Georgius Agricola - Life and Work

Life and Work

Gifted with a precocious intellect, Georg early threw himself into the pursuit of the "new learning", with such effect that at the age of 20, 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 two 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. After the death of Mosellanus, 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, (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 Mensuis 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. 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.

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