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GESNER, KONRAD (b. Zurich, Switzerland, 26
March 1516; d. Zurich, 13 March 1565), natural sciences,
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
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 non-flowering
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 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
Zürich,79 (1934), 174-194; H. Günther, “K.
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. (Munich, 1912).