It is difficult to accurately summarize the breadth of activities explored and mastered by the 17th century Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher. Inventor, composer, geographer, geologist, Egyptologist, historian, adventurer, philosopher, proprietor of one of the first public museums, physicist, mathematician, naturalist, astronomer, archaeologist, author of more than 40 published works: Kircher was one of the preeminent European intellectuals of the Seventeenth century. A contemporary of Newton, Boyle, Leibniz and Descartes, Kircher's rightful place in the history of science has been shrouded by his attempt to forge a unified world view out of traditional Biblical historicism and the emerging secular scientific theory of knowledge.
Born May 2, 1602, the youngest child in a family of lay scholars, Athanasius was sent early on to Jesuit school and to study Hebrew with a rabbi. Surviving a number of brushes with death, including being swept through a mill wheel, Athanasius transferred to the Jesuit school in Fulda in 1614, where he felt his calling to join the order. Rejected at first, the despondent Kircher suffered an injury to his legs while ice-skating, which festered and soon became gangrenous. Convinced that he would continue to be rejected by the Society if his condition were known, he kept it secret until his admission as a novitiate at Paderborn. Upon arrival at the college his condition was discovered and declared incurable. One night Kircher found himself in a nearby chapel before a statue of the Virgin Mary renowned for its miraculous healing powers. After devoting himself in fervent prayer, he retired to bed. Upon awakening, his legs, as well as a chronic hernia that had troubled him, had been completely and miraculously healed.
In 1621, a year after Kircher took his vows, Duke Christian of Brunswick, administrator of the secularized bishopric of Halberstadt, moved troops into the diocese of Paderborn, and the Jesuits of the college were obliged to flee. While crossing the frozen Rhine near Düsseldorf, Kircher was swept downstream as the piece of ice on which he stood broke away, separating him from his fellow refugees. Diving into the freezing water and clambering to shore, Kircher managed to stagger the three miles to the Jesuit college at Neuss where he was reunited with his companions. Fully recuperated within a few days, Kircher and his companions proceeded to Cologne, where he was able to finish his philosophy degree in relative peace. Transferred to Colbenz and then Heiligenstadt in Saxony, Kircher was forced to cross protestant controlled war zones. Refusing to conceal his Catholicism, Kircher was set upon by cavalrymen who stripped, beat, and dragged him by horse to a tree. Just before hanging him, however, one of the soldiers, impressed by Kircher's collected demeanor, pleaded with the others for the Jesuit's life. It was thus that Athanasius Kircher arrived, slightly worse for wear, in the city of Heiligenstadt two days later, where he was appointed grammaticus and soon began teaching classes in mathematics, Hebrew and Syriac.
The elector-archbishop of Mainz, impressed with reports of Kircher's gift with fireworks and optical displays, summoned him to court, where Kircher began working on his first book Ars magnesia. When the archbishop suddenly died three months later, Kircher transferred into the college at Mainz, where he studied theology and acquired a telescope with which he conducted research on the newly discovered and controversial sunspots. Ordained in 1628, Kircher was sent to Speier to serve out the third portion of his probationary period in spiritual retreat and, on a trip to the college's library, stumbled across a reproduction of Egyptian hieroglyphics, which were to remain an obsession for the rest of his life. His tertianship completed, Kircher was sent to Würzburg, where he taught mathematics, completed and published his first book (on magnetic phenomena), and applied (and was refused) for the first time to be a missionary to the newly opened country of China.
Then, one night Kircher was awakened by a strange sound. Looking from his dormitory window, he was startled to see a legion of soldiers drilling in the courtyard. When he called his neighbors to look, the soldiers had vanished. Kircher took it as an omen and began organizing his departure. Within a year Gutav Adolph, the protestant warrior king of Sweden, had invaded Franconia and Würzburg, and Kircher fled with his friend and disciple Gaspar Schott to Avignon, leaving Germany behind forever.
In Avignon, Kircher resumed his teaching duties, as well as his researches, which now extended to local geographical and archaeological explorations, the decipherment of the hieroglyphics, and astronomical observations. The results of the latter were published in his second book, Primitae gnomonicae catopricae (Avignon 1635). Most importantly, it was at Avignon that Kircher met his first scientific patron, Nicolas Claude Fabri de Peiresc. Peiresc, a wealthy aristocrat and councillor of the Parliament of Aix, shared Kircher's interest in hieroglyphics and magnetism, and was able to introduce him to his community international scientific correspondents. Kircher had barely begun to enjoy this patronage and support when he received orders to replace the deceased Johann Kepler as Mathematician to the emperor at the Hapsburg court of Vienna. Peiresc, certain that a breakthrough in the interpretation of hieroglyphs was imminent, sent letters of protest to Pope urban VIII and Cardinal Francis Barberini.
In the meantime, Kircher, having learned the folly of uncamouflaged travel through protestant Germany, set sail for Genoa, intending to travel through northern Italy to Austria. Beset by rough weather, the captain of the small ship dropped anchor off a small island and ferried the Jesuit party ashore to wait out the storm. They awakened to find themselves suddenly destitute castaways, and had to flag down a passing fishing boat to give them a ride back to Marseilles. Setting sail again in a more reputable vessel, they encountered even greater opposition from the weather, continually blown off course and nearly capsized before they were finally forced to take refuge in the Roman port of Civitavecchia. While the ship was seen to, Kircher decided to make the short journey into Rome, only to find, to his astonishment, that Peiresc's entreaties had been effective. During his troubled sea voyage Kircher had been appointed chair of mathematics at the Roman College.
He spent the next several years devoted to his studies of hieroglyphics and the Coptic language, which he successfully identified as a descendent of ancient spoken Egyptian, but was curiously unable to connect to the phonetic picture-writing. In 1637, Kircher accompanied Frederick of Hesse, the recently converted landgrave of the Grand duchy of Hesse-Darmstadt, on a trip through southern Italy, Sicily, and Malta. It was on this journey that Kircher witnessed the eruption of Aetna and Stromboli, and had himself lowered into the active crater at Vesuvius. These adventures ignited an abiding interest in geography, which would come to fruition in his massive Mundus subturraneus of 1665. This was to be Kircher's last great escapade, and he spent the next period of his life in a fever of scholarship, publishing 11 major books within twenty years.
Dedicating himself to his parallel obsessions with magnetism, musicology, astronomy, archaeology, and linguistics, Kircher researched and compiled enormous amounts of data, invented innumerable optical, magnetic, and acoustic devices, composed music, poetry, and imaginative fiction, and was involved in projects such as his collaboration with the great baroque sculptor Bernini in the restoration and erection of the obelisk and Fountain of the Four Rivers in the Piazza Navona. When Rome was struck by the bubonic plague in 1656, Kircher spent days on end caring for the sick. Searching for a cure, Kircher observed microorganisms under the microscope and invented the germ theory of disease, which he outlined in his Scrutinium pestis physico-medicum (Rome 1658).
Within eight years of his arrival in Rome, Kircher's scholarly research was deemed so valuable that he was entirely freed from teaching duties, and was able to devote himself entirely to his writings and experiments. Among the books published during this period were his three largest, Magnes sive de Arte Magnetica, Musurgia Universalis and Oedipus Aegyptiacus, about magnetism, music and acoustics, and Egyptology respectively. As Kircher's reputation grew, so did voices of opposition. Contemporary scientists like Descartes, equating Jesuitical science with the oppressive Inquisition that had so recently executed Giordano Bruno and imprisoned Gallileo for their unorthodox theories, regarded Kircher's work with suspicion.
By the 1660's, Kircher began to withdraw from high profile intellectual life. In part due to failing health, he retreated to the countryside around Rome where he set to researching Latium, a volume detailing the geography and history of the area. On one of these journeys he came upon what was to become the major obsession of his final years: the ruins of a small church at Mentorella where the Roman general Eustace, upon seeing a vision of the crucifixion between the antlers of a stag, had converted to Christianity. Kircher dedicated much of his remaining energy to rebuilding the chapel and reestablishing it as a site of pilgrimage. He nevertheless managed during the 1670's to establish his Museum Kircherianum as a separate housing for his massive collection of curiosities and inventions and to publish five more books, including his very popular speculative historical works on the Tower of Babel and Noah's Ark.
When, on Nov 27, 1680, Kircher died, he left behind numerous manuscripts, notebooks, and a voluminous backlog of correspondence, much of which was published piecemeal over the following decades. Over the years, Kircher's name was consigned to the ignominious status of a footnote in the history of science. As interest in the reconciliation of scientific and spiritual models of the universe has revived in recent years, however, Kircher's name has regained currency and his contributions have begun to be reassessed. Today it seems inevitable that Athanasius Kircher will in time be recognized as one of the greatest and most open-minded scientific imaginations of his own or any other age.