The Private Lives of Galileo

By Paul Theerman, Associate Director, Center for the History of Medicine and Public Health

February 15, 1564, is Galileo’s birthday according to the Julian calendar; in our Gregorian calendar the date is February 26. Our collections hold two of his books published during his lifetime: Dialogues on two world systems, Ptolemaic and Copernican (1632) and Discourses on two new sciences (1638). The first was the book that got him into trouble with the Church, eventually leading to his sentencing and house arrest for his defense of Copernicus’ sun-centered astronomy. The second was in a sense his vindication, a physical treatise that was a summation of his investigations into the strengths of materials and the motions of bodies. As Galileo was forbidden to publish, the manuscript was smuggled abroad and appeared in Leiden, away from the censoring arm of the Church.

The mid-nineteenth century saw a flowering of biographical works on Galileo and other scientists. Biographies of scientists allow many things to happen: first of all, they become the occasion to do some popular science writing. Second, they often lend themselves to a progressive narrative, positioning a discovery, insight, or theory into a triumphant march of knowledge and improvement, undertaken against regressive forces of oppression. Finally, biographies provide narratives that shed light on individual motives and character, holding up personal qualities as keys to broader cultural and social understanding.

Galileo Galilei (1564–1642).  Frontispiece of Allan-Olney, The Private Life of Galileo, 1870.

Galileo Galilei (1564–1642). Frontispiece of Allan-Olney, The Private Life of Galileo, 1870.

Nineteenth-century biographies of scientists did all three. But often they did so in ways that defy our expectations.

One early effort in English was David Brewster’s The Martyrs of Science (1841), subtitled “The Lives of Galileo, Tycho Brahe, and Kepler.” A noted Scottish natural scientist (who had written a biography of Isaac Newton some 10 years previously), Brewster refused to follow the usual script for discussing Galileo: noble scientific reason versus conniving religious superstition. While the theme of “science versus religion” was present in his biography, a stronger argument was that Galileo brought his calamities on himself, and all the worse for the rest of us! Galileo evinced cowardice for giving in to the Inquisition: “what excuse can we devise for the humiliating confession and abjuration of Galileo?”1 Adding cowardice to his rashness, his sarcasm, and his boldness, Galileo ensured that the cause of truth—the reality of Copernicus’ sun-centered system—was set back for centuries:

One of the most prominent traits in the character of Galileo was his invincible love of truth. . . . His views, however, were too liberal, and too far in advance of the age which he adorned; and however much we may admire the noble spirit which he evinced, and the personal sacrifices which he made, in his struggle for truth, we must yet lament the hotness of his zeal and the temerity of his onset. . . . Under the sagacious and peaceful sway of Copernicus, astronomy had effected a glorious triumph over the dogmas of the Church; but under the bold and uncompromising sceptre of Galileo all her conquests were irrecoverably lost.2

After Brewster’s book, Galileo studies began in earnest, notably in Italy in the 1850s and ’60s. Of particular interest was Galileo’s correspondence with his daughter, a Franciscan nun, Suor Maria Celeste.3 Twenty-seven of her letters were published in Florence in 1852, and 121 in 1863. The correspondence formed the basis for an anonymously published biography, The Private Life of Galileo (1870). The author was Mary Allan-Olney, an Englishwoman, about whom nothing more has been found except her books: the novels, Junia (1878), Estelle Russell (1880), and Harmonia (1887); a two- volume travel narrative of life in Virginia under Reconstruction, The New Virginians, (1880); and The Private Life of Galileo.


Title page of Allan-Olney, The Private Life of Galileo, 1870. “Galileo’s Tower” is his house at Arcetri, outside Florence, adjacent to the convent where his daughters resided, and where he remained under house arrest after his condemnation.

Allan-Olney focused her biography on the celebrated trial. The biography’s backdrop was the first Vatican conference, running 1868 through 1870, which affirmed the infallibility of the Pope. She wrote that Galileo’s sentence had not been signed by the Pope, thus leaving it in the realm of the fallible!4 She concluded her book with two appendices, translations of the Inquisition’s sentence and Galileo’s abjuration.

Galileo’s daughter, Suor Maria Celeste (1600–1634), via the University of Maryland.

Galileo’s daughter, Suor Maria Celeste (1600–1634), via the University of Maryland.

Just as Brewster wished to make character the touchstone of the story, so did Allan-Olney. She saw Galileo as paterfamilias, benevolent toward his pupils as well as his children and family.5 And if rashness and ambition were Galileo’s besetting sins according to Brewster, for Allan-Olney these were a too-generous spirit and a naiveté towards the ways of the world. She brings out the richness and softness of the letters that Suor Maria Celeste wrote her father (his letters have not survived), and highlights the generosity that Galileo showed to his son, daughters, and pupils. If Galileo has “secret enemies in court” and is subject to the “ill will of the Jesuits”6, he nonetheless supports his extended family, often in the face of their ingratitude. His pupils no less benefited from his generosity, as Allan-Olney often attests, but in their case it was from his generosity of mind:

This letter [sent by pupil Paolo Aproino] is another instance of the undying attachment which Galileo’s pupils felt toward their great teacher. Aproino refers to the time he spent in Padua while studying mathematics under Galileo in terms of enthusiasm, and thanks God daily “that he had for his master the greatest man the earth had ever seen.”7

Allan-Olney ends her biography with these words:

Pages might be filled with expressions of gratitude and affection such as these, culled from the correspondence of Galileo’s disciples. And truly, the great master himself might adjudge them to be of higher value as a testimony to his merit, than the marble monument under which his body now lies in Santa Croce [church, in Florence].8

To this day, Galileo sparks interest—two major biographies were published within the last five years.9 And, like these two 19th-century authors, each writer needs to come to terms with the man behind the story. Only these days, character is not held to be the key.


1. Brewster, Martyrs, p. 94.

2. Brewster, Martyrs, pp. 117–18.

3. Letters to Father: Suor Maria Celeste to Galileo, 1623–1633, translated and annotated by Dava Sobel (Walker Publishing Co., 2001), especially p. xiii.

4. Allan-Olney, Private Life of Galileo, p. 260.

5. The stretching of Galileo’s life to fit a mid-19th-century ethic shows its strains. The hero of this story, Galileo, showed his concern for his daughters—all three of his children were illegitimate, but his youngest, a boy, was legitimized to allow him a place in society—by placing them as vowed nuns in a monastery when they were 13 and a bit younger (the birthdate of the second daughter is in doubt). The letters between Galileo and his oldest child show signs of real affection, though, which Allan-Olney then uses as the center of her work.

6. These are chapter subheads in Private Life of Galileo.

7. Allan-Olney, Private Life of Galileo, p. 208.

8. Allan-Olney, Private Life of Galileo, p. 298.

9. John Heilbron, Galileo (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010); and David Wootton, Galileo: Watcher of the Skies(New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010).

Three Days in Baden-Baden: On the Enchantments of Soviet Biography

Johanna Conterio, a Ph.D. candidate in the History Department at Harvard University specializing in modern Russia, wrote today’s guest post.

It is notoriously difficult to find biographical information about people who lived in the Soviet Union. Personal papers, the kind that historians of the United States rely on, are rarely found in state archives in Russia. Russian intellectuals historically tried to keep their materials out of state archives, associating these with policing rather than with preservation—reasonable enough, as archives were mainly acquired during police raids! But that does not mean that biographical information is impossible to find. When getting into a story in the Soviet past, certain names keep coming up, and information comes from unexpected places. A person may have written an article. If their position is given in the byline, one can figure out where they worked and perhaps find the archive of that organization, or a published history. One checks the stacks for books and brochures they have written. Perhaps they gave a talk at an international conference and left a trace in conference volumes. The more one learns, the more curious one becomes about the course of a life in the past, at first seen only in fragments.

Nikolai Ivanovich Teziakov

Nikolai Ivanovich Teziakov

I first encountered Nikolai Teziakov in a source from the Central Scientific Medical Library in Moscow. In 1923, he published a small book, Health Resorts in the Russian Socialist Soviet Republic. When the librarian delivered the book, I was surprised to find that it was in German and had been published in Berlin (in the card catalogue, the title was given in Russian).1 I had it photocopied and didn’t think about it again for some time. But as I continued my research, I started to see the name Nikolai Teziakov again and again. He was the second director of the Main Health Resort Administration, the state organ that organized Soviet health resorts, and part of the People’s Commissariat for Public Health. He worked during the Russian Civil War (1918-1922) in rural Saratov, 500 miles southeast of Moscow, heading the regional health department fighting infectious diseases and setting up sanatoria for tuberculosis patients. But some very basic questions about who he was remained unanswered. Was he a member of a political party? How did he progress from rural physician in Saratov to top official in Moscow? What was his family background? Where did he study medicine? Did he ever travel abroad? And what did he look like?

Some basic information comes from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, and I’ve filled in some more details. Nikolai Ivanovich Teziakov was born in 1859 into a peasant family in a village outside of Sverdlovsk, in the Ural Mountains. He finished secondary school in 1879, and studied medicine in Kazan, finishing in 1884. Teziakov was enormously active in public health in Russia before the October Revolution of 1917. Following the cholera epidemic of 1892-1893, he became a sanitary physician and began to collect statistics and conduct epidemiological research. He worked to lower the rates of infant mortality through the organization of free day care for agricultural families, and to fight infectious diseases through disinfection and immunization. He was also active in training medical workers in the new field of hygiene. He attended the famous International Hygiene Exhibition in Dresden in 1911. While working in Kherson province, he wrote about the increasing rates of landlessness among the peasantry. His statistics were used by Lenin in his work On the Development of Capitalism in Russia. During the years of the Civil War, he wrote the slogan “Health Resorts for the Workers!” He was convinced that health resorts were important for the improvement of the health of the workers, an opinion shared by Lenin and Commissar [Minister] of Public Health, Nikolai Aleksandrovich Semashko, powerful patrons of Soviet health resorts, who oversaw the development of the first health resorts for workers in Europe. He died in 1925 at age 65.

But it is Teziakov’s German connections that emerged as an intriguing story, told through the official journal published by the Main Health Resort Administration, Health Resort Affairs [Kurortnoe delo], in the New York Academy of Medicine’s rich collection of Soviet medical journals.  Teziakov’s Berlin publication was meant to be a conference paper, originally to be presented at the 38th German Balneological Congress in 1923 in Aachen.2 He travelled to Germany in 1923 for the conference, but due to the French occupation of Aachen (these were eventful years in Europe!), the conference was abruptly cancelled. Nonetheless both the director and the secretary of the German Balneological Society gamely hosted him and his small Soviet entourage for ten days in Berlin. Add two new names to the historical index: Eduard Dietrich and Max Hirsch.

Teziakov was eager to see the health resorts of Germany. Together with the Soviet physician [S. V.] Korshun and a German secretary, Binger, and carrying with them a letter of introduction from Dietrich, from April 12 to 30 Teziakov visited the German health resorts Baden-Baden, Wildbad, Bad Homburg, Bad Kissingen, Wiesbaden, Bad Nauheim, and Bad Eichhausen.3 Upon his return to Moscow, Teziakov published two detailed accounts of his travels in Health Resort Affairs. Although he was impressed by the beautiful parks and gardens, clean streets, and brilliant architecture of the German baths, Teziakov was disappointed to find that these were only accessible to what he called the “grand bourgeoisie,” and deplored what he called the “commercial” organization of health resort care. Exceptions to this rule were a few charitable organizations that he visited during his three days in Baden-Baden, but Teziakov called these “pathetic.” He contrasted German with Russian medicine: “Medical help at the health resorts is in the hands of private physicians, united into unions. The organization of state or public, municipal health care such as we, Russian physicians, understand it, does not exist.”4 Teziakov’s reports were republished in a brochure for a mass audience, and reviewed by Commissar Semashko on page one of the newspaper Izvestiia. Reprising a common theme among the new Soviet leaders, Semashko wrote that the country needed to combine “German” technology and “iron discipline” with the Soviet approach to social questions. “What a fantastic order we might then establish in health resort construction,” he wrote.5

The German balneologists were also interested in developments in the Soviet Union. The director of the German Balneological Society, Eduard Dietrich, was invited to the Soviet Union in 1924, as a delegate to the Fourth All-Russian Balneological Congress in Moscow (although it remains unclear whether he attended).6 The Society’s secretary, Max Hirsch, developed an ongoing fascination with Soviet balneology and health resorts. He wrote a number of articles about Soviet balneology in the German press in the 1920s, particularly in the Journal for Scientific Balneology [Zeitschrift für wissenschaftliche Bäderkunde]7 and provided reports on various balneological conferences and proceedings to Health Resort Affairs. Hirsch’s relationship with the Soviet Union had begun, and was continued by further meetings with Teziakov in 1923 and 1924, when Teziakov returned to Germany to attend the balneological congress. Of Jewish heritage, Max Hirsch emigrated to the Soviet Union in 1933, fleeing his native Germany via Czechoslovakia. My next task is to find out what happened to him when he arrived in the USSR. Through detective work in the journals, I’ve learned not only more about Teziakov’s career, but discovered the surprising interplay of German and Soviet public health in the 1920s and 1930s, mirroring political developments of those decades.

1. N.J. Tesjakow, Das Kurortwesen in der Russischen Sozialistischen Räterepublik (Berlin: Verlagsbuchhandlung von Richard Schoetz, 1923)

2. Balneology is the science of baths or bathing, especially the study of the therapeutic use of thermal baths.

3. N.I. Teziakov, “Po germanskim kurortam (12-30 apr. 1923 g.)” Kurortnoe delo 1 (No. 6, 1923): 19.

4. N.I. Teziakov, “Po germanskim kurortam (12-30 apr. 1923 g.)” Kurortnoe delo 1 (No. 6, 1923): 30.

5. Izvestiia, August 3, 1923.

6. Christine Böttcher, Das Bild der Sowjetischen Medizin in der ärztlichen Publizistik und Wissenschaftspolitik der Weimarer Republik (Pfaffenweiler: Centaurus-Verlagsgesellschaft, 1998), 52-53.

7. This journal is also held in the collections of the New York Academy of Medicine Library.