Georgius Agricola


Georg Agricola or Georgius Agricola, Latinized from Georg Bauer († November 21, 1555 in Chemnitz), was a German physician, pharmacist, and scientist who is considered the “father of mineralogy” and the founder of modern geology and mining science. An outstanding Renaissance scholar and humanist, he also distinguished himself by special achievements in pedagogy, medicine, metrology, philosophy and history.

Georg(ius) Agricola was born as Georg Pawer or Bauer. Petrus Mosellanus, his Leipzig professor, advised him – as was customary at the time – to Latinize his name.

Youth years and studies

Georg Pawer (Bauer) was born in Glauchau in 1494 as the second of seven children of a clothier and dyer. There he received his first lessons, so that he could go to Chemnitz to the Latin school at the age of twelve. Here his trace is lost for the time being. He did appear briefly in Magdeburg, but only his matriculation at the University of Leipzig is certain. There, from 1514 to 1518, he studied ancient languages (especially Latin and Greek) with Petrus Mosellanus (1493-1524), a follower of Erasmus of Rotterdam, who subsequently recommended him to Zwickau. So Agricola became there first Konrektor (1518), then as successor of his friend Stephan Roth, who moved to Joachimsthal, Rektor of the Zwickau Council School (1519) and created a new type of school with Latin, Greek and Hebrew instruction in combination with trade studies: agriculture, viticulture, construction and metrology, arithmetic, pharmacology and military affairs. His first publication, a grammar of the Latin language (Libellus de prima ac simplici institutione grammatica), appeared in Leipzig in 1520.

Stay in Italy

After Agricola had studied again in Leipzig in 1522, this time medicine, physics and chemistry as well as additional humanities subjects, he went to the universities of Bologna and Padua in 1523. In 1524 he went to Venice to edit the Galen edition at the publishing house of Aldus Manutius. In 1526 he returned to Chemnitz.

Back in Germany

In 1527 Agricola married the widow Anna Meyner from Chemnitz and now settled as a physician and pharmacist in St. Joachimsthal (today: Jáchymov), probably through the mediation of Georg Sturtz, who lived there and moved back to Erfurt. In 1531 he became the town physician in Chemnitz, where he held the office of mayor four times (1546, 1547, 1551 and 1553). He was also employed in the civil service as a Saxon court historiographer. As a polymath, Agricola researched in the fields of medicine, pharmacy, alchemy, philology and pedagogy, politics and history, metrology, earth sciences and mining. Agricola combined humanistic erudition with technical knowledge.

This was the origin of his first work Bermannus, sive de re metallica (1530), in which he describes methods of ore prospecting and processing and metal extraction, as well as the progress of mining technology, mine surveying, transport, preparation and processing of ores. In De Mensuris et ponderibus of 1533, he describes the Greek and Roman weights and measures – at the time there were no standardized measures, which considerably hindered trade. This work laid the foundation for Agricola”s reputation as a humanist scholar.

Agricola founded the earth sciences with several works: He describes the formation of substances in the earth”s interior in De ortu et causis subterraneorum of 1544, the nature of things springing from the earth”s interior in his work De natura eorum, quae effluunt ex terra of 1545, minerals in De natura fossilium, and ore deposits and ore mining in ancient and modern times (De veteribus et novis metallis). The Meurer letter (Epistula ad Meurerum) of 1546 also belongs to these works.

Agricola was married twice and had (at least) six children. His first wife died in 1540. Two years later, at the age of 48, he married the 30 years younger daughter Anna of Ulrich Schütz the Younger, the former owner of the Saigerhütte Chemnitz. Thus he married into the richest Chemnitz family at that time.

On November 21, 1555, at the age of 61, he died in Chemnitz. After the Reformation in Saxony, the city refused to allow the Catholic Agricola to be buried on Chemnitz grounds. On the initiative of his friend, the scholar and bishop Julius Pflugk of Zeitz, he was then buried in the castle church of Zeitz.

Based on many investigations of his own, Agricola summarized the mineralogical and geological knowledge of his time in the ten books of De natura fossilium (1546). At that time, fossils were understood to include not only fossilized living creatures, but also stones and minerals. The work is considered the first comprehensive textbook or manual of mineralogy, which used a systematic scientific approach. It describes the occurrence, extraction, properties and use of minerals. Above all, Agricola classified the minerals on the basis of their physical properties such as shape, color, transparency, luster and weight (density).

The first book deals with general mineral properties, the second with earths, followed by books on “lean” and “fat” salts (bitumen). The fifth to seventh books describe, among other things, gemstones, and the eighth and ninth books metallic slags. Finally, the tenth book deals with mineral mixtures.

Through numerous travels in the mining district of the Saxon and Bohemian Ore Mountains, Agricola gained an overview of the entire technology of mining and metallurgy at his time. The result is his major work De re metallica libri XII, published in Latin in Basel in 1556, a year after his death, and later translated into numerous other languages. Philippus Bechius (1521-1560), a friend of Agricola and professor at the University of Basel, translated the work into German and published it in 1557 under the title Vom Bergkwerck XII Bücher. It is the first systematic technological study of mining and metallurgy and remained the definitive work on the subject for two centuries.

The first volume is a contemporary apologia and compares mining with other trades, such as agriculture or commerce. The second volume discusses the conditions of development, i.e. geography, water management, roads, land ownership and sovereignty; the third volume deals with mine surveying. The fourth volume comments on the distribution of mine fields and the duties of the mining official. The fifth volume describes the various types of shafts and their development, as well as underground mining and surveying. The mathematical statements in this volume contain several errors, see Notes Nos. 35 and 37 of the 1961 edition. The sixth is the most comprehensive volume and deals with mining equipment and machinery. The tasting of ores is found in the seventh volume, and their dressing process in the eighth. Smelting and metal extraction processes, including a guide to smelting furnace construction, are found in the ninth volume. Volumes ten, eleven and twelve deal with the separation of precious metals, the extraction of salts, sulfur and bitumen, and glass.

In the complete work, only objective properties are up for discussion; all traditions and alchemical statements are examined for their truth content. In the absence of uniform measures, Agricola refers to well-known statements: “In the case of small, medium, or coarse tin ores, the experienced smelter … when he smelts the first, needs only slow fire; when the second, medium; when the third, sharp; but much less sharp than when he smelts gold, silver, or copper ore” or “… one still has as long to heat as one needs to walk fifteen paces.” The descriptions of the minerals build on the works of Avicenna and Albertus Magnus.

Agricola describes the tools of metal extraction in great detail and illustrated by many figures, but always only very inaccurately and incompletely the process of smelting.

This book of metallurgy was also known to Francis Bacon, who took important ideas from it. In addition to a modern theory of the formation of ore veins, it also contains sections on goblins and dragons in the mines, which Agricola called “creatures underground” (De animantibus subterraneis).

From today”s perspective, Agricola”s descriptions of environmental damage caused by mining and smelting are interesting. In the illustrations in the third book, one can clearly see that the surroundings of the mines and smelting furnaces had been devastated and that only remnants of trees remained. In the ninth book, the danger of mercury extraction for the smelters” workers is described: when they stand in the wind, their teeth fall out.

In 1926, Oskar von Miller, creator of the German Museum, and Conrad Matschoß, director of the Association of German Engineers and doyen of German technical historiography, founded the Georg Agricola Society at the German Museum. The society”s first goal was to publish the first modern German edition of Agricola”s main work.

In 1960, the “Georg Agricola Society for the Promotion of the History of Natural Sciences and Technology e.V.” was constituted at the Association of German Engineers – with significant participation of the German Federation of Technical-Scientific Associations e.V. and the coal and steel industry.

In 1961, the Saalfeld Hospital (today Thuringia Clinics) named itself “Georgius Agricola”.

The university library of the TU Bergakademie Freiberg was named after Georg Agricola in 1980. There is also an Agricolastraße in Freiberg. Since 1995, the University of Applied Sciences Mining in Bochum has borne the name Technical University Georg Agricola. A street in Zeitz is also named after him, as is the municipal hospital (now SRH Klinikum Zeitz) until the end of March 2020. A student fraternity based in Aachen and Clausthal-Zellerfeld gave itself the name Academic Association Agricola Schlägel und Eisen in 1948 and later changed it to Agricola Academic Association. The West Saxon University of Zwickau has a Georgius Agricola building. There are Georgius Agricola high schools in Glauchau and Chemnitz, as well as in Hohenmölsen (Saxony-Anhalt). In the cities of Chemnitz, Clausthal-Zellerfeld, Glauchau, Schneeberg and Zwickau, streets and the Glauchau municipal library are named after him.

The asteroid of the inner main belt (3212) Agricola is named after him.


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