Fields Botany, Zoology
|Name Conrad Gessner|
Author abbrev. (botany)
|Born 16 March 1516Zurich, Swiss Confederacy (1516-03-16) |
Alma mater University of Strasbourg and University of Bourges
Died December 13, 1565, Zurich, Switzerland
Books Historia animalium, Bibliotheca universalis
Education University of Strasbourg, University of Bourges, University of Basel
Similar People Claudius Aelianus, Georg Joachim Rheticus, Aristotle, Valerius Cordus, Huldrych Zwingli
Notable students Georg Joachim Rheticus
Conrad Gessner (also Konrad Gesner, Conrad Geßner, Conrad von Gesner, Conradus Gesnerus, Conrad Gesner; 26 March 1516 – 13 December 1565) was a Swiss naturalist and bibliographer. He was well known as a botanist, physician and classical linguist. His five-volume Historia animalium (1551–1558) is considered the beginning of modern zoology, and the flowering plant genus Gesneria and its family Gesneriaceae are named after him. A genus of moths is also named Gesneria after him. He is denoted by the author abbreviation Gesner when citing a botanical name.
- How One Man Organized All Knowledge
- Conrad Gessner Pionier der Wissenschaft Kulturplatz 2332016
- Historiae animalium
How One Man Organized All Knowledge
Conrad Gessner: Pionier der Wissenschaft (Kulturplatz, 23.3.2016)
Gessner was born on March 26, 1516 in Zürich, Switzerland, the the son of Ursus Gessner, a poor Zürich furrier. Gessner's father realized his talents, and sent him to live with and be schooled by a great uncle, who grew and collected medicinal herbs for a living. Here the boy became familiar with many plants and their medicinal purposes which led to a lifelong interest in natural history.
Gessner first attended the Carolinum in Zürich, then later entered the Fraumünster seminary. There he studied Latin classics. In school, he impressed his teachers so much that a few of them helped sponsor him so that he could further his education, including arranging a scholarship for him to attend universities, including University of Paris, Strassburg and Bourges (1532–1533). One, acted as a foster father to him after the death of his father at the Battle of Kappel (1531), another provided him with three years of board and lodging, while yet another arranged his further education at the upper school in Strassbourg, the Strassbourg Academy. There he broadened his knowledge of ancient languages by studying Hebrew. In 1535, religious unrest drove him back to Zürich, where he made what some considered an imprudent marriage at the age of 19, his wife having no dowry. His friends again came to his aid, obtaining a teaching position for him, and then paid absence of leave for him to study medicine at the University of Basel (1536).
Throughout his life Gessner was interested in natural history, and collected specimens and descriptions of wildlife through travel and extensive correspondence with other friends and scholars. His approach to research consisted of four main components: observation, dissection, travel to distant lands, and accurate description. This rising observational approach was new to Renaissance scholars because people usually relied completely upon Classical writers for their research. He died of the plague, the year after his ennoblement on December 13, 1565.
Gesner’s first work was a Latin-Greek Dictionary, the Lexicon Graecolatinum (1537), compiled during his studies in Basel. That year, at the age of 21, his sponsors obtained for him the professorship of Greek at the newly founded academy of Lausanne (then belonging to Bern). Here he had leisure to devote himself to scientific studies, especially botany, and earn money to further his medical studies.
After three years of teaching at Lausanne, Gessner was able to travel to the medical school at the University of Montpellier, where he received his doctoral degree (1541) from Basel. He then returned to Zürich to practice medicine, which he continued to do for the rest of his life. There he was also appointed to the post of lecturer of Aristotelean physics at the Carolinum, the precursor of the University of Zürich.
After 1554 he became the city physician. In addition to his duties there, and apart from a few journeys to foreign countries, and annual summer botanical journeys in his native land, and illnesses, he was able to produce some 70 publications on many different subjects. Not content with scientific works, Gessner was also active as a linguist, putting forth in 1555 his book entitled Mithridates de differentis linguis, an account of about 130 known languages, with the Lord's Prayer in twenty-two languages.
Gessner's great zoological work, Historiae animalium, is a 4,500-page encyclopedia of animals that appeared in Zürich in 4 volumes between 1551 and 1558: quadrupeds, amphibians, birds, and fishes. A fifth folio on snakes was issued in 1587. A German translation of the first 4 volumes titled Thierbuch was published in Zürich in 1563. This book was considered to be the first modern zoological work. It built a bridge between ancient, medieval and modern science.
In Historiae animalium Gessner combines data from old sources, such as the Old Testament, Aristotle, Pliny, folklore, and medieval bestiaries, adding his own observations. He created a new, comprehensive description of the Animal Kingdom. This was the first attempt by anyone to describe many animals accurately. The book unlike many works of its time was illustrated with hand-colored woodcuts drawn from personal observations by Gessner and his colleagues. Gessner was the first to describe the brown rat and the guinea pig in Europe.
Even though he sought to distinguish observed facts from myths and popular errors and was known for his accurate depiction of many animals in Historiae animalium, he also included many fictional animals such as the Unicorn and the Basilisk, which he had only heard about from medieval bestiaries. But when Gessner doubted the accuracy of the opinions he relayed in his own writings, or the validity of the illustrations he included, he clearly said so. Besides any plant or animal's potential advantage to people, Gessner was interested in learning about them because of the moral lessons they could teach and the divine truths they might tell. He went into as much detail about some unreal animals as he did about real ones. Later in 1556 he also combined real and fictional creatures in his edition of the works of Claudius Aelianus.
Historiae animalium includes sketches for many well-known animals, and some fictional ones, including unicorns and mermaids. He accomplished many of his works in a large part due to the web of acquaintances he established with leading naturalists throughout Europe, who included John Caius, English court physician to the Tudors and second founder of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. Not only did they send him their ideas, but also sent him plants, animals and gems. He returned the favor — and kept helpful specimens coming — by naming plants after correspondents and friends.
There was extreme religious tension at the time Historiae animalium came out. Under Pope Paul IV it was felt that the religious convictions of an author contaminated all his writings. Since Gessner was Protestant his works were included into the Roman Catholic Church's list of prohibited books. Even though religious tensions were high, Gesner maintained friendships on both sides of the Catholic-Protestant divide. In fact, Catholic booksellers in Venice protested the Inquisition's blanket ban on Gesner's books, and some of his work was eventually allowed after it had been "cleaned" of its doctrinal errors.
To his contemporaries he was best known as a botanist. Gessner wrote a similarly comprehensive survey to Historiae animalium about plant life, but his notes and about 1,500 wood engravings of plants and their important flowers and seeds were used by other authors for two centuries after his death. Although his botanical manuscripts were not published (in Nuremberg, 1751–1771, 2 vols. folio) until long after his death, he himself issuing only the Enchiridion historiae plantarum (1541) and the Catalogus plantarum (1542) in four languages. In 1545 he published his remarkable Bibliotheca universalis (ed. by J. Simler, 1574), supposedly a catalogue (in Latin, Greek and Hebrew) of all writers who had ever lived, with the titles of their works, etc. A second part, Pandectarum sive partitionum universalium libri xxi, appeared in 1548; only nineteen books being then concluded. The last, a theological encyclopaedia, was published in 1549, but the last one, intended to include his medical work, was never finished. Gessner in 1551 was the first to describe brown adipose tissue; and in 1565 the first to document the pencil.
To non-scientific readers, Gessner is best known for his love of mountains (below the snow-line) and for his many excursions among them, undertaken partly as a botanist, but also for the sake of exercise and enjoyment of the beauties of nature. In 1541 he prefixed to his Libellus de lacte et operibus lactariis a letter addressed to his friend Jacob Vogel of Glarus on the wonders to be found among the mountains, declaring his love for them, and his firm resolve to climb at least one mountain every year, not only to collect flowers, but in order to exercise his body. In 1555 he issued his narrative (Descriptio Montis Fracti sive Montis Pilati) of his excursion to the Gnepfstein (1920 m), the lowest point in the Pilatus chain.
Despite his traveling ways and the job of maintaining his own gardens, Gesner probably spent most of his time inside his own library. He listed among his History of Animals sources more than 80 Greek authors and at least 175 Latin authors, as well as works by German, French, and Italian authors. He even attempted to establish a "universal library" of all books in existence. The project might sound strange to the modern mind, but Gessner invested tremendous energy in the project. He sniffed through remote libraries along with the collections of the Vatican Library and catalogs of printers and booksellers. By assembling this universal library of information, Gessner put together a database centuries before computers would ease such work. He cut relevant passages out of books, grouped the cuttings by general theme, subdivided the groups into more specific categories, and boxed them. He could then retrieve and arrange the cuttings as needed. In the words of science writer Anna Pavord, "He was a one-man search engine, a 16th-century Google with the added bonus of critical evaluation."
To his contemporaries, Gessner was known as "the Swiss Pliny." According to legend, when he knew his time was near, he asked to be taken to his library where he had spent so much of his life, to die among his favorite books. At the time of his death, Gesner had published 72 books, and written 18 more unpublished manuscripts. His work on plants was not published until centuries after his death.
Gessner was posthumously partly responsible for Insectorum, sive, Minimorum animalium theatrum or Theatre of Insects, written jointly by him with Edward Wotton, Thomas Muffet and Thomas Penny.
In 1576 George Baker published a translation of the Evonymus of Conrad Gessner under the title of The Newe Jewell of Health, wherein is contained the most excellent Secretes of Physicke and Philosophie divided into fower bookes.