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Albertus Magnus (c 1200 - 1280)

Albertus Magnus was probably born at the end of the C12th (estimated in 1193 since he was reportedly 87 when he died) in a town named Lauingen which is now located in Bavaria in southern Germany. Although many sources cite Albertus Magnus as the son of the Count of Bollstädt it is likely that this is an error made in the C15th century. There is evidence that Albertus was born into a high-ranking family with the family name of de Groot. In fact, Magnus is the Latin translation of de Groot.

Albertus studied Liberal Arts at the University of Padua in Italy. In the Middle Ages there was no distinction between the different disciplines as we have today. Liberal Arts would have covered almost every field of study - philosophy, theology, astronomy, natural science, physical science and geology, to name but a few. While attending Padua University Albertus became inspired by the writings of the Greek philosopher Aristole and began to study and translate Aristole's writings. In 1223, while still a student at Padua, Albertus joined the newly-founded order of Dominican Friars. This was not to the liking of his family apparently, but it is said that Albertus had been driven towards the Church after experiencing a 'vision' of the Virgin Mary when he was younger.

Albertus continued his studies and also taught in a number of European universities that included Bologna, Cologne and Paris. It was while in Paris in 1245 that Albertus was awarded a PhD. In the same year, he met Thomas Aquinas who became one of his pupils. Albertus was a prolific writer, producing a total of thirty eight volumes during his long lifetime. A great fan of Aristole, Albertus was determined to transcribe the works of the Greek philosopher in a way that would appeal to the students of the day. What made Albertus stand out from other philosophers of his generation and proceeding generations was his use of the experimental method. He was an advocate of observation, description and classification and he used these techniques effectively in his approach to taxonomy, biology and botany. In his Treatise on Minerals (de Mineralibus), Albertus recorded his experiments and noted the properties of each of the mineral samples he studied. These included metals and gemstones.

Before the Enlightenment in the 17th Century, chemists as such did not exist. The approach to chemistry in the Middle Ages was shrouded in philosophy and the alchemists, as they were called, were regarded as magicians. It was believed that base metals could be changed into gold or silver and there were many charlatans who made their living by convincing people that they had the recipe to do so. It is easy to see how alchemists gained their reputations. Mixing or heating certain chemicals together can produce spectacular reactions and often explosions. In fact, many alchemists met their untimely ends through the results of their 'experiments' or lost limbs during their investigations. Alchemists were in search of the 'elixir of life' or the 'philosopher's stone', the formula for immortality. Albertus Magnus does not seem to have given any credence to the transmutation of metals but, after his death, myths sprang up that he had turned lead into gold and that he had discovered the Philosopher's Stone and had passed it on to Thomas Aquinas.

 

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Albertus is, however, credited with isolating the element arsenic as well as studying over one hundred minerals and compiling a list of their properties. His reports show that he used most of the chemical processes we use today, including distillation, sublimation, dissolving and precipitation. His adherence to Aristotelian thinking meant that he favoured the 'four elements' theory - that everything is made up from earth, water, air, and fire. In his book de Mineralibus, Albertus describes mercury as containing 'earth' and 'water', and that sulfur needs to be rid of its 'fire' and 'water' aspects in order to be purified.

In 1248, Albertus was sent to Cologne where he founded the first German university (or, as it was called in those days, the General House of Studies). He seems to have been very committed to Cologne since, no matter where the Church sent him, he always made his way back there. In 1254 he was appointed as Prior Provincial of Teutonia but he resigned in 1257 in order to return to teaching in Cologne. In 1259 Pope Alexandre IV appointed Albertus as Bishop of Regensburg where he stayed until 1262. Albertus's return to Cologne was short-lived since, in 1263, Pope Urban IV appointed him as his legate with the responsibility of promoting the 8th Crusade in Bohemia and Germany. After a tour of lecturing in Germany, Albertus eventually returned to Cologne where he remained until his death on 15th November 1280.

Albertus Magnus, Doctor Universalis, was canonized in 1931 and was given the title of Doctor of the Church (a title only given thirty five times in history). In 1941 he was, quite appropriately, made the patron Saint of Natural Science. He is buried in the Church of Saint Andrew in Cologne.

 

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