The 16th-Century Scholar and the American President’s Wife

Georgius Agricola is considered the founder of geology.  Born in Saxony, Agricola studied classics at Leipzig University, taught Latin and Greek, and, in 1522, began to study medicine.  He became a practicing doctor in 1527 at Joachimsthal, a center of silver mining.

Agricola’s geological writings reflect an immense amount of study and first-hand observation, not just of rocks and minerals, but of every aspect of mining technology and practice.  His greatest work, De Re Metallica, means “On the Nature of Metals,” but the word metal includes any mineral. In this book, which remained the standard text on mining for two centuries, Agricola reviewed everything known about mining, including ores and strata, equipment and machinery, means of finding ores — he rejected the use of divining-rods and other magical means — methods of surveying and digging, assaying ores, smelting, mine administration, and occupational diseases of miners.

Agricola made fundamental contributions to mining geology and metallurgy, mineralogy, structural geology, and paleontology. He noted that rocks were laid down in definite layers, or strata, and that these layers occurred in a consistent order and could be traced over a wide area.  His work paved the way for further systematic study of the Earth and its rocks, minerals, and fossils. He died in 1555, one year before the posthumous publication of De Re Metallica.

In 1905, Lou Henry Hoover, an American woman who had studied geology at Stanford University, found a copy of De Re Metallica in London.  When she learned that it had never been translated into English, she used her knowledge of Latin and geology to work on a translation.  Her partner in this project was her husband, an experienced mining engineer named Herbert Hoover, later president of the United States.  The Hoovers worked with great care for five years, utilizing their knowledge of mining, and geology, and expanding their knowledge of Latin and medieval units of measure.  Herbert Hoover performed laboratory experiments to verify Agricola’s information.

Illustrated with Agricola’s 289 original woodcuts, the book shows how mining was done and a great deal about life in the early 16th century.  The Hoovers’ work still stands as the best and most scholarly study of Agricola’s own careful scholarship.  It remains in print.

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Biographical information on Agricola from the University of California Museum of Paleontology.

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Published in: on January 11, 2012 at 5:44 am  Comments (2)  
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