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Gesner [Gessner], Konrad

1. Dates
Born: Zürich, 26 Mar 1516
Died: Zürich, 13 Dec 1565
Dateinfo: Dates Certain
Lifespan: 49
2. Father
Occupation: Artisan, Cleric
His father was Ursus Gessner, whom one source lists as a furrier. He fell at the battle at Kappel (1531).
Because his parents had an abundance of children and could not afford to rear him, he was brought up by his great uncle, Hans Frick, chaplain in Zuerich, who himself was of very modest means.
Around 1527 he came to stay at the house of Johann Jakob Ammann, Chorherr of the Stift. Ammann could not support Gesner either after 1531.
In a word, he grew up in poor financial circumstances.
3. Nationality
Birth: Zuerich, Switzerland
Career: Zuerich, Switzerland
Death: Zuerich, Switzerland
4. Education
Schooling: Zurich (Carol), Bourges, Paris, Montpelier; Basel, M.D.
Fraumuensterschule, Zuerich.
Carolinum, Zuerich.
1533, University of Bourges, studying theology and ancient languages. (This is the only reference I have had to a university at Bourges, but for the time I will list it.)
1534, University of Paris, reading eclectically. He left because of rising anti-Protestant feelings.
1536, University of Basel, studying medicine.
1540, went to Monpellier to study, but left after a few months.
1541, took his exams and received his M.D. at Basel.
No record of a B.A.; nevertheless, with the M.D. and all the rest, I assume it.
5. Religion
Affiliation: Calvinist (which is how I list Zwinglians)
He was a dedicated follower of Zwingli.
6. Scientific Disciplines
Primary: Natural History, Botany, Zoo; Phr, Medicine
Primary: natural history, botany, zoology.
Subordinate: pharmacology, medicine.
7. Means of Support
Primary: Academia, Church Life, Medicine
Secondary: Schoolmastering, Government, Publishing
1532, he worked for Wolfgang Capito in Strasbourg as a famulus, a kind of servant.
1533, though he had a stipend, he tutored Melchior Volmar's sons to make ends meet.
1535-1536, taught the lowest class at the elementary school in Zuerich.
1536, to keep his head above water in Basel, he worked for the publisher Heinrich Petri compiling a Greek-Latin dictionary. His success at this job brought him his next position.
1537-1540, first professor of Greek at the Lausanne Academy in Basel. He received the use of a house, an income of 200 gulden, 2 "Mutt."(?) of grain, and two flagons of wine. This was the most lucrative position he ever held.
1541, he returned to Zuerich. Because all of the chairs at the Carolinum were already filled, he held the position of lecturer in natural philosophy and ethics there. He was overworked and paid a pittance, and as a result he had to work at night writing books to make ends meet.
1546, he was made a professor at the Carolinum, but was still underpaid.
1552, named Poliater, assistant town physician.
1554, named Archiater, chief town physician, with a great responsibilty, but still scant income.
1558, named Chorherr (canonicus). This position finally lifted his financial burden.
8. Patronage
Types: City Magistrate, Aristrocrat, Court Official, Eccesiastic Official
One of his earliest patrons was Johann Jakob Ammann, a teacher of Gesner's at the Carolinum with whom he lived for a few years. Gesner dedicated his first major work, the Catalogus plantarum (1542) to him.
Another early patron was Zwingli himself, to whom Gesner appealed for a stipend at the age of fourteen. Zwingli granted the request, but the stipend was lost in the confusion after Zwingli's death at the battle at Kappel (1531).
A third patron from this period was Oswald Myconius, head of the Grossmuensterschule. He recommended Gesner to Capito (see 7a). Gesner continued to correspond with him after Myconius moved to Basel, and Myconius was instrumental in delivering Gesner from his first teaching position by writing to Ammann and Bullinger. Thereafter, Gesner received a stipend to study medicine in Basel.
Heinrich Bullinger, Zwingli's successor, was a lifelong patron of Genser. With Conrad Pellican, a professor at Zuerich, he arranged a travel grant to support Gesner's trip to Bourges and Paris. Gesner appealed to Bullinger throughout his life at various time for help (e.g. 1536, 1558), and Bullinger eventually arranged for his appointment as canonicus.
The school, church, and city in Zuerich held sway over Gesner in a way I do not fully understand. His first teaching position is seen as a punishment by the city for marrying a woman without any means without its permission.
During the summer of 1544, Gesner stayed at the house of his friend Diego Hurtado di Mendoza, a Spanish count, and had access to his exceptional libray. Gesner dedicated the second edition of his dictionary (1544) to him.
Though Gesner was a prolific writer, not all of his dedications are to patrons. However, one that defininitely was fishing for support was the dedication of Ambrosii Calepini dictionarium linguae latinae (1544) to the leading citizen of Zurich Wilhelm Meyer von Knonau. If anything came of this, I did not run across it.
Made famous by his pioneering bibliography, Bibliotheca universalis, Gesner was sought by the Catholic Count Johann Jakob Fugger in Augsburg (1545) to be a teacher to his sons and grandsons and to help set up his library. The position promised to be well-paid and to enable Gesner to do his own work, but after visiting Fugger he turned the job down out of love for Zuerich, gratitude to Bullinger, and religious differences.
At the suggestion of the Royal physicians Julius Alexandrinus and Stephan Laurenz Amerfort Gesner dedicated his work on fish and water animals (1558) to Emperor Ferdinand I, who had just been elected. Ferdinand had expressed to his physicians the desire to meet Gesner. After the dedication, Gesner was invited to a meeting of the Reichstag in 1559, where he met privately with the Emperor for over an hour. At the instigation of Alexandrinus, Amerfort, and Crato von Krafftheim, Gesner was granted a coat of arms in 1564.
Gesner tried to get in contact with King Maximilian (1527- 1576), who seemed more sympathetic to Protestantism, but he tried to do this through the conman and adventurer Paul Skalic and was not successful.
Andreas Szadkowski, a Polish writer on salt mines, was a small time patron. He gave Gesner an amount of money, and dedicated his De rerum fossilium (1565) to Gesner.
9. Technological Involvement
Type: Med
Gesner held a position as town physician, but the extent to which he actually treated individual patients is not clear.
10. Scientific Societies
Memberships: None
Because of his pioneering bibliographic work and his collection of descriptions of animals and plants, Gesner was at the center of a circle of correspondents that included most of the learned men of Europe. The scholars who contributed to the Catalogus plantarum and the Historia animalium are listed at the beginning of those volumes.
  1. Eduard K. Feuter, Neue deutsche Biographie (Berlin, 1952- ), 6, 342b-345b.
  2. Hans Fischer, Conrad Gesner 1516-1565. Leben und Werk (Zuerich: Leemann, 1966) [QH31.G3 F5]
Not Available and Not Consulted
  1. W. Ley, K. Gesner, Leben und Werk, (Munich, 1929).
  2. K. Müller, Der polyhistor Konrad Gesner als Freund und Forderer erdkundlicher Studien, (doct. diss., Munich, 1912).
  3. H. Günther, "K. Gesner als Tierarzt", (thesis, Leipzig, 1933).
  4. H. Hanhart, Konrad Gessner, (Winterthur, 1824).
  5. Robert Lauterborn, "Konrad Gessner und die Tierkunde," in Der Rhein, (Freiburg, 1930), 1, 136-8. One source called this perhaps the best exposition of Gesner as zoologist.
  6. Alfredo Serrai, Conrad Gesner, ed. Maria Cochetti, (Rome, 1990).
  7. Lucian Braun, Conrad Gesner, (Geneva, 1990). If the review in the Archives is at all accurate, this may be the best source on Gesner.
  8. NDB mentions many other sources.
Compiled by:
Richard S. Westfall
Department of History and Philosophy of Science
Indiana University

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©1995 Al Van Helden
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