Gerardus Mercator Biography

Gerardus Mercator, a renowned Flemish cartographer of the Renaissance period, revolutionized the field of mapmaking by introducing the term ‘atlas’ and creating highly accurate depictions of various regions. By collecting information from travelers, he meticulously pieced together maps that became the ultimate guide for those exploring uncharted territories. Although his maps were precise at the center, they often suffered from distortion at the edges due to his use of straight lines for longitudes and latitudes. Notably, Mercator was the first to incorporate the term ‘North America’ and portrayed the ‘New World’ stretching across both hemispheres. Living during a time of religious reformations, he faced imprisonment for his suspected Lutheran beliefs. Mercator’s maps emerged during a period of rapid European exploration, becoming indispensable tools for voyagers and travelers alike.

Quick Facts

  • Also Known As: Geert de Kremer
  • Died At Age: 82
  • Family:
    • Spouse/Ex-: Barbara Sckellen, Gertrude Vierlings
    • Father: Hubert Kremer
    • Mother: Emerentia
  • Geographers
  • Belgian Men
  • Died on: December 2, 1594
  • Place of death: Duisburg, Germany
  • Notable Alumni: University Of Leuven
  • Education: University Of Leuven

Childhood & Early Life

Gerardus Mercator was born on March 5, 1512, in a St. Johann hospice in Rupelmonde, Glanders, in the Burgundian Netherlands, now in Belgium. His father was a cobbler named Hubert Kremer and his mother was Emerentia. He was the seventh child of his parents.

His parents returned to Gangelt after Gerardus was born but had to come back to Rupelmonde in 1518 due to plagues, famines, and lawlessness.

Gerardus joined a public school in Rupelmonde and studied arithmetic, Christian theology, and Latin. His uncle Gisbert, who became his guardian after his father died in 1526, sent Gerardus to study in the Netherlands in 1527 at the ‘s-Hertogenbosch’ monastic school run by the ‘Brethren of the Common Life’. While he was there, he changed his name from ‘Kremer’ to ‘Mercator’ which meant merchant in Latin. He took on the full name of Gerardus Mercator de Rupelmonde around this time.

He matriculated from the ‘University of Louvain’ on August 29, 1530, with philosophy and humanities. He studied for a two-year degree course at this university on Arts subjects that were based entirely on the teachings of Aristotle.

In 1532, he graduated with a master’s degree but did not study further as he felt an urge to challenge the views of Aristotle and the Catholic Church about Earth’s creation. He left the university because he did not want to become a philosopher unable to reconcile the teachings of Aristotle to the teachings of the Bible about the origin of the Earth.

During this period, he traveled to Antwerp and Mechelen and became highly interested in geography, which could explain the structure of the Earth. He returned to Louvain in 1534 to study mathematics under Gemma Frisius but found it difficult to continue as he had no mathematical background. On Gemma Frisius’ suggestion, he started to study mathematics related to cosmography and soon began enjoying mathematics and started applying it to astronomy and geography. He learned engraving and instrument making from Gaspar Van der Heyden during this period.


Gerardus Mercator started teaching mathematics to students at Louvain while he was still learning the subject. He also started making high-quality mathematical instruments and sold them to others with the permission of the university to earn some money.

He constructed the first terrestrial globe in 1535 with the help of Gemma Frisius and Van der Heyden. For the first time, copper blocks were used instead of wooden blocks to print the paper for the globe. Gemma Frisius looked after the geographical details while Van de Heyden did the engraving.

In 1537, Gerardus made a globe of the stars again with the help of Gemma Frisius and Van der Heyden. This time Gerardus played a bigger role in its creation.

Gerard Mercator created his first world map in 1538. He made a map of Flanders in 1540 for political purposes with the help of a survey and the triangulation process suggested by Gemma Frisius.

He produced a map of Europe in the summer of 1540, which had a lot of inconsistencies due to the wrong information given by sailors. He corrected the problems with the ‘loxodrome’ also known as the ‘rhumb line’ or ‘spherical helix line’ and created a new globe in 1541.

In February 1544, he was suspected as a Lutheran because of his Protestant beliefs and imprisoned for seven months in the Rupelmonde castle. He was released in September 1544 with the help of the ‘Louvain University’.

He completed the celestial globe in 1551 in line with his earlier terrestrial globe. He corrected the positions of the stars with the help of Copernicus’ model of the universe.

He moved to Duisburg in 1552 and opened a cartographic workshop in anticipation of the requirement for maps. He brought out a 1.6 meters long and 1.3 meters wide map of Europe in 1554.

Mercator taught mathematics from 1559 to 1562 to students wanting to enter the proposed university at Duisburg but gave it up when the plan for the university was scrapped in 1562.

He created the maps of Lorraine and the British Isles in 1564, of which the latter was used for political purposes against Protestant Queen Elizabeth. He was appointed as the ‘Court Cosmographer’ to Duke Wilhelm of Cleve in 1564.

In 1569, he created the famous ‘Mercator projection’ which was a world map on 18 separate sheets and named it ‘atlas’. The maps had parallel lines running from top to bottom and from side to side representing the longitudes and the latitudes. This caused the map to be fairly accurate at the center but produced distorted shapes of land masses at the sides.

In 1578, he published the corrected and updated maps created by Ptolemy. In 1585, he tried to include Germany, France, and the Netherlands in his map but could not complete his project. His maps in 1589 included the Balkans or Sclavonia and Greece.

After having a stroke in 1590, he was unable to complete any of his projects. By 1592, he had lost his sight and after the second stroke in 1593, he was totally paralyzed. His incomplete works were published by his son in 1595.

Personal Life & Legacy

Gerardus Mercator married Barbara Sckellen in 1536. They had three sons, Arnold, Bartholemew, and Rumold, and three daughters, Dorothes, Catharina, and Emerentia from the marriage. Thereafter he married Gertrude Vierlings, the wealthy widow of the mayor of Duisburg in 1589.

He died of a third stroke and cerebral hemorrhage on December 2, 1594, in Duisburg, the duchy of Cleves which is now located in Germany.

Statues of Gerardus Mercator can be found in several cities across the world and there are many buildings, universities, streets, ships, and even an asteroid named after him.

Leave a Comment