Midwifery in the evolution of science

In the history of science there are some well known cases of scholars who acted as midwives for more prominent colleges helping or even leading them to present their epoch making work to the general public. The most famous case is probably Edmund Halley who not only posed the question that provoked Newton to write his Principia but saw the book through the press, even paying the publishing cost out of his own pocket because the Royal Society had notoriously spent all of its funds publishing a book on fish. Another scientific midwife in the Early Modern Period was Georg Joachim Rheticus who was born on 16th February 1514. It was the young Rheticus who travelled to Frombork in Ermland and persuaded Copernicus to publish his De revolutionibus and took the manuscript personally to the printer publisher Johannes Petrejus in Nürnberg, although he didn’t stay to see it through the press.

Born Georg Joachim Iserin in the town of Feldkirch in Austria his father, also Georg, was the town medicus and his mother Thomassina de Porris was a minor Italian aristocrat. However despite his privileged birth his childhood was anything but smooth. As he was only fourteen years old his father was found guilty of stealing from his patients and sentence to death. As part of his sentence his name was banned in perpetuity and Georg Joachim Iserin became Georg Joachim de Porris. Georg Joachim was lucky in that he found the support and friendship of Achilles Pirmin Gasser his father’s successor as town medicus. Gasser arranged for the youth to attend school in Zurich where he sat on the school bench next to Conrad Gessner who would go on to become one of the leading naturalists of the age and remained a friend for life. In 1531 Gasser sent him to his own alma mater Luther’s university in Wittenberg. Here his talent for mathematics was recognised and supported by Phillip Melanchthon. As he graduated MA in 1536 Melanchthon appointed him professor for the lower mathematics. It was during his time as a student in Wittenberg that he adopted the toponym Rheticus based on the name of the Roman province containing Feldkirch, Rhaetia.

In 1538 Rheticus took leave of absence from the university to go on an extended study tour of Southern Germany. Such tours were common practice on the mediaeval university and he went with the support of and letters of introduction from Melanchthon. The first station on his journey was Nürnberg where he studied astrology with Johannes Schöner the professor of mathematics at the local gymnasium and a good friend of Melanchthon. Here he got to know Nürnberg’s comparatively large mathematical community including Johannes Petrejus the leading European publisher of mathematical texts. After several months in Nürnberg he moved on to Tübingen and the rector of the university there, Joachim Camerarius the Elder, Melanchthon’s close friend and later biographer. Camerarius had been rector of the gymnasium in Nürnberg before being appointed rector in Tübingen and was a close friend of both Petrejus, for whom he had worked as an editor, and Schöner.  Rheticus also had a letter of introduction to Peter Apian in Ingolstadt but it is doubtful whether he ever went there.

Sometime in his travels Rheticus heard of an astronomer in Ermland who had supposedly developed a completely new system of the world. Curious to discover what this man had to offer Rheticus decided to go and seek him out. After a visit to Gasser in Feldkirch he set off on the long journey to Frombork. The Ermlander astronomer was of course Copernicus who was already sixty-six years old as the young Wittenberg professor arrived at his door in 1539. Rheticus spent most of the next two years persuading the older man to revise and prepare his manuscript for publication and to allow him to take the manuscript to Pertrejus in Nürnberg to be printed. In 1540 Rheticus published his own account of Copernicus’ work the Narratio prima (first report) in the form of an open letter addressed to Johannes Schöner. In 1541 he published, as a separate work, a revised version of the trigonometry sections of De revolutionibus. In 1542 he finally brought Copernicus’ manuscript to Petrejus’ workshop in Nürnberg and the process of printing could begin. Rheticus had intended to see the work through the press himself but Melanchthon demanded that he take up his new position as professor of mathematics in Leipzig where Camerarius was now rector. Andreas Osiander took over the job of editing Copernicus’ manuscript with consequences that would echo down the centuries.

Rheticus’ work as midwife was over and his life would lead him along a complex and at times sad path, which I will deal with another time. Without Rheticus’ intervention Copernicus’ legendary book might never have seen the light of day so he deserves to have a higher profile in the history of science than he does.



Filed under Early Scientific Publishing, History of Astronomy, History of Mathematics

14 responses to “Midwifery in the evolution of science

  1. Pingback: Midwifery in the evolution of science | Whewell's Ghost

  2. Pingback: The other professor of mathematics at Wittenberg. | The Renaissance Mathematicus

  3. Pingback: The other professor of mathematics at Wittenberg | Whewell's Ghost

  4. While Osiander’s “mathematical hypothesis” interpretation of Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus is well known, would Rheticus have done anything different? The idea that such systems were “just” mathematical was widespread and went back at least to the Baghdad school of Ptolemaists. In fact it is likely that acceptance of Copernicus was improved rather than retarded by this non-realist interpretation. What say you?

    • Certainly, in my opinion Osiander did Copernicus a favour. Koestler goes so far as to say that Copernicus knew of Osiander’s intentions and accepted them.

      Rheticus’ story is rather peculiar because later he seems to have abandoned Copernicus and gone off on a strange astrological tangent.

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