Conrad Gesner was born in Zurich, Switzerland, the son of a furrier with many children and little money. Although his father was killed in battle fighting for the Protestant cause when Gesner was only 15, he nevertheless received a good classical education, and at first planned to enter the ministry. But his interests in natural science diverted him onto another path.
In 1533 Gesner was awarded a traveling scholarship, and spent two happy years in self-directed study in Bourges and Paris. Outbreaks of religious persecution caused him to flee Paris in 1535; he traveled first to Strasbourg, then to Basle where he earned his doctorate in 1541. He finally settled in Zurich, and was eventually appointed chief physician for the city.
Gesner, in the best scholarly tradition, was a man of many languages: he spoke Dutch, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, Latin, probably some English, and had a reading knowledge of Arabic. Botany, zoology and medicine were his principal interests, and his output on these subjects was enormous: at least 71 books published during his lifetime, and 18 more in manuscript form at the time of his death. His monumental Opera botanica contained 1,500 illustrations; his four-volume Bibliotheca universalis earned him fame as the "founder of bibliography;" and his 4,500-page Historia animalium influenced Cuvier and many later biologists. Adams, in his Birth and Development of the Geological Sciences (1938), wrote:
“Gesner's aim was to embody the work of all previous writers and then to complete the treatment of the several subjects by information drawn from his own observations, or from those of the great host of naturalists in all countries with whom he maintained a continuous correspondence. Most of his works on natural history were elaborately illustrated, so that he was obliged to keep a draftsman and an engraver continuously at work in his house preparing illustrations.”
Gesner, like Mathesius, had been influenced by Agricola's work, and he decided in the early 1560s to expand his natural history research and writings into the field of mineralogy, and to assemble a mineral collection for reference and illustration purposes. He was an avid field collector of botanical specimens, and had written a small work on the joys of Alpine mountain climbing, so it is likely that he personally collected at least some of the mineral specimens in his collection. However, many others were probably gifts from his many correspondents. He had his illustrators render several of his mineral specimens, but was not well pleased with the results.
In 1565 Gesner published his first book on minerals, De omni rerum fossilium . . . ["Everything concerning the subject of the origins of things dug up: gems, stones, minerals and things of that sort, in several books, most of them now published for the first time through the efforts of C. Gesner"]. It was an anthology composed of eight books, each related in some way to minerals. Gesner's printer/publisher was reluctant to publish short works, a problem which may have inspired Gesner to conjoin the eight short treatises, only one of which he had written himself. The others were by Johannes Kentmann, Georg Fabricius, Severin Goebel, Valerius Cordi, Francois La Rue and Epiphanius.
Gesner considered De omni rerum fossilium to be the first illustrated book on minerals. And so it is, with the exception of two limestone nodules pictured in Christopher Encelius's De re metallica and some gypsum crystals portrayed in Jacob Meydenbach's Hortus sanitatus (1491). Gesner published the first illustrations of a Kongsberg wire silver, a green tourmaline crystal (“Brazilian emerald”), a prismatic quartz crystal and a cubic pyrite crystal.
Gesner's own contribution to the above collection, De rerum fossilium, was essentially an outline for a proposed classification of minerals based on external form. It was written "offhand and rapidly, as a pleasure and recreation, and was intended to stimulate and encourage all students who were interested in minerals" (Adams, 1938). He wanted to develop some correspondence and feedback on the subject, providing an informal opportunity for others to discuss corrections and additions with him. It was his intention to later publish a more comprehensive and thorough volume on minerals, which would surely have been large and magnificently illustrated. Unfortunately, Gesner contracted the plague in that same year and died prematurely at the age of 49.
Gesner's mineral collection was acquired by Felix Platter (1536-1614), a fellow Swiss naturalist living in Basle, and was carefully preserved by his descendants. The English naturalist John Ray (1627-1705) wrote in 1673 that he had seen Gesner's specimens, and described them as "a good collection of minerals, stones, metals . . . the names being set to each one." Platter's collection was ultimately acquired by the Natural History Museum in Basle, but there is no way of determining today which of the few surviving specimens had originally been Gesner's.
ADAMS, F. D. (1938) Birth and Development of the Geological Sciences.
WILSON, W. E. (1994) The history of mineral collecting, 1530-1799. Mineralogical Record, 25 (6), 23-24.
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||Conrad Gesner at age 48, the year before his death from the plague in 1565. Painting by Tobias Stimmer.|
||Vellum binding from a copy of Gesner's only mineralogical work, De Omni rerum fossilium (1565). The spine reads: "Gesner. Gesner in Arabic. deFossilibus." (Mineralogical Record Library)|
||Title page of Gesner's only mineralogical work, De Omni rerum fossilium (1565) ("Everything about things dug up from the ground"). (Mineralogical Record Library).|