Thurneysser, Leonhard (or Thurnvser, Lienhart)

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(b. Basel, Switzerland, 5 August 1531; d. Cologne, Germany, 8 July 1596)


Thurneysser was the son of Ursula and Jacob Thurneysser, a goldsmith. He took up his father’s profession and also studied with a Dr. Huber, a physician and alchemist resident at Basel; he did not attend a university. He married Margarette Müllerin when he was sixteen but, when he was discovered to be selling gold-covered lead as pure gold, was forced to flee Basel in 1548, leaving his wife behind. He spent some time in Holland, northern Germany, France, and England, then in about 1552 returned to Germany to join the army of Albert, margrave of Brandenburg. He was captured by the Saxon army in the following year 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, then returned to the Tyrol, where he was in the service of Archduke Ferdinand from 1560 to 1570. On Ferdinand’s instructions he made journeys to England, France, Bohemia, Hungary, Italy, Spain, and North Africa to acquaint himself with metallurgical methods and medicine. His first book, the verse alchemical tract Archidoxa, was published in 1569; a similar work, Quinta essentia, was issued a year later.

Thurneysser moved in 1571 to Frankfurt an der Oder, where he wrote Pison, a kind of textbook of mineral-water analysis. This work came to the notice of Johann Georg, elector of Brandenburg, who summoned Thurneysser to his court. There Thurneysser cured Johann Georg’s wife of a serious illness and was made court physician, despite his lack of an academic degree. Enjoying his patron’s full confidence, Thurneysser acted as his adviser on metallurgy and mining and took advantage of his position in a masterly way. He established, at the Greyfriars monastery in Berlin, a laboratory–or, indeed, a factory–that employed 300 people in the production of saltpeter, mineral acids, alums, colored glass, drugs, essences, and even amulets. He also founded his own printing house, which published his calendars, prognostications, alchemical and medical tracts, and a wide variety of polemics.

The works that Thurneysser published at this time were impressive examples of the printer’s art, illustrated with woodcuts and etchings, and incorporating Greek, Arabic, Syrian, Hebrew, and Chaldean typefaces. Since his books often contained words in languages that he did not know (some of the magic spells and terms that he gave have been identified as common Hungarian swearwords), he was publicly accused of harboring in his inkpot a devil who dictated to him. His chief alchemical works, Megaln chymia and Melisath, were both first published in Berlin in 1583. The latter is a kind of dictionary directed to clarifying the works and ideas of Paracelsus, whose follower Thurneysser purported himself to be. But although he frequently quoted from Paracelsus, Thurneysser often invented the passages cited himself; and the Melisath contains citations of some eighty tracts by Paracelsus that never existed outside Thurneysser’s own mind. His works were severely criticized by other physicians, particularly Kaspar Hoffmann, professor of medicine at the University of Frankfurt an der Oder, and Thurneysser would certainly seem to have been a charlatan, whose methods and drugs had at best a dubious power to heal.

Nevertheless, Thurneysser became rich; he owned a large library, collected pictures and other works of art, and established a sort of museum of natural history. He had agents in a number of German and Polish cities, who advertised his wares and sold his drugs, cosmetics, and amulets to the gentry and wealthy burghers of Germany, Poland, and Denmark. He himself courted the favor of royalty, including the deranged Duke Albert Frederick of Prussia, Frederick II of Denmark, and Stephen Bathory, king of Poland. (He dedicated his Historia sive descriptio plantarum to the last, but when the king paid him less money than he felt was his due, dedicated the next edition of the work to his patron Johann Georg.)

In addition, Thurneysser conducted a sort of school of alchemy, which numbered the distinguished apothecary Michael Aschenbrenner among its students. He was not without enemies, however, and about 1572 was accused of participating in the murder of the alchemist Sebastian Siebenfreund.

In 1576 there was an outbreak of pestilence in Brandenburg, and Thurneysser, with the court, left Berlin for a period of several months. During this time his second wife, Anna Hüerlin, whom he had married in 1561, died, and his business, which he had left in the hands of his brother Alexander, suffered severely. By 1580 he had decided to move back to Basel, where he purchased an estate called “Zum Thurn,” which enabled him to style himself grandly as Leonhard Thurneysser zum Thurn. He had brought a considerable amount of his money to Basel, and he there married his third wife, Marina Herbrodt. In divorce proceedings two years later, the Basel town council made over all of his remaining wealth to his wife, terms against which Thurneysser railed in a number of pamphlets.

Thurneysser returned to Brandenburg and spent the last years of his life attempting to make gold. After he failed to transmute a large quantity of silver, however, he left the service of Johann Georg and traveled to Italy, where he found a patron in Ferdinand de’ Medici, grand duke of Tuscany. At this time he became a convert to Roman Catholicism. He returned to Germany shortly before his death in Cologne and in his will asked to be buried there beside Albert the Great, a wish that was never carried out.


I. Original Works. Thurneysser’s publications include Archidoxa (Münster, 1569; Berlin, 1575): Quinta essentia (Münster, 1570); Prokatalepsis (Frankfurt an der Oder, 1571); Pison (Frankfurt an der Oder, 1572); Chermeneia (Berlin, 1574); Onomasticon polyglosson (Berlin, 1574); Eyporadelosis (Berlin, 1575); Bebaiosis agonismoy (Berlin, 1576); Historia sive descriptio plantarum (Berlin, 1578); Historia und Beschreibung influentischer, elementarische und natürlicher Wirckungen (Berlin, 1583); Megaln chymia (Berlin, 1583); Melisath (Berlin, 1583); Attisholtz oder Attiswalder Badordnung (Cologne, 1590); Reise und kriegs Apotecken (Leipzig, 1602); and Zehn Bücher von kalten (warmen) mineralischen und metallischen Wassern (Strasbourg, 1612).

Until 1945 two unedited alchemical manuscripts and a number of letters were to be found in the Berlin Staatsbibliothek.

II. Secondary Literature. On Thurneysser and his work, see Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie, XXXVII (1894), 226; Paul Diergart, “Mitteilungen zur Wertung des Paracelsisten. Leonhard Thurnyser,” in Beiträge aus der Geschichte der Chemie (Leipzig-Vienna, 1909), 306–313; Fritz Ferchl, Chemisch pharmazeutisches Bio- und Bibliographikon (Mittenwald, 1937), 536; John Ferguson, Bibliotheca chemica, II (Glasgow, 1906), 450–455, which includes excerpts from some of Thurneysser’s calendars; Stanisław Kośmiński, Słownik lekarzów polskich (Warsaw, 1883), with letter on p. 514 in which Thurneysser described for Stephen Báthory an “alexipharmacum” sovereign against all poisons; Hermann Kopp, Die Alchemie, 2 vols. (Heidelberg, 1886), passim; J. C. Moehsen, Beitráge zur Geschichte der Wissenschaften in der Mark Brandenburg (Berlin-Leipzig, 1783). 55–198; J. R. Partington, A History of Chemistry, II (London, 1961), 152–153; Will-Erich Peuckert, Der Alchemist und sein Weib (Stuttgart, 1956); Günther Bugge, Der Alchimist (Berlin, 1943), a novel based upon Thurneysser’s life; B. Reber, “Zwei neue Dokumente über Leonhard Thurneysser zum Thurn,” in Mitteilungen zur Geschichte der Medizin und der Naturwissenschaften, 5 (1906), 432–439; Karol Christoph Schmieder, Geschichte der Alchemie (Munich, 1927), 284–286; Karl Sudhoff, Bibliographia Paracelsica (Berlin, 1894), passim; and Laszlo Szathmary, Magyar Alkemistak (Budapest, 1928), 319–322.

WŁodzimierz Hubicki

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Thurneysser, Leonhard (or Thurnvser, Lienhart)

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