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Georgius Agricola
(1494-1555)

Georg Bauer was born in Glauchau, Saxony on March 24, 1494. Details of his parentage and early life are unknown, but he entered the University of Leipzig at the age of 20, and earned his B.A. degree in 1518. He became Vice Principal of the Municipal School at Zwickau, where he taught Greek and Latin, and two years later was promoted to Principal. In 1522 he moved to Leipzig, taking a position at the university. For his publications he Latinized his name to Georgius Agricola ("bauer" means "farmer" in German; "agricola" means "farmer" in Latin).

In 1526 Agricola returned to Zwickau, and shortly thereafter accepted the post of city physician in the mining town of St. Joachimsthal, Bohemia. Six years later he accepted a similar position in the mining town of Chemnitz, and remained there until his death on November 21, 1555.

Agricola published a little book entitled Bermannus in 1530. It is a dialog on mining in which an expert miner conducts two novice friends through several mines and they discuss minerals and mining. The teaching is carried forward in the traditional way: illustrated in the mine by specimens in place. However, at the end it appears they have been collecting along the way, because one of them (Johannes Naevius, 1499-1574, a German physician and friend of Agricola) says to his servant:

"You there boy! Don't lose what I have handed you to take along; keep good watch! I want to examine these things more thoroughly at home, and in great composure." (Translation from Paul, 1970)

This is perhaps the first written reference to mineral collecting in the modern sense. Naevius also speaks of having an interesting specimen of chalcanthite at home (although perhaps for medicinal reasons).

In 1546 Agricola published two groundbreaking works: De ortu et causis subterraneorum ("The origin and causes of inanimate subterranean materials") and De natura fossilium ("The nature of minerals"). In the latter he classifies minerals on the basis of their physical properties, using criteria such as color, density, transparency, luster, taste, odor, shape and texture. Consequently Agricola is known as the "Father of Mineralogy." The stimulus which his works gave to men interested in natural history seems to have started the whole notion of personally collecting and studying minerals, giving a solid intellectual framework for others to work in, modify, and build upon.

Agricola is thought to have begun collecting minerals of reputed medicinal value as early as 1524-1526 when he visited Venice. In a German-Latin mining dictionary (known as the Meurer-brief) which Agricola prepared in 1546, he actually mentions the names of many men who supplied him with mineral specimens from distant countries and cities. Among them was Wolfgang Meurer (1513-1583), to whom the dictionary is dedicated; he sent specimens from his hometown of Altenberg in Saxony. Georg Fabricius (1516-1571) sent Agricola specimens while traveling in Italy, and Paul Eber (1511-1569) sent ore specimens from Eisleben. In ,i>De natura fossilium Agricola says: "I have attempted to discuss those minerals not found in Germany but in other parts of Europe and certain parts of Asia and Africa. In the discussion of these minerals, learned men, traders and miners have been of great assistance to me."

The bulk of Agricola's collection probably came from the rich silver mines at St. Joachimsthal, but in his dedication in De natura fossilium he also mentions Meissen, Sangerhausen, Freiberg, Geyer, Schneeberg, Annaberg, Marienberg, Albertham, Harz, Lauterberg, and the Jura Mountains in France. He eventually developed a strong scientific interest in the specimens, although we cannot say precisely when his collection passed from being a mere pharmaceutical stockpile to a true object of study in its own right. He added specimens at every opportunity during his travels, and corresponded widely with friends who supplied him with rare minerals. Agricola became a wealthy man and may well have obtained very expensive and valuable specimens. Unfortunately his collection has not survived, nor has any description of it. But judging from the scope of his original work, and the many first-person descriptions of mineral properties, it must have been extensive.


Reference:
WILSON, W.E. (1994) The history of mineral collecting 1530-1799. Mineralogical Record, 25 (6), 243 pp.
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The Mineralogical Record - Georgius Agricola
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