February 2008


Migration and movement of scholars

By F. Habashi

A study in the history of diffusion of knowledge: Part 1


Students seeking education, experts seeking employment, and scholars seeking knowledge have been moving from one laboratory to another, from one university to another and from one country to another since ancient times. In addition, persecution of a minority usually results in migration of those persecuted, bringing with them their knowledge and experience to the new host country. Wars and revolutions are other factors that contribute to the displacement of people from their devastated home countries to settle in peace somewhere else. An oppressive regime also forces dissatisfied scientists to emigrate.

Christian missions, in particular the Jesuits, were among the first organized groups devoted to spreading education. They opened schools in the New World, in the Far East and in Africa. An enlightened ruler may have invited experts in certain fields to introduce new knowledge in his country, or sent students abroad to acquire certain expertise. Chemists, geologists, metallurgists and mining engineers were actively travelling to visit important mining districts to get first-hand information about the exploitation of mineral deposits. Travellers published books describing their experiences, which became important historic documents. Conferences were held from time to time to bring scientists together to discuss problems of mutual interest. All these movements were important factors that contributed to the diffusion of knowledge. A few examples of historical interest are given to illustrate some of these points.

Alexandria: host to scholars

Perhaps the city that attracted the most eminent scholars in the ancient world was Alexandria, founded by Alexander the Great in 332 BC. After his death, one of his generals, Ptolemy (367-283 BC) was made king of Egypt, Alexandria was made the capital and the new Greek state became a foremost place among the countries of the world. Never before had Egypt been so prosperous and Ptolemy, who became known as Soter (i.e. the Savior), was a strong and a wise sovereign. He invited many Greek scholars to come to Egypt and he started an immense library of manuscripts. Commerce flourished and Alexandria became the centre of intellectual and literary life of the world.

His son, Ptolemy II, established a museum, which became an important learning institution. He expanded the library by purchasing and copying books from around the world. Alexandria became the largest city in the world, where famous Greek scholars lived and worked. Among these was the astronomer Eratosthenes (275-194 BC), who measured the radius of the Earth, and the astronomer Claudius Ptolemy (90 BC-AD 168), who suggested that the Earth was the centre of the universe. The famous mathematician Euclid (330-275 BC) taught at the museum. Archemides (287-212 BC), the mathematician from Syracuse in Sicily, and Galen (AD 130-200), the physician from Pergamum in Asia Minor, both studied in Alexandria. The Greek geographer Strabo (63 BC-AD 21) spent many years in Alexandria.

Movement of Moslem scholars

After the death of the prophet Mohammed in AD 632, the new religion spread very rapidly. The Moslem world extended from Maghrib in North Africa to Central Asia. Moslem scholars travelled widely in these regions, and wrote and translated important works. For example, Abu Reihan Muhammed Ibn Ahmed Al Biruni (973–1048) born in Khwarizm (now Khiva in Uzbekistan), travelled throughout India where he taught Greek sciences. He learned Hindi and Sanskrit, translated several works from Sanskrit into Arabic and transmitted Moslem knowledge to the Hindus. He determined the specific gravity of a number of precious stones and metals, solved problems in mathematics and authored books on history, astronomy and materia medica (Kitab Al Saydala).

Abu Ali Ibn Sina (980–1036), also known as Avi­cenna, was born near Bokhara in Uzbekistan, became a famous physician and joined the court of the Samanid emperor. After the collapse of the empire, he left to Khwarizm where he com­posed his masterpiece on medicine, The Canon, and other books. He then travelled to Hamadan in Persia where he was appointed first minister. His work embraced the entire domain of science and all the knowledge of his time. He doubted the possibility of transmutation of base metals into gold and wrote on alchemy. His works on the physical and natural sciences are numer­ous. About one hundred of his books have been translated by Euro­peans since the 12th century and were used in European universities until the 18th century.

Abu Mohammed Abdallah Ibn Ahmed Ibn Al Baytar Dhiya Al Din Al Malaqi (1188?–1248) was one of the greatest scientists of Moslem Spain and was the greatest botanist and phar­macist of the Middle Ages. He was born in Malaqa (Málaga), and studied and collected plants in and around Spain. In 1219, he left Spain on a plant-collecting expedition and travelled along the northern coast of Africa as far as Asia Minor. After 1224, he entered the service of Al Kamil, the Egyptian governor, and was appointed chief herbalist. In 1227, Al Kamil extended his domination to Damascus and Ibn Al-Baytar accompanied him there. His research on plants then extended to Syria, Arabia and Palestine. He died in Damascus. He authored Kitab Al Jami fi Al Adwiya Al Mufrada, one of the greatest botanical compilations dealing with medical plants in Arabic. Kitab Al Mughni fi Al Adwiya Al Mufrada is an encyclopedia of medicine. The drugs are listed in accordance with their thera­peutic value.


Migrations in the Middle Ages

In the 16th and 17th centuries, the following four European personalities dominated metallurgical thought. They travelled extensively and wrote important works in Italian, Latin, German and Spanish.

Vannoccio Biringuccio (1480–1539), a master craftsman in the practices of smelting and metalworking, received his training in the craftsman shops in his native Siena, Italy, where the industrial arts flourished alongside the fine arts. He travelled widely through the Italian and German states during his early years. He wrote Pirotechnia in Italian, which was published one year after his death, the first book dealing with the applied metal arts and the processes of ore reduc­tion. Biringuccio sought to describe the techniques that have been in the course of development since the Bronze Age of western civiliza­tion.

Georgius Agricola (1494–1555) was born in Saxony and trained as a medical doctor in Padua, Italy. He became interested in mining and metallurgy when he was appointed as a town physician at Joachimsthal in Bohemia (now Jachimov in the Czech Republic). He was the first to make a thor­ough study of mining, minerals and metallurgy, and his books were vastly used and widely translated for over two centuries. His contributions were of great signifi­cance because he was the first to document the state-of-the-art of his day.

Lazarus Ercker (1530–1594) was also born in Saxony. After studying mathe­matics and natural sciences at the University of Wittenberg, the Saxon elector appointed him assay mas­ter at Dresden. In 1569, he moved to Prague, the capital of the Holy Roman Empire, where he was appointed court assayer at the Kutna Hora mint. He wrote his famous Beschreibung allerfürnemis­ten mineralischen Erz-und Berckwercksarten in 1574, which can be translated as Treatise Describing the Foremost Kinds of Metallic Ores and Minerals, a key treatise on mining and metallurgy. He became chief inspector of mines in 1583.

Álvaro Alonso Barba (1569–1662) was born in the province of Huelva, Spain. At the age of 16, he went to the Spanish Colony of Real Audiencia de Charcas, which com­prised most of the present-day Bolivia. There he spent more than 70 years of his life as a priest. He visited different mines in the colonies and in 1590 developed the hot amalgamation process for sil­ver refining introduced earlier by Spanish technicians. In 1640 in Madrid, he published his book Arte de los Metales; the translation of the full title would be The Art of Metals in which is Taught the True Beneficiation of Gold and Silver with Mercury, the Mode of Smelting them and how they are to be Refined and Separated One from Another. The book was devoted to ores, amalgamation, smelt­ing, refining and parting of metals, and was translated into English, German and French.

Another wandering scholar belonging to this period was Philippus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim (1493-1541), known as Paracelsus. He founded what became known as iatrochemistry or, in modern terms, chemotherapy. Paracelsus was born in Einsiedeln, Switzerland. At the age of 16 he was a student at Basel, and in 1527, he was made a lecturer in the Medical Faculty at Basel. He was famous for his marvellous cures and devoted his academic life to the denunciation of conservative practitioners. Within two years, a quarrel with a prominent canon made it necessary for him to quit. From this time, he led a wandering life and finally died at Salzburg. He was a voluminous writer.

In addition to these metallurgists, other distinguished scholars were also on the move. For example, Nicolaus Copernicus (1478-1543), the Pole of German descent, studied in Cracow and then spent a decade in Italy to study medicine and canon law. He discoverd that the Sun is the centre of the solar system — an opinion that was against the teachings of the Catholic Church.1 He also explained the occurrence of the seasons. Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), the Danish astronomer, left his home country in 1597 to live in Prague in Bohemia under the patronage of Rudolf II emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. He was joined by the German mathematician Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) who rediscovered Copernicus’ views.

1 These views were extended further by Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) but were considered heretic and he was burned at the stake. Galileo (1564-1642) was persecuted by the Church for his support of the theory.

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