Agricola Quincentennial

by Richard Busch

Lithosphere (December 1994); Fallbrook Gem and Mineral Society, Inc.; Fallbrook, CA

Georgius Agricola was born 500 years ago, in 1494, in Saxony. His real name was Georg Bauer, but following the custom of the time, it was Latinized to "Georgius Agricola" early in his youth. A contemporary of Copernicus, Martin Luther, Leonardo da Vinci, and Christopher Columbus, Agricola is regarded as the "father" of mineralogy.

Initially educated at the University of Leipzig where he taught Greek and Latin, Agricola subsequently continued his education at the Universities of Bologna, Venice, and Padua where he studied philosophy, medicine, and the natural sciences. In 1527, he accepted a job as town physician in Joachimsthal, a mining boomtown, located in Bohemia. As recorded in one of Agricola's own works, the time he did not spend in the practice of medicine was devoted to the study and exploration of everything he could find that dealt with mining.

In 1530, Agricola left Joachimsthal. He spent the next three years traveling and studying mines. He settled in Chemnitz, Saxony, in 1533, where he again assumed a position of city physician. In 1546, he was appointed Burgermeister of Chemnitz. During this time he was frequently consulted on matters related to mining engineering. It was also during this time that Agricola devoted himself to setting down on paper what he had learned.

Agricola was a prolific writer in many disciplines, but is especially respected for his numerous books on mining and other topics dealing with the earth sciences. One of his earliest books on mining and mineralogy, Bermannus (1530), was based upon information obtained from his conversations with the "learned miner" Lorenz Berman during his time at Joachimsthal.

In 1546, four of Agricola's multi-part books on mining and natural science were published. They were De Ortu et Causís Subterraneorum, one of the first works on physical geology; De Natura Eorum quae Effluunt ex Terra, which dealt with subterranean waters and gasses; De Veteribus et Novís Metallís, which was devoted to the history of metals and topographical mineralogy; and De Natura Fossílíum, the first book which attempted to cover mineralogy in a systematic fashion.

In De Natura Fossílíum, Agricola described and categorized about eighty minerals in terms of their physical properties -- color, brilliance, taste, shape, hardness, solubility, fusibility, etc. Agricola classified minerals into one of five categories based upon their physical properties: "earths" such as clay and chalk; gems and precious stones; "solidified juices" such as salt, alum, orpiment, and sulfur; metals; and "compounds" such as pyrite and galena. Today, these classifications seem almost simple minded, but we must remember that Agricola was working 450 years ago -- before the advent of the atomic theory of matter. In reality De Natura Fossílíum was a remarkable achievement.

Agricola's most well-known work was published in 1556, one year after his death. De Re Metallica, Agricola's magnum opus, describes in detail the mining methods, smelting and metallurgical processes, geology, mineralogy, and mining law of the day. It is comprised of twelve "books" which cover topics ranging from the philosophy of mining and the qualities of a good miner to the arts of exploration, mining, assaying, and smelting. The volume includes a very large number of block prints which illustrate the concepts described therein. Twenty years in the writing, De Re Metallica remains today an important historical and scientific document. In the translator's preface to the English edition of the book it is stated, "we must emphasize that Agricola was infinitely clearer in his style than his contemporaries upon such subjects, or for that matter than his successors in almost any language for a couple of centuries." Indeed, it was not until 1738 that De Re Metallica was surpassed by Schlüter's book on metallurgy. In the interim, De Re Metallica was reprinted in three languages and ten editions.

As was the custom for scientific literature produced during his time, Agricola wrote and published his works in Latin instead of his native German. Doing so apparently strained the resources not only of the writer but of readers and translators as well. In the sixteenth century, as it is today, Latin was pretty much of a dead language. Many of the concepts that Agricola attempted to describe in his works defied simple description. Latin just did not have the words to express his ideas. As a result, Agricola was forced to invent a large number of Latin terms to convey his thoughts. The use of non-standard Latin expressions rendered his works impervious to casual translation.

The first successful translation of De Re Metallica into English was performed by American mining engineer and subsequent President of the United States Herbert Clark Hoover and his wife Lou Henry Hoover. The translation was done in a day when Presidents were chosen for their previous positive contributions to society rather than for their media appeal and political chicanery. The translation was originally published in The Mining Magazine, London, in 1912. A subsequent edition was published in the United States, in 1950, by Dover Publications.

As sometimes happens to great scientists and natural historians, Agricola was largely forgotten in his country after his death. Neither the cities of his birth, residences, nor interment have ever demonstrated any recognition, much less appreciation, of his contributions to science and engineering. It is speculated that this ignoble treatment was a result of the religious climate of sixteenth-century Europe coupled with Agricola's open contempt of religion. It would seem that Agricola was superseded by politics after all.


Adams, Frank D.;
The Birth and Development of the Geological Sciences; Dover Publications, Inc.; 1954.

Hoover, Herbert Clark and Hoover, Lou Henry;
De Re Metallica; English translation; Dover Publications, Inc.; 1950.

Copyright © 1994 by Fallbrook Gem and Mineral Society, Inc.

The preceding article was originally published in the December 1994 issue of Lithosphere, the official bulletin of the Fallbrook [California] Gem and Mineral Society, Inc; Richard Busch (Editor).

Permission to reproduce and distribute this material, in whole or in part, for non-commercial purposes, is hereby granted provided the sense or meaning of the material is not changed and the author's notice of copyright is retained.

Last updated: 18 September 2002