Albert the Great and His Scientific Discoveries
By Deirdre Powell
The thirteenth century German-born Dominican, known as Albert the Great even during his lifetime, incurred the wrath of his high-born family when he joined the then recently founded Order of Preachers in 1223. He joined while a student at the University of Padua, and was influenced by Jordan of Saxony, who succeeded Dominic as Master of the Order and whose preaching was remarkably effective in encouraging university students to join the Order.
Over his long life, Albert gave exceptional service as a Dominican, both as a teacher of theology and as an administrator. He founded the house of studies at Cologne, where his pupil Thomas Aquinas was his assistant, and Albert later served as Provincial of Germany. In this post he attended with great care to the needs of Dominican friars in 36 priories, together with many monasteries of Dominican nuns in Germany, Austria, Belgium, Switzerland and the Netherlands. In 1260 he was appointed Bishop of Regensburg, a post he filled for three years. He maintained the simple lifestyle of a mendicant friar, refusing to travel on horseback but walking from place to place – gaining the nickname ‘boots the bishop’. Even in old age he continued to be of service. In 1277 he returned to Paris to defend the works of his pupil Thomas Aquinas, who had died three years earlier, because the then Bishop of Paris was intent on condemning them.
The dominant commitment in Albert’s life was to research, teaching and writing. He wrote on prayer, on the Eucharist, and our Lady, to name three theological subjects, but this article will address principally his output on scientific topics.
As a student in Padua, Albert had encountered the works of Aristotle, and he wrote commentaries on nearly all of Aristotle’s works. He believed that the use of Aristotle’s philosophies would be especially useful in developing the positive Christian vision that understands human life as grace perfecting nature. Aristotle’s view that the study of nature is autonomous in its own domain and worthy of pursuit in its own right fitted well with Albert’s cast of mind and he adopted the Aristotelian approach to the physical world.
During his years in Cologne, Albert’s reputation as a scientist grew, and he undertook experiments in physics and chemistry in his makeshift laboratory. His endeavours included building up a collection of plants, insects, and chemical compounds, and he was also consulted about the design of Cologne’s new cathedral.As a young man, Albert loved the study of the subject that we now call science. He was very observant, particularly with regard to nature, and he always saw, loved and taught the natural in the context of the supernatural.
Albert merited the title of scientist for two main reasons: first, he examined and treated various topics that can be considered as part of the natural sciences, such as botany, zoology and astronomy; second, he had a real scientific temperament because he based his research on observation, incorporating other researchers’ results when sure of their validity, and he never sought to infer more from scientific data than possible. He is considered to be the first scientist from the West and the greatest biologist since Aristotle.
Albert was blessed with acute powers of observation, which he recorded extensively as a result of his travels in different parts of Europe. He appears to have missed nothing that was worth seeing. He recorded details of fish in the River Danube, cattle, deer, birds, forest squirrels and plants. Of particular interest were Albert’s observations on insects because there were no further reports of this type until the seventeenth century.
Albert was also responsible for anticipating by several centuries some of our more recent discoveries. His writings included details of alchemy, anthropology, architecture, astronomy, botany, climatology, chemistry, mechanics, meteorology, mineralogy, navigation, physics, psychology, weaving and zoology.
It is important to realise that the scientific methods used by this great saint were not those that came to be utilized in subsequent centuries. Albert’s method simply involved observation, description and classification of the phenomena he had studied. His approach paved the way for future research.
The Greek philosopher Aristotle, who lived a quarter of a century before Christ, was the first person to have produced documents of significance in relation to the natural sciences. These texts were somewhat inaccessible, and Albert sought to provide a natural history that would make the Greek philosopher’s writing intelligible. But it is important to note that Albert did not blindly follow Aristotle’s authority. In his philosophical, together with his theological works, the saint does not hesitate to reject certain views that included the eternity of the world, together with observational errors.
One of Albert’s best known botanical writing, the De Vegetabilibus, is considered a masterpiece of its kind. Albert’s work is noteworthy because he grouped together all plants with common essential characteristics, a move that led to the division of flowers into the bird or wing-shaped, the star-shaped and the bell-shaped.
Although Albert began a lot of good work in the natural sciences, he never had the time to pursue it seriously. In many cases, modern scientists have completed that work which he began. For example, he was the first to establish that the sap in the root of a tree is tasteless but that it becomes more flavoured as it ascends, a phenomenon that was subsequently noted at the start of the nineteenth century.
Albert also wrote a zoological treatise entitled De Animalibus, which is based on the work of Aristotle and Avicenna, a Muslim philosopher-scientist. Albert provided detailed descriptions of the fauna he encountered while travelling in Europe. As a result of his observations, he discounted many of the popular myths of his time, such as the idea that a cock in its old age lays an egg from which a serpent is hatched. Despite Albert’s work and observations in this field, his contributions were not really appreciated because he included fabulous creatures in his list of animals. The treatise De Animalibus is not quite so free from medieval myths as is the De Vegetabilibus treatise.
Albert is said to have been the first to describe the dormouse, the martens, the rat, the spook-fish, as well as the weasel. The De Animalibus treatise contains descriptions of animals that include the squirrel (pirolus), the nightingale and the lizard. The description of the squirrel in De Animalibus is as follows:
The pirolus is an extremely lively little animal; it nests in the tops of trees, has a long bushy tail, and swings itself from tree to tree, in doing so using its tail as a rudder. When on the move, it drags its tail behind it, but when sitting it carries it erect up its back. When taking food it holds it as do the other rodents in its hands, so to speak, and places it in its mouth. Its food consists of nuts and fruits and such-like things. Its flesh is sweet and palatable. In Germany, its colour is black when young, and later reddish, in old age it is even partly grey. In Poland it is reddish grey and in parts of Russia quite grey.
This charming description highlights Albert’s characteristic attention to detail and the intensity of his powers of observation.
It is important to realise that during Albert’s time, it was commonly believed that the planet Earth was flat and only inhabited in the northern hemisphere. However, Albert contended that Earth was a sphere by using arguments from the force of gravity. This approach had been previously used by Aristotle. Albert believed in the possibility that the southern zone of Earth could be inhabited, which we know today is true. He also believed that the greater parts of Earth were inhabited, with the exception of the North and South Poles (due to the excessive cold). This contention was later proved to be true. By using arguments from the force of gravity, he proved, as Aristotle had done before him, that the Earth was a sphere. It has also been pointed out that this work of his led eventually to the discovery of America.
Albert also wrote extensively on climate and various aspects of geography. These writings foreshadow many of today’s theories. For example, he attributed the formation of Earth’s crust to a slow cooling of a central fire. Scientists of today refer to the existence of a solid inner core and a liquid outer core that is surrounded by a mantle and crust. He also proposed that mountain ranges arise from upheaval. He correctly traced Europe’s chief mountain chains with their associated rivers. He also mentioned sections of Europe’s coastline that were subsequently submerged by the sea’s action. He detailed islands that were formed by volcanic action and examined the effect of longitude and latitude and other factors in influencing local climate.
Albert provided explanations for observations in physics and astronomy. In physics, he said that sound is caused by the impact of two hard bodies, with the vibration being propagated in the form a sphere whose centre is the point of percussion. Today, we say that sound is propagated through air (or other mediums) as a longitudinal wave, with a sound wave consisting of a periodic variation of pressure occurring around the equilibrium pressure prevailing at a particular place and time. He declared that light is converted into heat on absorption by a body. Albert did not own a telescope (this was a much later invention by Hans Lippershey in 1608), but he decided that the Milky Way must be composed of many stars. In addition, he asserted that the dark spots on the moon were not due to Earth’s shadow but were due to configurations on the surface of the moon.
In anatomy, Albert used the vertebral column as the basis for the skeleton, but in his day, most anatomists began with the skull, which was an approach that persisted for quite some time.
However Albert was no mere theoretician, as he also conducted many experiments, in spite of the fact that he was occupied with other activities. Among his inventions were a hydraulic machine and an apparatus for registering an earthquake. He is credited with having invented the first greenhouse.
Albert was also interested in architecture and produced plans for the Dominican churches of Cologne and Louvain. St Dominic’s Priory in London is modelled on Louvain. In Germany, the saint’s influence was so great on the growth of gothic architecture that this style was called ‘The Albertine Science’ in ancient manuals.
Albert had a strong scientific instinct that was always on the alert. He observed objects that lay around him, not just as an onlooker but with a scientific eye in an effort to investigate ‘natural causes which are the instruments through which the divine will is manifested’ (St Albert). For example, Albert once said that once when eating oysters, he found ten pearls at one meal. This indicates two things: first, he was observant with regard to pearls and second, he seems to have had a large appetite! In fact, as early as 1245, Albert had come to be known as an authority on fish.
What makes Albert ‘great’ as a scientist was that he drew upon the sources of information that his time afforded, particularly the scientific writings of Aristotle. Albert knew that it would have been impossible to prevent the enthusiasm that existed at the time in favour of philosophical studies, so he resolved to purify the works of Aristotle, thereby compelling pagan philosophy to do service in the cause of revealed truth. Albert pursued his scientific studies from the point of view that nature shows signs of divine or cosmic design or purpose. He realised, along with St Paul, that ‘ever since the creation of the world, the invisible existence of God and his everlasting power have been clearly seen by the mind’s understanding of created things.’ (Rom 1:20)
WAS HE AN ALCHEMIST?
As a result of his success in scientific research, many legends grew up about Albert, with the result that he was thought to have a cure for every disease: people of reason would realise that this was impossible. He had written on medicine and so a goblet that he had made was regarded as miraculous. He was also regarded as something of a magician though in fact he was quick to repudiate many of the common medieval myths of the time. There were also some rumours concerning his ability to produce gold by alchemy or his use of the philosopher’s stone, said to be capable of changing base metals such as lead into gold or silver. Some thought it was an elixir of life that could be used to rejuvenate and achieve immortality. The most sought-after goal in alchemy, the stone constituted the central symbol of mystical alchemical terminology. It also symbolised perfection at its finest, enlightenment and heavenly bliss. St Albert, however, did not admit to the possibility of producing the stone as he is quoted as saying, ‘Art alone cannot produce a substantial form’.
Albert therefore earned the reputation of being a magician but in the process earned the contempt of scientists for a period, thereby resulting in a possible perception in some circles of his being somewhat ‘odd’. This would appear to be fair comment up until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when the process of his rehabilitation began.
In addition, there were some difficulties associated with some of his writings: for example, he included fabulous creatures in his list of animals with the result that his zoological knowledge was underestimated, together with there being an insufficient appreciation of his contributions to the science of zoology.
Albert died on November 15, 1280, and huge crowds attended his funeral, at which Archbishop Siegfried von Westerburg of Cologne officiated. Beatified in 1622, Albert was canonised and declared a doctor of the church in 1931. In 1941 Pope Pius XII declared him patron saint of natural scientists
Deirdre Powell holds qualification in science (PhD in organic chemistry) and in theology.
The article originally appeared in Doctrine & Life, November 2014.