Agricola’s De re metallica: an early description of industrial diseases

Painting of Georgius Agricola
The “Father of Mineralogy,” Georgius Agricola. Via Wikimedia.

Georg Bauer was born in Saxony in 1494 and went by the name of Georgius Agricola because in his time academicians often latinized their name, so that Bauer in German translated into Agricola, meaning peasant or farmer. He was a medical practitioner in a small mining town but also a serious academic who developed an interest in mining and metallurgy. He was well-regarded by his learned contemporaries.

His De re metallica, published posthumously in Basel in 1556, was the first full account of techniques of mining, separation, and purification of metals. To make his descriptions clear, Agricola made several hundred high-quality woodcuts that were compared favorably with those of Hans Holbein the Younger. He described the management of mines and the metallurgical processes involved in preparing the ores for smelting, assaying the metal content, and often refining it.

The book also contained the first description of the industrial diseases of miners and of ways of reducing exposure to them. Agricola detailed the diseases of miners that affected the joints, the lungs, and the eyes, diseases that were often fatal. He discussed the accidents of miners and how to prevent them. He was clear about the necessity for adequate ventilation and devoted many pages and illustrations to “ventilating machines,” needed because stagnant air in a shaft and or in a tunnel caused breathing difficulties.

Commenting on the lung disease produced by dust, Agricola explained that dust stirred up by digging penetrates into the windpipe and lungs, causing the disease “which the Greeks call asthma.” He mentioned some types of toxic metallic dust that “eat away the lungs and implants consumption in the body . . . women are found who have married seven husbands, all of whom this terrible consumption has carried off to a premature death.” He also warned that protective boots and gloves must be worn in mines where toxic arsenical or cobalt ores were mined; and he found the processes of smelting, refining, and assaying ores also hazardous. He mentioned that workers were aware of these risks, some protecting their eyes from radiant heat by looking at the crucible in the furnace through a narrow slit in a wooden board.

De re metallica gives the most detailed account that exists of contemporary mining and metallurgical technology in renaissance Europe. It remained the standard reference for more than two centuries.

Abstracted from IML Donaldson, J R Coll Physicians Edinb 2015; 45: 180 and 248. © 2015 RCPE

 


 

GEORGE DUNEA, MD, Editor-in-Chief

 

 

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