Georgius Agricola

History of Geology
James S. Aber

Born: Georg Bauer, 24 Mar. 1494, Glauchau, Saxony.
Died: 1555 at Chemnitz.

Table of Contents
Abstract Introduction
Major works Later life
Historical assessment Related websites


Agricola, who is often refered to as the "father of mineralogy," was born and spent most of his life in Saxony, which is now part of eastern Germany and the Czech Republic. Although little is known of his youth, he received a B.A. degree from the University of Leipzig and briefly taught school a Zwickau. He subsequently studied medicine and natural history in northern Italy, where he became freinds with some of Europe's foremost naturalists and humanists. On his return to Saxony in 1526, where he held the position of town physician first at Joachimsthal (now Jachymov, Czech) and later at Chemnitz (now in Germany), he developed a life-long interest in mining and mineralogy. By his own account, he spent all of his spare time examing the mines and mineral deposits of the region.

Agricola's two greatest works are De Natura Fossilium (1546) and De Re Metallica (published posthumously in 1556). The first established his claim as the father of mineralogy and included a classification of minerals (then called fossils) based on geometric form. The second was a comprehensive summary of all aspects of mining and metal production. These and all his other works were written in Latin as was customary for his time. Agricola remained steadfastly Catholic, in spite of rampant Protestant militancy in the German states, and late in life he enjoyed a diplomatic career. He was highly regarded by his contemporaries, and his scientific accomplishments have stood the test of time well.

Introduction and early life

Agricola was born on the threshold of European Renaissance. Gutenberg's first book had been printed 40 years before. Columbus had just returned from America. Luther, who began the Reformation, was born just one year before. It was a period of exploration and rediscovery of learning. Italian universities were the center for science, medicine and philosophy. Agricola, who is often called the father of mineralogy, was highly educated and well regarded in his own time and later. He was among the first to found a natural science based observation and field experience, as opposed to mere speculation.

Almost nothing is known about his birth or youth. The family name "Bauer" means peasant. In 1514-18 he attended the University of Leipzig and received a B.A. degree in classics and philosophy. From 1518-22 he taught Latin and Greek at Zwickau school and became the principal. He then returned to Leipzig, where the university was in disarray over religious quarrels. In 1523-25 he studied in Italy—Bologna, Padua (?) and Venice. Subjects included clinical medicine, natural science and philosophy. While in Italy, he became a good friend of Erasmus (the humanist) and became familiar with More's book on Utopia. The latter inspired him to study science.

Agricola returned to Saxony in 1526, where he was town physician of Joachimsthal (now Jáchymov in the Czech Republic). This location was in the booming mining district of Bohemia, a Paleozoic massif in central Europe. The town was only 11 years old with several 1000 inhabitants. Silver gave the local towns considerable political autonomy from central government. Freiberg, which was later home to Werner, was only 50 miles away. This was the richest metal mining district in Europe and was dominated by German miners.

Major Works

By his own account, Agricola devoted all his spare time to mines. He initially hoped to discover new medical drugs from mine ores. His first publication, Bergmannus (1530), was a brief introduction to mining and mineralogy in the form of a dialog between an experienced miner and two philosophers. Loren Bergman was his principal informant. In 1530, Agricola resigned his position to travel and observe for a couple of years. In 1533, he took a similar position as town physician in Chemnitz. He enjoyed ordinary success as a physician. He made many references to occupational diseases of miners, he introduced the practice of quarantine to Germany, and followed his own observation rather than medical dogma in treatment of patients. His two greatest geological works deal with mineralogy and mining.

These and several other books were written in Latin, as was typical of the time. This proved difficult, as German mining terminology did not exist in Latin, which made Agricola's books hard to read even by contemporary colleagues. Only these two works were translated into English, and no English biography has been published. De Re Metallica was translated in 1912 by Herbert Hoover (later 31st President of the U.S.) and his wife Lou Henry. Hoover was an authority on mining and metallurgy, and his wife was an accomplished geologist. The translation took five years and required much experimentation to clarify uncertain points (Takacs 2000). In 1955, the East German Academy of Science published a special volume on Agricola to celebrate the 400th anniversary of his death.

Agricola's Later Life

Agricola was married (perhaps twice) and had several children, although none of his descendents have been traced more than two generations. He never accepted the Reformation; he remained steadfastly Catholic. Politics, complicated by religion of the time, were complex, but he always seemed to find favor and support from local authorities. Protestant militancy was rampant in the German states and was exploited by outside powers (France and England).

Late in his life, he enjoyed a diplomatic career. He was first appointed burgomaster (mayor) of Chemnitz in 1546, a post he held for some time. He also was appointed as emissary in negotiations between Protestant German states and the Holy Roman Emperor. Perhaps being a Catholic was deemed desirable for such a mission. Religious tolerance, from which Agricola had benefited during most of his lifetime, deteriorated with a series of religious wars toward the end of his life.

Historical Assessment

There is no doubt Agricola played a major role in early Renaissance scientific development in Europe. His work was highly regarded by contemporaries, and his accomplishments have stood the test of time well. His work was a strong influence on later geologists.

Related Websites


Return to history of geology syllabus or schedule.
© J.S. Aber (2017).