was quenched with water, and the thermal shock weakened it enough for easy removal. It was a dangerous method when used underground, and was made redundant by explosives.

Fire-setting underground

The work contains, in an appendix, the German equivalents for the technical terms used in the Latin text. Modern words that derive from the work include fluorspar (from which was later named fluorine) and bismuth. In another example, believing the black rock of the Schloßberg at Stolpen to be the same as Pliny the Elder's basalt, Agricola applied this name to it, and thus originated a petrological term.

In 1912, the Mining Magazine (London) published an English translation of De re metallica. The translation was made by Herbert Hoover, the American mining engineer and his wife Lou Henry Hoover. Hoover was later President of the United States.

Final days[edit]

In spite of the early proof that Agricola had given of the tolerance of his own religious attitude, he was not suffered to end his days in peace. He remained to the end a staunch Catholic, though all Chemnitz had gone over to the Lutheran creed, and it is said that his life was ended by a fit of apoplexy brought on by a heated discussion with a Protestant divine. He died in Chemnitz on 21 November 1555; so violent was the theological feeling against him, he was not allowed to be buried in the town to which he had added such lustre. Amidst hostile demonstrations, he was carried to Zeitz, some 50 kilometers away, and buried there.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Agricola, Georgius (2004). De natura fossilium (Textbook of mineralogy). Translated from the first Latin edition of 1546 by Mark Chance Bandy and Jean A. Bandy. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications. p. ix. ISBN 9780486495910.
  2. ^ Agricola Forschungszentrum Chemnitz
  3. ^ Charles Lyell, Principles of Geology, 1832, p.29

Further reading[edit]

  • Carolyn Merchant (1980). The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution (San Francisco: HarperCollins).
  • Ralf Kern (2010). Wissenschaftliche Instrumente in ihrer Zeit. Vol. 1. pp. 334–336 (Cologne: Koenig).

External links[edit]