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Happy Birthday, Konrad Gesner!

Konrad Gesner, Historia animalium [History of animals], 1551-87, Cover
Konrad Gesner, Historia animalium [History of animals], 1551-87, p. 212 - Aiubus
Konrad Gesner, Historia animalium [History of animals], 1551-87, p. 177 - Sea monsters
The Swiss naturalist Konrad Gesner was born in Zurich on March 26, 1516.

A true polymath, he studied theology, ancient languages, medicine, and botany at the universities of Strassburg, Bourges, Paris, and Montpellier, and received his medical degree from the University of Basel. He returned eventually to Zurich and served as the official city physician. Even then, he continued his travels, exploring the Alps and the Adriatic coast to study the plants and animals of those regions.

He is famous for the books he compiled and published “on the side”: comprehensive encyclopedias on plants (Historia plantarum, 1541), animals (Historia animalium, in 5 volumes 1551-1558, 1587), and, to a lesser degree, minerals (De rerum fossilium, lapidum, et gemmarum, 1565) which included the first description and illustration of a graphite (lead) pencil.

Basing his classification of plants on floral structures and seeds, and that of animals on their physiology, his books were a huge step forward from medieval conceptions of the natural world; indeed, they are usually considered to mark the beginning of modern zoology and botany.

They have been cited over the centuries by Linnaeus, Cuvier, and many others; today’s taxonomists and systematists still consult them at the Smithsonian’s Cullman Library.

These images are from his Historia animalium. In it Gesner attempted to summarize everything known from ancient Greek and Roman texts, up-dated with information from his own observations and a wide network of correspondents.

It is illustrated with pictures of animals drawn directly from specimens when possible, but sometimes—for particularly rare or distant species—he and his artists had to base their illustrations on verbal reports and illustrations in earlier works.

To be comprehensive, he even includes a few animals of popular myth and fable, like these “sea monsters” (actually, whales), noting that others had reported them but he had never seen them.

He died on Dec. 13, 1565, during an outbreak of the bubonic plague. He was 49.—Leslie Overstreet

Images (top to bottom): 

Konrad Gesner, Historia animalium [History of animals], 1551-87


p. 212 – Aiubus

p. 177 – Sea monsters

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