The Slovenia Times

Scopoli, Slovenia's Charles Darwin

Science & Education

Slovenia is marking 300 years since the birth of Joannes Antonius Scopoli, a South Tirolean sent to Idrija to work as a doctor at the mercury mine who blazed a trail in the country's natural sciences.

The pioneer and founder of modern natural sciences on Slovenian lands, Scopoli laid the foundations of many natural sciences, such as biology, botany, geology, medicine and veterinary medicine.

As the Scandinavians are proud of their naturalist Carl Linnaeus (Carl von Linné), as the English are proud of Charles Darwin, so we can be proud of Scopoli, Al Vrezec of the Slovenian Museum of Natural History illustrated his importance for the STA.

Idrija's first medicine man

Born in Cavalese on 3 June 1723, Scopoli completed his medicine studies before he was sent to Idrija in the west of modern-day Slovenia to work as a physician for mercury miners there.

Before Scopoli, Idrija had no trained doctors, only healers, so his arrival was of great importance, says geologist Jože Čar of the Idrija Museum Association.

"The mine business was booming at that time, the mine was extremely rich and brought in a lot of money. But to exploit it even better, the miners had to be healthy," he explained.

While working there from 1754 to 1769, Scopoli studied the miners' diseases as well as their social standing. After six years of work he published a book on Idrija mercury, which includes a discussion on the treatment of mercury poisoning.

Research was his real mission

Scopoli was unhappy with his medical profession and what really caught his interest was research. One of the things that interested him was things to do with mining. He described ten different types of ores, including the mineral epsomite, Čar says.

He also recorded and categorised plants, fungi and animals in Carniola, a historical region that encompassed much of today's Slovenia.

During his time in Idrija, he published the fundamental works in the field called Entomologia Carniolica and Flora Carniolica, which made Carniola one of the European science powerhouses at the time.

The first Slovenian science book dealing with nature, his Flora Carniolica describes around 1,100 species of plants from the north-western part of Slovenia, including the henbane bell (kranjski volčič) or Scopolia carniolica, which is named after him.

In his famous work, he was the first to describe Slovenia's emblematic tree, the linden, which he saw in the Idrija area, says Blanka Ravnjak of the Ljubljana University Botanical Gardens.

In naming animal and plant species, Scopoli modelled himself on Linné, who introduced the double designation in natural history, that is that each plant or animal species is designated by a genus and a species.

As Tinka Gantar of the Idrija Museum Association explains, the two naturalists also corresponded and shared experiences, and in their letters Linné made no secret of his enthusiasm for Scopoli's discoveries.

Tribute to Scopoli throughout the year

The celebration of the 300th anniversary of Scopoli's birth was launched last week with the unveiling of the naturalist's busts at the Museum of Natural History and the Botanical Gardens in Ljubljana.

Meanwhile, Idrija hosted an international scientific conference, which saw experts from various fields shed light on his pioneering work and life.

Having declared 2023 as the Scopoli Year, Idrija as well as the whole Slovenia will pay tribute to the naturalist throughout the year, including with guided tours of the Juliana Botanical Garden in the Trenta Valley, and an exhibition in the autumn.


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