Gesner, Conrad

, an eminent scholar, philosopher, and naturalist, and called the Pliny of Germany, was the son of Vasa Gesner, and Barbara Friccius, and born at Zurich in Switzerland in 1516, where he received the first rudiments of the Latin and Greek languages. His proficiency was such as to give every hope of his becoming an accomplished scholar, but the poverty of his father, who was a worker in hides, and perhaps wanted his son’s assistance in his trade, threatened a total interruption to his studies, when John James Ammian, professor of rhetoric at Zurich, took him to his house, and offered to defray the expence of his education. Gesner accordingly continued three years with Ammian, and applied to his studies with the utmost diligence. In his fifteenth year his father was killed in the civil wars of Switzerland, and his mother was no longer able to maintain him; and, added to these misfortunes, he fell into a dropsical disorder. On his recovery, finding himself destitute of friends, he determined, young as he was, to travel, in hopes of being able to provide a subsistence by his talents in some foreign country. With this view he first went to Strasburgh, where he entered into the service of Wolfgang Fabricius Capito, the learned Lutheran reformer, with whom he resumed the | study of the Hebrew language, of which he had acquired some knowledge when at Zurich. After some months’ stay here he returned to Switzerland, and the public tranquillity being restored, he procured a pension from the academy of Zurich, which enabled him to make the tour of France. He passed a year at Bourges, applying to Greek and Latin with great attention; and finding his pension too scanty to maintain him, improved his finances in some degree by teaching school. Next year, he went to Paris, but is said to have made very little progress in study while there, and returned to Strasburgh in hopes of procuring some employment from the friends he had made, but was very soon recalled by the university of Zurich, and placed at the head of a reputable school. Here he might have maintained himself in the comfortable pursuit of his studies, had he not married, a step which, although he had afterwards no reason to repent of his choice, in his present circumstances was highly injudicious, and involved him in many difficulties.

His original destination was the church, but having from his infancy a great inclination to physic, he now resolved to apply to that study as a means of livelihood. After a suitable course of reading, he resigned his school, and went to Basil, his pension being still continued, and entered on a regular course of medical instructions. From a desire to be able to read the Greek physicians, he contitinued to improve himself in that language, and was so well known for his critical skill in it, that he was promoted, in about a year, to be Greek professor at Lausanne, where an university had been just founded by the senate of Berne. The advantages of this professorship not only enabled him to maintain his family, but to proceed in his medical studies and botanical pursuits, which ended at last in his taking a doctor’s degree at Basil. He then returned to Zurich, and entered upon practice, and in a short time was made professor of philosophy, a charge which he filled with great reputation for twenty-four years, at the end of which he fell a victim to the more immediate duties of his profession, having caught the plague, of which he died Dec. 13, 1565, when only in his forty-ninth year. When he found his end approaching, he requested to be carried into his museum, where he expired amid the monuments of his labours. His piety and benevolence were no less eminent than his talents, which were great and universal. | He wrote, with much ability, on grammar, botany^ pharmacy, medicine, natural philosophy, and history; but his fame now rests chiefly on the following works: l.“Bibliotheca universalis,” or a catalogue of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew books, printed at Zurich, 1545, in one volume folio, with criticisms, and often specimens of each. Of this there have been various abridgments and continuations. The edition of 1583 by Frisius, is usually reckoned the best. Gesner’s “Pandectarum, sive partitionum universalium,” should also be added as a second volume to his “Bibliotheca.” It was printed in 1548. 2. “Historiee Animalium,” comprised in five books, making three folio vols. with numerous wooden cuts. The first was published at Zurich in 1551, the last in 1587, after the decease of the author. There is also an edition in German. This vast compilation, containing a critical revisal of all that had been done before him in zoology the^ work of a physician, who raised and maintained himself by his practice, and who was cut off in the middle of a most active and useful life might be supposed the labour of a recluse, shut up for an age in his study, and never diverted from his object by any other cares. Although it does not extend to insects or shells, his observations respecting the former make apart of the work of Mouflet, entitled “Insectorum sive Minimorum Animalium Theatrum,” published at London in 1634, the earliest book on entomology. The “Icones Animalium,” with their nomenclature, form a separate publication from the above, consisting of the wooden cuts and names only. 3. “Aquatilium Animautiuin Enumeratio juxta Plinium,” a little 8ro, printed at Zurich in 1556. 4. “De Lacte,” treating of milk and its preparations, from various authors, Zurich, 1541, in 8vo. 5. “De Secretia Remediis Thesaurus;” a Pharmacopeia, which has gone through a number of editions in various languages. 6. “De raris et admirandis herbis, quse sive quod noctu luceant, sive alias ob causas, Lunariae nominantur,” with wooden cuts, Zurich, 1555, in 4to, accompanied with a description of the celebrated mount Pilat, or Mons Fractus, the northern extremity of the Alps, which Gesner visited in 1555. 7. “De oinni rerum Fossiliuin genere, Zurich, 1565, 8vo. Also” De rerum Fossilium, Lapidum et Gemmarum maxiiue figuris*


When at Basil, as a necessary supply for his pocket, he made an extract of several Greek words from Phavorinus’s Lexicon, which he sold to a


bookseller, to insert them into a new edition of a Lexicon compiled by different hands, which was published under the title of “Lexicon GræcoLatinum,Basil, 1537, folio, and usually placed in the catalogue of Gesner’s works. The bookseller, however, with much cunning,, placed ia this edi tion a part only of these additions, intending to insert the rest only by degrees, in the subsequent editions of the book. Dying before he could accomplish this trick, Gesner was applied to in all the new reprints; the last in which he had a hand was that of 1580, folio.

.“The | botanical remarks relative to the scientific arrangement of plants, on which the supereminent merits of this great man are founded, are chiefly to be gathered from his letters, which were published after his death. From the number of wooden cuts, and of drawings, which he had prepared) it is probable he meditated a general” History of Plants," the future arrangement of which frequently occupied his thoughts, and prompted many of these letters. Gesner’s wife survived him, and notwithstanding the dangerous nature of his disease, which was accompanied with a pestilential carbuncle, she did not desert his death-bed, for he expired in her arms. He left no offspring, but at his death there remained alive of Andrew Gesner, his father’s brother, one hundred and thirty-five descendants, in children, grand-children, and great grand-children. From the latter are descended the modern family of Gesners, some of whom we are about to notice. His remains were honourably interred the day after his decease, in the cloister of the great church at Zurich, near those of his intimate friend, Frysjus, who died the preceding year. Abundance of Latin, and some Greek verses, were composed to his honour, and his life, written by his countryman Josias Sirnler, was published in the ensuing year. Haller mentions Gesner as probably the first person who, being short-sighted, found the advantage of concave glasses.

Dr. Pulteney’s account of the fate of Gesner’s excellent figures, forms, as he justly observes, a mortifying anecdote in the literary history of the science of botany. Of the 1500 figures left by Gesner, prepared for his “History of Plants,” at his death, a large share passed into the “Epitome Matthioli,” published by Camerarius in 1586, which contained in the whole 1003 figures; and in the same year, as also in a second edition in 1590, they embellished an abridged translation of Matthiolus, printed under the name of the “German Herbal.” In 1609 the same blocks were used by Uftenbach for the Herbal of | Castor Durantes, printed at Francfort. This publication, however, comprehends only 948 of these icons, nearly 100 being introduced of very inferior merit. After this period, Camerarius the younger being dead, these blocks were purchased by Goerlin, a bookseller of Ulm, and next served for the “Parnassus medicinalis illustratus” of Becher, printed in that city in 1663. In 1678 they were taken into a German herbal by Bernard Verzacha; and such was the excellence of the materials and workmanship of these blocks, that they were exhibited a sixth time in the “Theatrum Botanicum” of Zwinger, Basil, 1696, and finally in a new edition of the same wor.k, so late as 1744. Thus did the genius and labours of Gesner add dignity and ornament to the works of other men, and even of some whose enmity he had experienced during his lifetime. Besides the above mentioned, Gesner left five volumes, consisting entirely of figures, which, after various vicissitudes, became the property of Trew, of Norimberg, who gratified the public, by the pen of Dr. Schmiedel, with an ample specimen, published in 1753. 1


Life by Simler.—Niceron, vol. XVII.—Rees’s Cyclopædia.Pulteney’s Sketches.—Haller Bibl. Botan.—. Curieuse.—Saxii Onomast.