(b. Zurich, Switzerland, 26 March 1516; d. Zurich, 13 March 1565)
natural sciences, medicine, philology.
The godson and protégé of the Protestant reformer Ulrich Zwingli, Gesner was destined from early childhood to study theology. He attended the Carolinum in his native Zurich and later entered the Fraumünster seminary. After the death of his godfather and protector in 1531 at the Battle of Kappel, Gesner left Zurich; the following year he was at the Strasbourg Academy, where he attended the courses of Wolfgang Capito and soon became a Hebrew scholar. Theological studies no longer held much interest for him, however; and he turned to medicine, studying first at Bourges, then at Paris, and later at Basel, from which he received his doctorate in 1541. Meanwhile he was pursuing his studies of ancient languages. Such was his reputation that the government of Bern appointed him the first occupant of the chair of Greek, which he held from 1537 to 1540, at the newly founded Lausanne Academy.
On the advice of his close friend Christophe Clauser, then chief physician of Zurich, Gesner traveled to Montpellier to carry on work in botany. He settled permanently in Zurich, where he was named chief physician and was later elevated to canonicus, a position that substantially improved his financial status. Gesner was an ardent traveler: he explored the Alps and the Adriatic coast, bringing back from his many excursions documents that he used in preparing his treatises on botany and zoology. In 1555 Gesner climbed—under difficult conditions —Mont Pilate, overlooking Lake Lucerne, and brought back useful data on Alpine flora. He died during the plague epidemic that began in Brazil in 1560 and reached Zurich in 1565.
Two dominant poles of interest can be discerned in Gesner’s work. At times they oriented him toward letters, but more often they directed him to the natural sciences.
In 1535 Gesner compiled a Greek-Latin dictionary, and from 1537 to 1540 he taught Greek at Lausanne. He published several treatises on philology, notably one in which he transcribed the Lord’s Prayer in twenty-two languages. He devoted several years to the preparation of a treatise, the four-volume Bibliotheca universalis (1545–1555), an index to Greek, Latin, and Hebrew writers that earned him fame and marks him as the founder of bibliography and brought him into correspondence with all the scholars of his time.
But natural history remained his first interest. Fascinated by botany as a youth, Gesner continued his studies in that field at Lausanne and Montpellier. He never succeeded, however in publishing the monumental treatise on which he had worked throughout his life. This Opera botanica, for which he himself drew nearly 1,500 plates, was published in two volumes from 1551 to 1571 through the efforts of C. Schmiedel. Gesner was virtually the only botanist of his time to grasp the importance of floral structures as a means of establishing a systematic key to the classification of vegetable life. He was also the first to stress the nature of seeds, which enabled him to establish the kinship of plants that seemed extremely dissimilar. Later, Linnaeus would frequently acknowledge his own debt to Gesner.
Zoology also attracted Gesner, who patterned his Historia animalium on a work published a few years earlier by Aelian. This massive work of more than 4,500 pages received immediate acclaim; even Georges Cuvier later delighted in recognizing its enduring interest. The attempt of the treatise to regroup animals recalls the principal themes that Gesner defended in proposing a classification of the vegetable kingdom according to flowering and nonflowering plants, vascular and nonvascular plants, and so on. Gesner was also drawn to animal physiology and pathology, and he is considered by some the founder of veterinary science.
Gesner’s interests extended to the study of paleontology, in which he wrote several memoirs on vegetable forms no longer extant. He is also considered the first naturalist to have sketched fossils. In addition, he studied crystallography and was one of the first to include printed plates of crystals in his works.
Works concerning Gesner are J. C. Bay, “Conrad Gesner: The Father of Bibliography,” in Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, 10 no. 2 (1916), 53–86; H. Escher, “Die Bibliotheca universalis K. Gesners,” in Vierteljahrsschrift der Naturforschenden Gesellschaft in Zürich79 (1934), 174–194; H. Günther, “K. Gesner als Tierarzt,” thesis (Leipzig, 1933); W. Ley, K. Gesner Leben und Werk (Munich, 1929); and K. Müller, Der polyhistor Konrad Gesner als Freund und Förderer erdkundlicher Studien, doctoral diss. (Munnich, 1912).
P. E. Pilet