Compiling the Big Picture

On March 26, 1516, Swiss doctor, naturalist, and encyclopedist Konrad Gesner was born. As a child so extraordinary in his interests and abilities to learn, he inspired sequential patrons who provided financial, political, and educational supports throughout his very productive life.

Gesner studied botany, Greek, Latin, Hebrew, physics, and medicine. A lifelong plant collector on yearly mountain climbing excursions, he collected plant specimens and exchanged specimens with others. He practiced medicine in Zurich where he also lectured in physics. He devoted himself to studies, short trips, and writing.

There was nothing small-scale about Gesner’s work. He saw the Big Picture of his world and wanted to share it with others. For example, he wrote an entire Greek dictionary by himself. He wrote a catalogue of all writers who ever lived. Along with annotated titles of their works, he included his personal critique… in three languages! Then there was his multi-volume encyclopedia of world knowledge.

His studies and his inclination to group and categorize prompted Gesner to separate his encyclopedic cataloguing of all living things into plant life and animal life. His Historiae Animalium or account of animals ran to five volumes. The first, over 1000 pages, featured quadrupeds that bear live young. Another volume dealt with quadrupeds that hatch young from eggs. There were volumes on birds, fish, and snakes. The records included naturally occurring beasts, literary tradition and lore, illustrative woodcuts, and more — the best overview compendium of contemporary animal knowledge of the age. This work is considered the first of modern Zoology and Gesner, one of its founders.

Gesner began his companion botanical masterwork with a volume of Historia Plantarum. Two more volumes were published after his death. As the exemplar doctor one might expect of such a man, Gesner died of the plague while treating some of its victims in Zurich.

He believed that sharing knowledge for the benefit of humankind was a planting of seeds for others to harvest, improve, and replant. His name is honoured in the taxonomic labels of family Gesneriaceae, genus Gesneria, and many species descriptors gesnerii.

Doctor-naturalist-encyclopedist Conrad Gesner and some of his flora.

Doctor-naturalist-encyclopedist Conrad Gesner and some of his flora.


B Bondar / Real World Content Advantage

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