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May 2 The Polymath Priest who studied the Plague

Updated: May 4, 2021

The last polymath of the renaissance era was Fr Antanasius Kircher SJ. A giant among seventeenth-century scholars and at the dawn of the Enlightenment, he was one of the last thinkers who could claim all knowledge as his domain, in that light he has been called by some historians ‘the last Renaissance man’ . Among his many accomplishments he was the first to look at the blood of bubonic plague victims under a microscope and to realise that the 'pestis' was contagious. He suggested Quarantine, wearing masks and burning the clothes of victims.


During his life he published around 40 major works, most notably in the fields of comparative religion, geology, and medicine. Kircher has been compared to Leonardo da Vinci for his enormous range of interests, and has been honoured with the title "Master of a Hundred Arts". Kirchner was sent to teach in Rome, for more than 40 years in the Roman College. One of the key educational institutions for the Jesuits, the order he belonged to, it is now known as the Gregorian University.

With such a vast legacy we will focus on his study of diseases. The bubonic plague had struck Rome in the summer of 1656, and killed around 15,000 people in four months. During this period Kircher undertook experiments to try and understand the disease - Kirchner had been using a microscope to investigate the blood of plague victims although there is no evidence that he was directly involved in the medical treatment of the sick. His observations and theories were published in the Scrutinium Pestis or to give it its full title (A Physico-Medical Examination of the Contagious Pestilence Called the Plague). The Jesuit Order had a long-established practice of not writing about medical topics and for this reason, the Jesuit censors who reviewed the book originally refused to authorise it for publication. Eventually, after the opinions of a number of medical authorities had been sought, Superior General Nickel permitted its printing..

Kircher was the first person to view infected blood through a microscope and he noted the presence of "little worms" or what he called "animalcules" in the blood and concluded that the disease was caused by microorganisms. The conclusion was correct, although it is likely that what he saw were in fact red or white blood cells and not the plague agent. He also proposed hygienic measures to prevent the spread of disease, such as isolation, quarantine, burning clothes worn by the infected and wearing facemasks to prevent the inhalation of germs. This is now seen as good practice, although he also recommended the wearing of a dead toad around the neck as a prophylactic against the plague, because he maintained that toads were a scientifically proven magnet attracting the unpleasant vapours that spread the disease. Nevertheless Kircher's ideas were taken up by Christian Lange, a Leipzig professor, who republished his book with his own preface. A school of medical thinking grew up around Lange and is work in Germany and elsewhere, convinced that contagion was the method of disease transmission as Kircher had argued

In other fields Kircher claimed to have deciphered the hieroglyphic writing of the ancient Egyptian language, but most of his assumptions and translations in this field were later found to be incorrect. He did, however, correctly establish the link between the ancient Egyptian and the Coptic languages, and some commentators regard him as the founder of Egyptology. Kircher was also fascinated with Sinology and wrote an encyclopedia of China, in which he noted the early presence there of Nestorian Christians while also attempting to establish links with Egypt and Christianity. Kircher also displayed a keen interest in technology and mechanical inventions; inventions attributed to him include a magnetic clock, various automatons and the first megaphone. John Glassie, in 2012, published a well-received book called A Man of Misconceptions about Kircher and it became the New York Times Book Review "Editors' Choice," In it he said that although many of Kircher's actual ideas today seem bizarre, he was "a champion of wonder, a man of awe-inspiring erudition and inventiveness," whose work was read "by the smartest minds of the time."


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