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Thurneysser, Leonhard

1. Dates
Born: Basel, 5 Aug 1531
Died: Cologne, 8 Jul 1596
Dateinfo: Dates Certain
Lifespan: 65
2. Father
Occupation: Merchant
His father, Jacob Thurneysser, was a goldsmith.
No information on financial status.
3. Nationality
Birth: Basel, Switzerland
Career: Berlin, Germany, and Italy
Death: Cologne, Germany
4. Education
Schooling: No University
He took up his fathers profession, but at the same time was a famulus to a Dr. Huber, a physician and alchemist in Basel. He never attended a university.
5. Religion
Affiliation: Lutheran (assumed), Catholic
He was a Protestant (I believe a Lutheran) for most of his life, but converted to Catholicism near the end.
6. Scientific Disciplines
Primary: Alchemy
7. Means of Support
Primary: Merchant, Patronage, Medicine
Secondary: Military, Art, Publishing
He was forced to flee Basel after having been discovered selling gold-covered lead as pure gold.
He spent some time in Holland, northern Germany, France and England, working as a goldsmith, armorer, and soldier.
1552, he returned to Germany and joined the army of Albert, Margrave of Brandenburg.
1553, he was captured by the Saxon army and put to work in the mines at Tarenz in the Inn Valley.
Following his release, he worked as a goldsmith and smelter in Nuremberg.
1558, he returned to the Tirol where he ran a mine and smelting facilities. His success brought him to the attention of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria. 1560-70, he was in the service of the Archduke, on whose instruction Thurneysser traveled to England, France, Bohemia, Hungary, Italy, Spain, and North Africa to acquaint himself with metallurgical methods and medicines.
1571, Thurneysser published a book in Frankfurt an der Oder which brought him to the attention of Johann Georg, Elector of Brandenburg. After Thurnysser successfully treated the Elector's wife, Sabina, he was made court physician in Berlin at the high salary of 1352 Taler. He also conducted a medical practice in Berlin. In addition, he acted as adviser on metallurgy and mining, and established a huge laboratory-- employing up to 300 people--at the Greyfriars monastery in Berlin for the production of saltpeter, mineral acids, alums, colored glass, drugs, essences, and amulets. He also founded a printing house which published calendars, prognostications, alchemical and medicinal tracts, and other polemics. (Since his books often contained words in languages he did not know, he was publically accused of harboring in his ink pot a devil who dictated to him.) Thurnysser became rich; he owned a large library, art collection, and a kind of natural history museum. He had agents in a number of German and Polish cities who advertised and sold his wares. In 1576, there was an outbreak of plague and Thurneysser fled with the court. In the years that followed, his second wife died, his business suffered terribly, and he became the object of increasing criticism from his colleagues.
1580, he returned to Basel, where he purchased an estate, "Zum Thurn," and styled himself Leonhard Thurnysser zum Thurn. He married the daughter of the Basel patrician Hebrott. Unfortunately, all of the large sum of money which he brought with him to Basel was given to his wife by the Basel town council in the divorce proceedings that followed.
More or less broke, he returned to Brandenburg, reentered the service of Johann Georg, and spent some years trying to make gold. After failing to transmute a large amount of silver, he finally left and traveled to Italy.
Ca. 1591, he found a patron in Ferdinand de' Medici. At this time he converted to Catholicism.
He returned to Germany shortly before his death in 1596.
8. Patronage
Type: Court Official
His first major patron was Archduke Ferdinand of Austria.
By far his most significant patron was Johann Georg, Elector of Brandenburg (see above).
While in Johann Georg's service he consulted with various other nobility and royalty, sometimes employing up to 10 or 12 secretaries for his correspondence. Among those he flirted with in this manner were the deranged Duke Albert Frederick of Prussia, Frederick II of Denmark, and Stephen BŠthory, King of Poland. This flirtation does not seem to have been a great success; after dedicating Historia sive descriptia planatarum to BŠthory and receiving less honorarium than he expected, he dedicated the next edition to Johann Georg.
Ferdinand de' Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, was his last patron.
9. Technological Involvement
Types: Metallurgy, Pharmacology, Medical Practice
His factory in Berlin produced pharmaceutical products. He also worked in metallurgy for periods of his life.
He had a medical practice on top of everything else in Be rlin.
10. Scientific Societies
Memberships: None
He conducted a sort of alchemical school in Brandenburg, which numbered the distinguished apothecary Michael Aschenbrenner among its students.
  1. I. Heidemann, Allgemeine deutsche Biographie, 38, 226-9.
  2. A. Hirsch, Biographisches Lexikon der hervorragenden Aerzte aller Zeiten und Voelker (3rd ed., Munich, 1962), 5, 582-3.
  3. John Ferguson, Bibliotheca chemica (London, 1906, 1954), 2: 450-5.
  4. [Z5524.A35 G54]
Not Available and Not Consulted
  1. J.C. Moehsen, Beitršge zur Geschichte der Wissenschaften in der Mark Brandenburg (Berlin-Leipzig, 1783), 55-198. It appears that Moehsen is the definitive source on Thurneysser.
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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