Wednesday, April 27, 2016


     As you might imagine, the 16th century was a wiki-less world.  Is that any wonder?  There were only two ways to gain knowledge: find something out through your own experience, or read about it in a book.  The limits of both of these methods should be fairly obvious.  Knowing everything was simply beyond human capacity.
     And yet, working alone against insurmountable odds, one person devoted his life to trying.  And here is where I shamelessly plagiarize myself by copying one of my posts from last year's A to Z Challenge.  It's cheating, I know, but Konrad Gesner's scholarly ambitions and accomplishments were so extraordinary that I don't feel the least bit guilty about shining a light on him once again.

                                                                  (1516 - 1565)

     Honestly, I'm not at all sure how to categorize Gesner.  Some of the people I've been posting about make it easy: painter, midwife, astronomer.  Gesner is not one of those people.  He's often referred to as a naturalist, but if I had to categorize him, it might actually be as a categorizer!  Essentially, he created exhaustive databases compiled through laborious research, which he conducted both hands-on and through information received from his huge number of correspondents located around the world.  Had he lived in our century, he would have invented the first Internet search engine.  Living as he did in the 16th century, he did the very best he could with the tools available to him, and his very best was nothing short of astounding.
     For a thumbnail sketch of this man, I couldn't hope to do better than Daniel Boorstin, former Librarian of Congress and ongoing Knower of Everything, so I'm just going to quote this paragraph from p. 427 of his book, THE DISCOVERERS:

          These opportunities (voyages to the New World) inspired a new generation
           of encyclopedists of nature. The most remarkable of them, Konrad Gesner,
           had a genius for grafting the new onto the old. Prodigiously learned in
           several languages, Gesner was torn between what he had read and what he
           saw. He was born into a poor Zurich family in 1516, educated himself as
           a vagrant scholar, and, when he was only twenty, wrote a Greek-Latin
           dictionary. In the next thirty years he turned out seventy volumes on
           every conceivable subject. His monumental Bibliotheca Universalis (4
           vols., 1545-1555) aimed to provide a catalogue of all writings that had
           ever existed in Latin, Greek and Hebrew. Gesner listed eighteen hundred
           authors and titles of their works in manuscript and in print, with summaries
           of their content. Thus he earned his title as the Father of Bibliography.
           What cartography was to explorers on land and sea, bibliography would
           be to libraries.

     If by any chance your mind is not yet blown, I'll now go on to tell you about his five-volume Historia Animalium, which, in Boorstin's words, "supplied everything known, speculated, imagined, or reported about all known animals."  Gesner divided the animal kingdom into quadrupeds, amphibians, birds, fishes and snakes.  Because he was being as inclusive as he could with this catalogue, it featured some animals with which you or I might not be particularly familiar:

     But truly - the last thing I want to do is mock Gesner.  If he didn't know for a fact that a particular creature didn't exist, he included it just in case it did.  (Fun fact: the Historia Amimalium  made it onto the Church's list of Banned Books.  Was it, perhaps, because he included mermaids, unicorns and basilisks?  Nah.  It was because he was Protestant!)   Gesner's approach to every academic subject was far beyond thorough.  Which reminds me - Did I mention that he was primarily a botanist?  And, oh yeah - also a physician.  And a mountain climber.  If he wasn't the guy for whom the term "Renaissance man" was coined, he gets my vote for the title.
     Gesner's education wasn't quite as haphazard as Boorstin suggests; his intelligence was so apparent to all his teachers that at an early age he acquired some important sponsors who supported him financially and put him through top universities.  At the age of 21 Gesner became a professor of Greek at the Academy of Lausanne.  The steady income enabled him to devote time to studying botany.  After teaching at Lausanne for three years, he left to attend medical school at the world-renowned University of Montpelier in France.  He received his degree in 1541, when he was 25, and relocated to Zurich to practice medicine and to teach physics at the Collegium Carolinum, the precursor to the University of Zurich.  In 1554 he became the city physician, and he remained in Zurich for the rest of his life.  It was during this settled period that he began his writings in earnest. 
     In addition to his other interests, he was also a linguist, and in 1555 published a book describing about 130 known languages.  He was always collecting samples of plants and having his farflung friends send him even more samples.  Although only two of his botanical books were published during his lifetime, his extensive notes and woodcuts of plants were circulated and used by other authors for hundreds of years.
     Gesner climbed mountains not only to collect botanical samples, but also for the sheer joy of it.  He wrote a letter to a friend in 1541 declaring his intention to climb at least one mountain every year for the rest of his life.  He authored what might well be the first written account of climbing.
     When he was only 49, Gesner contracted the plague.  Legend has it that when he knew he was about to die, he asked to be brought to his library where he could be surrounded by his beloved books.  At his death, he left behind 18 unpublished manuscripts in addition to the veritable mountain of his published works.


  1. Wow, how amazing! Sometimes I envy writers who lived in a world where people relied on books for information. Now everything's online and much of it is provided free. Wikipedia is content people have provided for free, for instance. I can hardly remember a time when I couldn't just look something up online, even though I grew up without the Internet.

  2. Stephanie, when my son was in college and then law school, he would periodically say to me: "So let me get this straight. When you were in school and had to do research, you would use... books? In the... library??"