Father of Mineralogy
Agricola was born Georg Bauer on March 24, 1494, in Clauchau, Germany. As was typical for scholars at that time, he later latinized his German name, which means farmer, to Agricola.
Little is known of his early life. He attended the University of Leipzig from 1514 to 1518, where he focused on the classics and philosophy. In 1523 he went to Italy, where he studied medicine and natural sciences at the universities in Bologna and Padua. Agricola moved to Venice where he completed his medical training and helped to edit a popular edition of writings by the ancient Roman physician GALEN.
For much of his remaining life, Agricola practiced medicine; Mineralogy would become an avocation that occupied much of his leisure time. In 1526 he returned to Germany and took up a medical practice in the town of Joachimsthal. The town was situated in a mining region, which offered Agricola opportunities to explore the mineral resources and smelting practices in hopes of finding new drug treatments. This work led Agricola to a rigorous study of mineralogy, on which he wrote prolifically. Over a period of 20 years, Agricola wrote a comprehensive survey of mining and metallurgy, On Metallurgy (published posthumously in 1556); it covered historical, scientific, and technical aspects of the subject, and was filled with attractive and instructive woodcuts. In the book Agricola also used his medical expertise to describe miners’ diseases and prescribe the use of protective gear for them.
Agricola moved to Chemnitz in 1533, set up his medical practice, and stayed there for the rest of his life. While in Chemnitz, he participated in politics under the sponsorship of Duke Maurice of Saxony. The Duke appointed him mayor in 1546 and his diplomatic representative to Charles V, head of the Holy Roman Empire, which ruled much of Europe during Agricola’s life.
His most important book, On the Nature of Fossils (the word used at that time for any material taken from the ground), published in 1546, presents a classification system in which he categorized minerals according to “color, taste, odor, place of origin, natural strength and weakness, shape, form, and size.” He also differentiated simple elements from compound substances, a notable contusion given the rudimentary state of chemistry at the time.
Agricola developed his classification system through direct observation and analysis. This methodology contrasted with the mode of scientific inquiry typical at the time, which, inherited from classical philosophers, was based more on informed speculation.
Agricola died on November 21, 1555, in Chemnitz, Germany.
Georgius Agricola’s Legacy
Agricola’s investigations into the mineral composition of Earth formed the basis for the development of mineralogy. His investigative method avoided the mysticism and alchemy popular at the tune; his reliance on direct evidence was a precursor to the scientific methodology that would later be advocated by philosopher Francis Bacon in the early seventeenth century.
Agricola’s codification of minerals offered a body of knowledge for future mineralogists and geologists to build on. His On the Nature of Fossils was a standard reference on rocks and minerals used for over two centuries. Not until the end of the eighteenth century—following the development of chemical analysis, which lent its tools to mineralogy—would strides be made beyond Agricola’s classification system. During the late 1700s Abraham Werner of Germany, RenéJust Haüy of France, and William Babington of England each prepared classification plans based on the chemical composition of minerals. Such chemical systems of categorization were later refined and contemporary mineralogists have a wide variety of methods at their disposal including isotopic analysis and Xray diffraction.
Agricola’s On Metallurgy was also used as a standard reference on mining practices, problems, and tools for the next two centuries. His advocacy of protective gear helped to improve miners’ health in his district. Other problems highlighted by Agricola were solved by future inventors. For instance, the problem of flooding in mines was first addressed in 1698 by Thomas Savery who invented a steampowered pump to help keep mine shafts dry.
Agricola was one of the first physicians to recognize occupational hazards and diseases, in particular those suffered by miners, and to draw attention to the human costs of economic activity. Today occupational medicine is a respected specialty and mining’s effects on people and the environment are no longer ignored.
Georgius Agricola – 1494-1555