Georg Agricola, a German humanist and classicist, was best known for his contributions to earth sciences. This friend of Desiderius Erasmus* advanced contemporary knowledge of mining, metallurgy, and geology, in part by re­claiming some lost knowledge of classical authors, but more importantly by relying upon observation and experimentation and rejecting the erroneous the­ories of ancient authorities, thereby earning the title "the father of mineralogy."
Born in Saxony, Agricola attended various schools before entering the Uni­versity of Leipzig, where he studied classics and philosophy. He taught classics briefly and published a short treatise on humanistic pedagogy before returning to the university to study medicine. However, due to theological disputes at Leipzig, the Catholic Agricola moved to Italy in 1523 to study medicine, natural science, and philosophy at Bologna, Padua, and Venice. He worked for three years helping to edit the works of Galen and Hippocrates, while also developing interests in politics and economics.
He returned to Germany and worked as a physician and apothecary in the busiest mining district of central Europe, where he sought to discover new me­dicinal uses for ores and minerals. Here he began writing about various aspects of mining and metallurgy, ranging from the occupational hazards of mining and smelting to the equipment, practices, and labor conditions prevalent in the re­gion. He even wrote about the care of animals used in mining. With the aid of a letter of recommendation from Erasmus, Agricola became an established au­thor, writing on subjects from politics to natural science. Furthermore, thanks to his knowledge of minerals and geology, he grew wealthy from his shares in mining operations, and his prosperity afforded him the opportunity to write extensively on the principles of geology and mineralogy. Aside from one speech in favor of German religious and political unity against the Turks, Agricola maintained a relatively low political profile during the religious wars of the period, though he did serve as one of the few Catholic representatives to the Protestant court of the duke of Saxony.
His contributions include De re metallica (On Metallurgy, 1556), which ranges from ancient history of mining, sociology and labor relations, surveying, engineering, smelting, and even glass making to what we would now call meta­llurgy and geology. His most scientific contributions occur in De natura fossi-lium (On the Nature of Minerals, 1546), in which Agricola classifies minerals according to their physical form, as chemistry had not yet advanced to a point that would allow for chemical classification of minerals. He may have been the first to differentiate between elements and compounds and is credited with having been one of the first to apply the experimental approach to the natural sciences. Also, he helped to undermine the previously unquestioned authority of the ancient writers on earth science by regularly debunking their claims about minerals that clashed with his own careful observations.
O. Hannaway, "Georgius Agricolus as Humanist," Journal ofthe History ofIdeas 53 (1992): 553-60.
Tim McGee

Renaissance and Reformation 1500-1620: A Biographical Dictionary. . 2001.

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