Biography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2029

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.

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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 Historia plantarum et vires ex Dioscoride, Paulo Aegineta, Theophrasto, Plinio, et recētioribus Graecis (1541; the history of plants and their powers from Dioscorides, Paulo Aegineta, Theophrastus, Pliny the Elder, and the more recent Greek authors).

Gesner also developed an interest in plants and animals, and, like most sixteenth century botanists, he focused upon collecting, describing, and classifying both known and newly discovered plants. Along with other northern botanists, Gesner increased the number and accuracy of available empirical descriptions of plants in several ways. He recorded many original empirical observations, and he provided numerous descriptions of new and little-known plants. For example, his treatise De tulipa Turcarum (1561; on the Turkish tulip) was the first descriptive monograph on that plant. One of the leaders of the trend toward realistic illustrations, this botanist himself drew more than fifteen hundred plates for his Opera botanica (1751-1771; botanical works), which contained the bulk of his botanical writings. Gesner also encouraged observation of plants by founding a botanical garden and a natural history collection in Zurich.

Gesner is especially noteworthy in this period for the system of botanical classification he developed. Gesner grouped plants according to whether they were flowering or nonflowering and vascular or nonvascular, among other things. Upon the suggestion of Valerius Cordus, Gesner also chose a plant’s organs of generation, the flower and fruit, as the key characteristics by which to classify it. In addition, Gesner first advanced the idea of natural families, and in so doing he moved biological classification toward natural systems. He distinguished different species of a genus and was the first botanist to utilize seeds to establish kinship between otherwise dissimilar plants.

Among Gesner’s contributions to zoology can be listed editions of earlier zoological treatises, but his most important accomplishment in this field was the publication of his monumental, five-volume Historiae animalium (1551-1587; history of animals). In Historiae animalium, Gesner included all animals described by earlier authorities, generally without questioning the real existence of the animal or the validity of the description. He classified members of the animal kingdom according to the Aristotelian scheme, and within each group he arranged individual animals alphabetically by name. For each animal included, Gesner listed all known names, as well as the animal’s range and habitat, habits, diet, morphology and anatomy, diseases, usefulness (including medical uses), and role in literature and history. The work is heavily illustrated, containing a woodcut for every animal. Many of the illustrations, drawn by the author himself, are quite novel and show evidence of careful empirical observation.

In Gesner’s only publication in the field of paleontology, De rerum fossilium, lapidum, et gemmarum maximè, figuris et similitudinibus liber (1565; on the shapes and resemblances of fossils, stones, and gems), Gesner used the term “fossil” to refer to any object dug from the earth. He included extinct vegetable and animal forms, now rightly called fossils, in this group, but he also included minerals, ores, shells, stone axes, pencils, and other debris in the same category. Although Gesner did regard some exceptional fossils as petrified animals, for the most part he accepted the traditional theory that they were figures formed in stone by astral influences, by subterranean vapors, or by internal vegetative forces during the growth of the surrounding stone. In his classification of these objects, Gesner abandoned the medieval alphabetical system. Instead, Gesner divided his fossils into fifteen categories, using the criteria of their geometric shapes or resemblance to a variety of inanimate and living things. Gesner placed crystals in his first category (fossils whose forms are based upon geometric concepts) and described them according to the angles they exhibited. His De rerum fossilium was the first work on fossils to contain a significant number of illustrations, as well as one of the earliest works to include illustrations of crystals.

Summary

As a Renaissance Humanist, Conrad Gesner placed great value on studying previous scholarly works; in so doing, he accumulated an encyclopedic knowledge of the arts, the sciences, and medicine. Gesner also collected, edited, and published the works of selected literary, medical, and natural history writers, from the Greek and Latin classics to his own day. He is credited with collecting and surveying a vast amount of previous knowledge in encyclopedic publications in philology and natural history. He was one of the earliest and best postmedieval encyclopedists. In philology, his work initiated modern bibliographical studies and earned for him the title “father of bibliography.” Writing just before European biologists were swamped by the deluge of new plant and animal forms from the New World and the microscopic realm, Gesner sought to collect previous knowledge about the living world, and his massive histories of plants and animals are testaments to his industry. Of the few zoological encyclopedias produced in the sixteenth century, Gesner’s Historiae animalium ranks as the best, and it immediately earned for him an international reputation. Moreover, Gesner made original contributions to the fields of philology, medicine, botany, zoology, and geology. In philology, his research in comparative linguistics was unprecedented.

In extending knowledge, however, Gesner’s most important contribution was to natural history. He was among the first early modern authors to question earlier biological accounts and to present firsthand descriptions and illustrations based on his own observation of nature. In botany, Gesner offered improved illustrations and innovative classification schemes. In presenting a scheme of classification according to structure, particularly according to the reproductive organs, Gesner advanced an idea that would later transform the study of botany. Although Gesner exerted little influence upon contemporary natural historians, in the eighteenth century the biologist Linnaeus acknowledged his debt to Gesner’s focus on floral structures and the nature of seeds in botanical classification. Today the plant family Gesneriaceae, composed of about fifteen hundred species of plants, is named in Gesner’s honor.

Gesner also contributed to the sweeping changes under way in the fields of zoology and geology in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. His Historiae animalium, a landmark in the history of zoology, occasionally displays a critical attitude when presenting collected knowledge. The studies of animal physiology and pathology presented there have led some historians to consider Gesner the founder of veterinary science. The Historiae animalium is also significant in the history of zoology because it introduced new and accurate descriptions and illustrations of the animal world. So innovative was that zoological work that Georges Cuvier considered it to be the founding work of modern zoology. Finally, even in his last treatise on fossils, Gesner broke ancient and medieval bonds. His classification and illustrations of fossils set the stage for the development of modern paleontology and crystallography.

Bibliography

Adams, Frank Dawson. The Birth and Development of the Geological Sciences. Reprint. New York: Dover, 1954. Adams’ excellent history of geology includes the best account in English of Gesner’s system of fossil classification, two pages of reprinted illustrations of fossils from De rerum fossilium, as well as a brief biography.

Bay, J. Christian. “Conrad Gesner (1516-1565): The Father of Bibliography.” Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 10, no. 2 (1916): 53-86. The best existing biography of Gesner in English. Focuses on Gesner’s contribution to bibliographic studies and places it within the context of the humanistic studies of the Reformation. Contains a helpful bibliography of the early editions of Gesner’s Bibliotheca universalis, Historiae animalium, and supplements to them where applicable.

Crombie, A. C. Medieval and Early Modern Science. Vol. 2, Science in the Later Middle Ages and Early Modern Times, XIII-XVII Centuries. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1959. Offers a general description of Gesner’s work in botany, zoology, and paleontology. Gesner is placed within the broader history of these sciences.

Debus, Allen G. Man and Nature in the Renaissance. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1978. Debus presents a very good, brief, and somewhat detailed account of Gesner’s Historiae animalium. Chapter 3, “The Study of Nature in a Changing World,” is especially recommended for placing Gesner’s scholarship in natural history within the context of Renaissance science.

Reed, Karen M. “Renaissance Humanism and Botany.” Annals of Science 33 (1976): 519-542. This excellent article describes the translating, collecting, and other work of the Renaissance Humanists in botany in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Reed gives an account of the milieu in which Gesner’s work took place.

Topsell, Edward. The Historie of Foure-Footed Beastes. New York: Da Capo Press, 1973.

Topsell, Edward. The Historie of Serpents. New York: Da Capo Press, 1973. Both of these works are based heavily upon Gesner’s work. They are recommended reading as primary documents illustrating Gesner’s zoological work.

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