Gessner, Conrad (Also Konrad Gesner, 1516–1565)

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GESSNER, CONRAD (also Konrad Gesner, 15161565)

GESSNER, CONRAD (also Konrad Gesner, 15161565), polymath, philologist, theologian, naturalist, and town physician of Zurich from 1554. Gessner was born in 1516 into a family originally from Nuremberg. His father, Urs, was a furrier from Solothurn, Switzerland, who moved to Zurich, becoming a citizen there in 1511. Conrad's mother was Agathe Fritz (or Frick). He received a humanistic education at the Fraumünster School, and attended the Carolinum for theology. He was then tutored by Johann Jacob Ammann (15001573), a friend of Desiderius Erasmus (1466?1536), and became a protégé of Huldrych Zwingli (14841531) shortly before the reformer's death in the Battle of Kappel (1531).

Patronage allowed him to study Hebrew and give Greek lessons in Strasbourg in 1532. Thanks to Zwingli's successor, Heinrich Bullinger (15041575), and later to Johannes Steiger (15181581) of Berne, Gessner was able to travel to Basel and Paris, where he read Latin and Greek literature, rhetoric, and natural and moral philosophy. In 1534, because of persecution of Protestants, he left Paris for Strasbourg and Zurich, where he made an unhappy marriage to Barbara Singerin in 1536, and was obliged to teach elementary school. Further patronage enabled him to study medicine in Basel.

On the basis of his Lexicon Graecolatinum (1539; Greek-Latin dictionary), he was appointed professor of Greek at the Academy of Lausanne, where he also continued his studies. In 1540 he moved to Montpellier to study at the medical school and met the naturalists Guillaume Rondelet (15071566) and Pierre Belon (15171564). He received his medical degree at Basel in February 1541 and returned to Zurich to lecture on mathematics, physics, astronomy, philosophy, and ethics at the Carolinum, to practice medicine, and to write and publish prolifically in many areas. He made one trip to Spain and Italy in 1543, studying manuscripts and meeting naturalists, and another to Augsburg in 1545, where he read the Greek naturalist Aelian (fl. c. 175c. 235 C.E.) in manuscript; he was later to edit the text (1556). Gessner's Bibliotheca Universalis (1545; Universal Bibliography) and Pandectarum libri (1548; Universal Bibliography, Vol. 2) brought him fame, which increased with his later works. He became a European clearinghouse, gathering and juxtaposing with his own natural historical information from such people as William Turner (c. 15081568) and John Caius (15101573) of England, Ippolito Salviani (15141572) and Pierandrea Mattioli (15011578) of Italy, Leonhard Fuchs (15011566) and Valerius Cordus (15151544) of Germany, and Belon and Rondelet in his five-volume Historiae Animalium (15511587; Histories of animals) and its three-volume picture book version, Icones (15531560; Images). He also published a Historia Plantarum (History of plants, 1541), and prepared botanical manuscripts, published partially by Casimir Christoph Schmiedel (17181792), Gessner's biographer in the eighteenth-century, and wholly in a recent edition (Conradi Gesneri Historia Plantarum Faksimileausgabe [Conrad Gessner's history of plants, facsimile edition], 19721980, 19871991). He died ministering to victims of the plague in Zurich on 13 December 1565.

Gessner epitomizes the scientific and philological spirit of fifteenth- and early-sixteenth-century humanism, in which the search for historical truth meets the search for truth about the world around us. In his case, these interests focused on natural history. He has been called the father of modern bibliography, and of modern zoology as well.

See also Biology ; Botany ; Bullinger, Heinrich ; Erasmus, Desiderius ; Humanists and Humanism ; Natural History ; Natural Philosophy ; Nature ; Rhetoric ; Zoology ; Zwingli, Huldrych .


Fischer, Hans, Georges Petit, Joachim Staedtke, Rudolf Steiger, and Heinrich Zoller. Conrad Gessner, 15161565: Universalgelehrter, Naturforscher, Arzt. Zürich, 1967.

Leu, Urs B. Conrad Gesner als Theologe: ein Beitrag zur Zürcher Geistesgeschichte des 16. Jahrhunderts. Bern and New York, 1990.

Pyle, C. M. "Conrad Gessner on the Spelling of his Name." Archives of Natural History, 27 (2000): 175186.

Wellisch, Hans. Conrad Gessner: A Bio-bibliography. Zug, Switzerland, 1984.

Cynthia M. Pyle