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Gemma Frisius, Reiner [Regner, Regnier]

1. Dates
Born: Dokkum Netherlands, 8 Dec 1508
Died: Louvain, Belgium, 25 May 1555
Dateinfo: Dates Certain
Lifespan: 47
2. Father
Occupation: Unknown
He lost his parents young. He was of humble origins; not even his surname is known.
It is clear that the family was poor.
3. Nationality
Birth: Dokkum, Netherlands
Career: Louvain, Belgium
Death: Louvain, Belgium
4. Education
Schooling: Louvain, M.D.
He began his studies in Groningen, nearby to Dokkum.
1525, University of Louvain, where he was a member of the Dutch nation. He received his licentiate degree in 1528.
1536, he received his M.D. from Louvain.
5. Religion
Affiliation: undoubtedly Catholic
6. Scientific Disciplines
Primary: Primary: Astronomy, Geography, Cartography.
Subordinate: Mathematics.
His first original work, Gemma phrysius de principiis astronomiae & cosmographiae, was translated into several languages and reprinted numerous times.
He made two significant contributions to the earth sciences. In a chapter added to the 1533 Antwerp edition of the Cosmographicus, he was first to propose the principle of triangulation as a means of carefully locating places and accurately mapping areas. 20 years later, in the 1553 Antwerp edition of De princinpiis astronomiae, he was the first suggest in explicit terms the use of portable timepieces to measure longitude by lapsed time.
7. Means of Support
Primary: Medicine, Academia
Secondary: Publishing
He supported himself publishing his books (1529, 1530) and globes (1531, 1535, 1536) while a student in Louvain. Evidently this was lucrative enough that he married before he recieved his degree.
1536, practiced medicine for a living in Louvain.
Between 1536-1539 he was appointed to the medical faculty at Louvain, a post he retained until his death.
8. Patronage
Types: Eccesiastic Official, Court Official
John Flaxbinder (Johannes de Curiis Dantiscus), ambassador of the King of Poland, who held a bishop's see in Poland but spent many years in Brussels, was a patron of Gemma's. He was well informed of the recent voyages reported to the court, and Gemma presumably made use of this information in his geography.
He is said to have been favored by Charles V. Charles noted an error in Gemma Frisius's Charta sive mappa mundi and brought it to his attention, after which he brought out a new addition dedicated to the Emperor. Gemma Frisius dedicated his globe of 1537 and his world map of 1540 to Charles.
9. Technological Involvement
Types: Medical Practice, Instruments, Cartography
He did practice medicine for a living for a time.
He received a patent with Caspar Vander Heyden [Caspar de Myrica] for a globe in 1531. He produced other globes in 1535 and 1536.
Gemma designed astronomical instruments, mostly sophisticated variations on the astrolabe, such as the "astronomical ring." He also improved the Jacob's staff.
Kish credits Gemma as the first to suggest the use of an accurate timekeeping instrument as a solution to the problem of longitude, and as among the first to propose triangulation for surveying and mapmaking.
Gemma Frisius did a world map with lines of latitude and longitude in 1540.
10. Scientific Societies
Memberships: None
Connections: He taught Gerard Mercator, and in 1535 employed him as a draftsman for his terrestial globe.
Connections: John Dee visited Gemma in 1547. He reports returning to England with "the first Astronomer's staff in brass, that was made of Gemma Frisius' devising" and "the Astronomer's ring of brass, as Gemma Frisius had newly framed it." Dee returned to Louvain and stayed, presumably studying under Gemma, from 1548-1550.
  1. Cantor, Allgemeine deutsche Biographie 8, 555-6.
  2. J. Fruytier, Nieuw nederlandsch biografisch woordenboek, 6, (Leiden, 1924), cols. 556-557. [ref. CT1143.M72 v.6]
  3. George Kish, Medicine-Mensura-Mathematica; The Life and Works of Gemma Frisius, 1508-1555, James Ford Bell lecture no. 4 (1962) (Published by the Associates of the James Ford Bell Collection, University of Minnesota Library). Edmond R. Kiely, Surveying Instruments, (New York, 1947), p. 198.
  4. Leo Bagrow, A. Ortelii Catalogus Cartographorum, 2 vols. Ergänzungsheften Nr. 199 & 210 zu "Petermanns Mitteilungen," (Gotha, 1928-30), 1 (Nr. 199), 97-9.
Not Available and Not Consulted
  1. Fernand van Ostroy, "Biobibliographie de Gemma Frisius, fondateur de l'école belge de géographie...", Mémoires de l'Académie royale des sciences... de Belgique, Classe de lettres, 2nd ser., 11 (1920).
Compiled by:
Richard S. Westfall
Department of History and Philosophy of Science
Indiana University

Note: the creators of the Galileo Project and this catalogue cannot answer email on geneological questions.

©1995 Al Van Helden
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