Thursday, March 05, 2009

Athanasius Kircher S. J.

Athanasius was born in the German Empire in 1601. He entered the Jesuits in 1618, and was ordained in 1628. He was a distinguished and sought-after teacher, scholar, scientist and inventer. Among other things, he attempted to crack Egyptian hieroglyphics and he studied the volcanoes of southern Italy: he was actually lowered into the crater of Vesuvius! The Catholic Encyclopedia states that "It is to his inventive mind that we owe one of the earliest of our counting machines: the speaking-tube and æolian harp were perfected by him. He was also the inventor of the magic lantern which has since been brought to such perfection and is today almost indispensable. ... Even medicine received his attention":
One of the great scientists of the seventeenth century whose name is stamped deeply on the history of science, Father Kircher, the Jesuit, was invited to Rome the very year after Galileo's condemnation, and for thirty years continued to experiment and write in all branches of science, not only with the approbation of his own order, the Jesuits, which helped him in every way by the collection of specimens for his museum, but also with the hearty good will of many cardinals who were his personal friends, and with the constant patronage of the Popes, whose generous liberality enabled him to make Rome the greatest centre of scientific interest during this century. ... interesting phase of Papal interest in science which, though not directly concerned with medicine, eventually resulted in important theoretic advances in medical science. This was the encouragement of Father Kircher's work at Rome. Father Kircher was the Jesuit who made the first scientific museum. As the result of his general interest in things scientific he wrote a little book on the pest. In this book he stated in very clear terms the modern doctrine of the origin of disease from little living things, which he called corpuscles. Because of this Tyndall attributes to Father Kircher the first realization of the rôle that bacteria play in disease. Even more wonderful than this, however, was Father Kircher's anticipation of modern ideas with regard to the conveyance of disease. He insisted that contagious diseases, as a rule, were not carried, as had been thought, by the air, but [239] were conveyed from one person to another, either directly, or by the intermediation of some living thing. He considered that cats and dogs were surely active in conveying diseases, and he even reached the conclusion that insects were also important in this matter. His expressions with regard to this are not of the indefinite character which one often encounters in the supposed anticipation of important principles in medicine, but are very precise and definite. Father Kircher is quoted by Dr. Howard Kelly, of Baltimore, in his life of Major Walter Reed, whose work in showing that yellow fever is transmitted by mosquitoes is well known, as saying in one place, "Flies carry the plague," and in another place, "There can be no doubt that flies feed on the internal secretions of the diseased dying, then flying away they deposit their excretions on the food in neighboring dwellings, and persons who eat it are thus infected." It is interesting to find that the Professor of the Practice of Medicine in the Papal University at Rome when this book was published, far from resenting, as many professors of medicine might, the excursion of an outsider into his science, said Father Kircher's book "not only contains an excellent résumé of all that is known about the pest or plague, but also many valuable hints and suggestions on the regional spread of the disease which had never before been made." He did not hesitate to add that it was marvelous for a man, not educated as a physician, to have reached such surprising conclusions, which seemed worthy of general acceptance. All this, it may be said in passing, was within a few years after the trial of Galileo.
[Walsh, The Popes and Science 18,238-9]

From Fr. Jaki we learn that Kircher had "a truly extraordinary mind" and "made extensive investigations in optics and devoted much attention to the laws underlying the formation of shadows." [The Paradox of Olbers' Paradox 44]

While in Rome Kircher wrote "no less than 44 folio volumes ... Kircher retained throughout his life a deep humility and a childlike piety. In 1629 he had intimated to his general his desire to devoted his life exclusively to the spreading of the Faith in China, but this wish remained unfulfilled, and, to console himself for this disappointment, he erected during his last years a sanctuary (della Mentorella) in honour of the Mother of God on the crest of the Sabine Hill near Rome..." He died in 1680.

More can be found here, from which I excerpted some of the above.


At 07 March, 2009 18:54, Anonymous Paul S. said...

that is amazing! Never heard of these fellows before. thanks for posting these
-Paul S.


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