1902 Encyclopedia > Konrad Gesner (or Gessner)

Konrad Gesner
Swiss naturalist and author

KONRAD GESNER, or GESSNER, (1516-1565), a very famous naturalist and author, surnamed the German Pliny and literarum miraculum on account of his vast erudition, was born of poor parents at Zurich, 26th March 1516. He received the first elements of education from Chaplain Frick, his maternal uncle; and it was while gathering plants in his relative's garden that he became imbued with that enthusiastic love of science which remained with him through life. In 1531 he went to Strasburg, then to Bourges, and in 1534 to Paris, studying at all those places with characteristic passionate zeal. In 1535 we find him again in Zurich, where he married somewhat imprudently, for he was very poor, and had no immediate prospect of bettering his condition. His whole day was occupied in teaching, but at least the night was his own, and too great a portion of the time that others give to rest was occupied by Gesner in adding to his already great stock of erudition. In 1537 he was appointed professor of Greek at Lausanne, and in 1541 professor of physics and natural history at Zurich. But in neither of these offices was he well paid, and during those years he wrote a large number of books, partly to support himself, partly from the interest he felt in their subjects. He wrote several works on ancient medicine and on botany, and a treatise on milk (in which he described the rural economy of Switzerland), translated into Latin a Greek logical manual and some works on the moral interpretation of Homer, carefully edited a new edition of Johannis Stobcei Sentential (Zurich, 1543) and an expurgated edition of Martial (1544), pre-pared a new edition of the Latin dictionary of Ambrosius Calepinus (Basel, 1544), and wrote besides some lesser dis-sertations and translations. All this, however, was only mere side work, for in 1545 he issued at Zurich the first part of his justly renowned Bibliotheca Universalis, a cata-logue of all the works in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, extant and not extant, published or as yet unpublished. Under each important name there was given a vast mass of biblio-graphical information and criticism, original and selected. Three years later the second part of this stupendous work appeared, likewise at Zurich, under the title of Pandectarum sive partitionum universalium Conradi Gesneri Tigurini Libri XXI. Only nineteen of these books then appeared; the twenty-first, which was a theological encyclopaedia, was published in 1549, but the twentieth, which was to contain the medical writings, and which he intended should repre-sent the quintessence of the labours of a lifetime, was never finished and never published.

The next few years were spent in writing small trea-tises, and in the preparation of another magnum opus, a zoological work entitled Historia Animalium, which was published in six books (the last of these unfinished) at Zurich between 1551 and 1587. To prepare himself for the worthy execution of this undertaking he read 250 authors, travelled over nearly all Europe, received hints from hosts of learned friends, and did not disdain the information which he obtained from hunters and shepherds. He also made himself a proficient artist, in order that he might by drawings assist his labours. This work contained the names of all known animals in the ancient and modern languages, a description of each as to every important particular, and a mass of interesting literary information, embracing facts and legends regarding them. After this he again occupied himself with lesser writings for some years. He devoted some attention to philology, aided in the preparation of a German-Latin dictionary, and pointed out the force and undreamt-of beauty that lay in that then vulgar and half-developed tongue. But again these and other publications were only secondary labours, for he had a third great work in preparation. He had for some time given great atten-tion to botany, and he now proposed to publish a work on that science corresponding to his great work on zoology. He had made a large collection of materials towards this when his health, never very good, completely gave way. A few hours before his death he desired to be carried into his museum, and there he spent the last moments of life. He died 13th December 1565, not having completed his fiftieth year.

Gesner's intense devotion to science, and his almost incredible powers of acquisition, are seen from the recital of the facts of his biography, and from a mere catalogue of his labours. It deserves to be added that his life was sin-gularly pure and blameless, that his love of knowledge was as disinterested as it was engrossing, that he was always ready and glad to acknowledge any help he received. When obliged to engage in controversy, he did so in a dignified and courteous manner. His medical writings show him to have been far above the silly prejudices of his day. A cheerful and amiable piety was a prominent feature in his character—a character chastened, not soured, by the trials of a hard lifetime.

After Gesner's death his unpublished writings went through a career of vicissitudes not unlike that of their author. A part of them, edited by Professor Schmiedel, was published at Nuremberg in 1753. Other parts followed, but the work was never completed. Lives of Gesner have been written by J. Simmler (Zürich, 1566) and J. Hanhart (Winterthur, 1824). See also Lebert's Gesner als Arzt (Zürich, 1854), and Gesner's autobiography in his Bibliotheca Universalis (1st ed., p. 180).

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