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Konrad von Gesner

Konrad von Gesner

The Swiss naturalist Konrad von Gesner (1516-1565) wrote "Historia animalium," which is considered the basis of modern zoology.

Konrad von Gesner was born on March 26, 1516, in Zurich. The man who was to become known as the German Pliny and to be ennobled by the Hapsburg emperor Ferdinand I began his life inauspiciously. His father, a poor furrier, perished in the battle of Kappel in 1531, as the wars spawned by the Reformation laid bloody hands on the Swiss cantons.

Young Gesner came under the protection of Heinrich Bullinger, Huldreich Zwingli's successor, and Oswald Myconius, the Protestant classics scholar. Their generosity permitted Gesner to undertake studies at the University of Strassburg, where he displayed great linguistic talent and interest in nature. Although he angered his guardians by marrying a beautiful but impoverished lady, Gesner was allowed to continue his studies at Basel, where he also studied medicine.

Gesner secured the professorship in Greek at Lausanne in 1537 and speedily compiled a dictionary in that language. The city physician of Zurich prevailed upon the young scholar to resume his medical studies so after wandering across France, Gesner settled down at the medical school of Montpellier and became a doctor of medicine. For his degree he successfully defended an anti-Aristotelian thesis on the nature of sensation.

Sometime after 1540 Gesner began teaching Aristotelian physics at the Collegium Carolinium. In his spare time he composed his Bibliotheca universalis, a vast encyclopedia in which he listed alphabetically all of the authors who had written in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew, with a listing of all their books printed up to that time. This work made Gesner famous, and offers of scholarly employment poured in, including one from the Fuggers, the richest family of Europe. The Fuggers, however, attached the condition that Gesner embrace Catholicism, which he refused. He spent the rest of his life as a practicing physician at Zurich, leaving only for short expeditions to study flora and fauna.

In 1551 Gesner began work on the most comprehensive survey of nature undertaken during the Renaissance epoch, his monumental Historia animalium, an illustrated encyclopedia of the entire domain of living creatures: birds, fish, and animals. The work was an improvement of earlier European efforts of this kind but reflected the transitional nature of Renaissance scientific thought. Though including descriptions of creatures from remote America, Asia, Russia, and Africa, Gesner also described a host of mythical beasts. Although he had used such taxonomic devices as "genus, species" and "class, order" in his description of plants, Gesner showed little advance over Aristotle in discerning a pattern of biological order, a task to be delayed for almost 2 centuries. His book was beautifully illustrated by artists of the time and included drawings by Albrecht Dürer.

In 1555 Gesner wrote a tome on his first love, languages, entitled Mithridates. In 1564 the emperor Ferdinand conferred the title of nobility on Gesner, who designed his coat of arms to portray the books he had written and those that he still planned, including one on nine classical authors and one on gems. In 1565 the plague, which has been identified from Gesner's description as a form of pulmonary bubonic, came to Zurich, and on December 13 he died. A true child of his turbulent times, Gesner was still enthralled by a semireligious vision of nature, a vision composed of an unstable mixture of Aristotle, Scripture, and a passionate desire to explore and observe nature directly and personally.

Further Reading

There is no biography of Gesner in English. Useful studies are Henry Morley, Clement Morot and Other Studies (2 vols., 1871; repr. 1970); Frank Dawson Adams, Birth and Development of the Geological Sciences (1938); and George Sarton, Six Wings: Men of Science in the Renaissance (1957).

Additional Sources

Braun, Lucien, Conrad Gessner, Geneve: Editions Slatkine, 1990. □

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Gesner, Konrad von (1516-1565)

Gesner, Konrad von (1516-1565)

German physician, zoologist, and naturalist

Konrad von Gesner, a dedicated physician by many accounts, somehow managed to produce approximately 90 manuscripts during his short life span. The topics of his publications were encyclopedic in scope and ranged from zoology to theology, mountains to medicines, and to many other subjects that struck his fancy. Of all his works, the one of most interest to geologists is Fossils, Gems, and Stones (the full Latin title of this work is De Rerum Fossilium, Lapid um et Gemmarum maxime, figuris et similitudinibus Liber: non solum Medicis, sed omnibus rerum Naturae ac Philogiae studiosis, utilis et juncundus futurus ). It was published in the year of his death (1565).

Gesner's Fossils, Stones, and Gems is significant primarily for two contributions to the study of fossils , minerals , rocks, and gems. First, although he did not recognize fossils as the remains of once living things (he labeled them stony concretions), Gesner realized that their unusual appearance deserved recognition. Therefore, he assembled the first extensive collection of fossil illustrations. However, he was not the first to publish fossil illustrations, as some historians have suggested; German naturalist Christophorus Encelius (15171583) included illustrations of four fossils in a publication 14 years prior to Gesner's work. Gesner's illustrations went far beyond Encelius' work in scope and even included the four illustrations from Encelius' publication.

Second, like his contemporary, German scientist Georgius Agricola (14941555), Gesner recognized the inadequacy of past methods of classifying fossils, rocks, minerals, and gems which ranged from alphabetical listings to nonsensical mystical properties. Agricola solved the classification problem by carefully identifying physical and chemical properties of certain minerals, a methodology that remains in effect today. Gesner approached the classification problem from a very different perspective. He constructed a list of 15 classes into which he held that most fossils, rocks, minerals, and gems could be categorized.

To the modern geologist, some of these classes may seem trivial or illogical. In class three, for example, fossil Echinoderms, Neolithic stone axes, and minerals that have a smokey appearance are all grouped together as objects that fell from the sky. This class was derived from the teachings of the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384322 b.c.) and was believed to be the literal truth. Other classes appear to have little value. Class thirteen bears this out by including only fossils, rocks, minerals, and gems that derive their names from birds. A few of Gesner's classes, however, proved valuable to future fossil research. Despite the fact that neither Gesner nor his contemporaries recognized fossils as the remains of living things, he applied his remarkable knowledge of zoology to a practical classification of many fossils. Class 10 (coral in appearance), Class 11 (coral like sea plants in appearance), Class 14 (appearance of things living in the sea), and Class 15 (appearance of insects and serpents) all make this point.

It was not until 136 years after Gesner's death that English naturalist, John Ray (16281705), declared that fossils were the remains of ancient life and another hundred years before Ray's views were generally accepted. But it was Gesner's early illustrations and some of his methods of classification that highlighted the remarkable similarities between the fossil record and living organisms.

Historians have recorded that Konrad von Gesner refused to leave his patients when the plague struck Zürich, Switzerland in 1565. After contracting the disease himself, he asked to be carried to his study when he felt death was near. It was there, among his voluminous library and eclectic collections, that he died.

See also Fossil record; Fossils and fossilization

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Gesner, Konrad von

Konrad von Gesner (kôn´rät fən gĕs´nər), 1516–65, Swiss scientist and bibliographer. Gesner was noted for his scholarship and erudition in almost every field of knowledge. He lived in Zürich and other European cities, teaching physics and natural history and practicing medicine and surgery. Among his works was a dictionary of plants, Historia plantarum, written in 1541; most of his botanical writings were collected and published (2 vol., 1751–71) as the Opera botanica. He is most important as a reviver of the classical school of zoological description that culminated in the work of Linnaeus. Gesner's beautifully illustrated compendium Historia animalium (5 vol., 1551–58, 1587) influenced both biology and the arts and is considered the foundation of zoology as a science. The genus Gesneria is named after him. His other works include Mithridates (1555), a philological study of 130 languages, and Bibliotheca universalis (4 vol., 1545–49), an index in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew of writings in all languages.

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