Conrad Gesner

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(History of the World: The Renaissance)

Article abstract: Gesner was a Renaissance man, who collected, studied, and published the works of earlier literary, medical, and natural history authorities; he also compiled encyclopedic surveys of earlier scholarship in these fields. Equally as important, however, was Gesner’s extension of knowledge, particularly in the fields of philology and natural history.

Early Life

Conrad Gesner was one of many children of Ursus Gesner, a Zurich furrier, and Agathe Frick. His family formed an undistinguished branch of a Swiss family that would become famous for having produced several acclaimed scholars, physicians, and scientists in the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries. Conrad was the godson and protegé of the Swiss Protestant reformer Huldrych Zwingli, and during his early school years he lived with an uncle, a minister, who engendered in him an interest in theology and botany. First Gesner attended the Carolinum, then he entered the Fraümunster seminary, in Zurich. There, in the Humanist tradition, he studied the Latin classics. After the death of both Zwingli and Gesner’s father on the battlefield at Kappel in defense of Zwingli’s reformed religion in 1531, Gesner left Zurich for Strasbourg. There he expanded his study of the ancient languages by studying Hebrew with Wolfgang Capito at the Strasbourg Academy.

After his interest in theological studies waned, Gesner began to study medicine alongside his studies of ancient languages. Gesner traveled to Bourges and then to Paris for medical studies. In 1535, he returned to Strasbourg, then to Zurich. In Zurich, Gesner married a young girl from a poor family, whose later ill health placed great strain on his meager financial resources. They lived for some time in Basel, before moving to Lausanne.

Life’s Work

From 1537 until 1540, Gesner held the first chair of Greek at the Lausanne Academy, after which he resigned his position in Lausanne and moved to Montpellier to continue medical and botanical studies. He received a doctorate in medicine at Basel in 1541. Later that year, Gesner settled in Zurich, where he became the city’s chief physician. In Zurich, Gesner also held the chair of philosophy. In 1552, a serious illness sapped his strength. Gesner lived on the edge of poverty, but about this time he was awarded the position of canonicus in an attempt to improve his financial situation. Although Gesner’s health suffered during the last ten years of his life, in 1555 the Zurich city magistrates appointed Gesner professor of natural history. He held this professorship until his death during an epidemic of the plague in Zurich in 1565. Gesner’s scholarship centered on philology, medicine, and natural history. His work in natural history, which interested him most, was in the fields of botany, zoology, paleontology, and crystallography.

Proficient in many languages, Gesner undertook numerous philological and linguistic studies. His most significant contribution in philology is his four-volume Bibliotheca universalis (1545-1555), a biobibliography of all Greek, Latin, and Hebrew writers, ancient to contemporary, known in Gesner’s day. Considered the first great annotated bibliography of printed books, it established Gesner’s reputation as a philologist and put him in contact with many contemporary scholars. Gesner also published translations and editions of many classical texts. In linguistics, he produced a Greek-Latin dictionary, one of the first studies ever attempted in comparative grammar, in which he cataloged around 130 ancient to contemporary languages and dialects. Gesner also prepared editions and compilations of classical medical texts, as well as publishing original treatises on medical and pharmaceutical topics.

Gesner’s observation of plants, a result of his philological work, led to his interest in their medical uses. He collected and read widely in classical botanical works, from which he extracted information for encyclopedic publications such as his

(The entire section is 2,029 words.)