Conrad Gessner, the German Pliny

A polymath is a scholar who is learned in a wide range of subjects, a kind of all-purpose expert. Conrad Gessner (1516–65) of Zurich, Switzerland, was one of the most remarkable polymaths the world has ever known. Some historians have described him as a one-man Royal Society, but during his own lifetime he was best known as a botanist. His ambition was to collect, condense, and then disseminate as much as he could of the information that was accumulating throughout Europe. He became a clearinghouse for information, and it was his passion for this work that earned him his other nicknames—the German Pliny (although he was Swiss) and the father of bibliography. He wrote in Latin, as did most scholars in the 16th century, and after his death this led to some confusion about the spelling of his name. In Latin his name is Gesner, but he always signed his name Conrad Gessner, also spelling his given name with a C rather than a K. The Latin spelling survives in the plant genus Gesneria, belonging to the family Gesneriaceae (African violets and gloxinias), with about 3,500 species.

Gessner and other scholars found themselves compelled to record natural history because by the 16th century they were becoming aware of the limitations of the works of Aristotle and Theophrastus. The Greek authors had been very familiar with the plants that grow around the eastern Mediterranean and the extensive trade with Asia Minor and North Africa had allowed them to learn about the flora of those regions, but they had absolutely no knowledge of the plants and animals living to the north. Consequently, the classical works on natural history available to naturalists living north of the Alps contained no references to many of the species they saw all around them. They had no choice but to describe northern species and to illustrate the works in which their descriptions were published. There was also considerable traffic between Europe and the New World, and American plants were arriving in Europe. These were different from European species and obviously they were not described in the classical texts: Gesneria is a North American and Caribbean species. Gessner set out to assemble the information that had been acquired since classical times.

Most of Gessner's botanical works were published posthumously in Nuremberg, between 1751 and 1771, in two volumes entitled Opera botanica (Botanical works), which were compiled from his uncompleted manuscripts. In 1541 Gessner published a dictionary of plants Historia plantarum (Account of plants) and in 1561 he published De hortis Germaniae (On the gardens of Germany). His descriptions of gardens included French, Swiss, and Italian examples and also mentioned individuals who were keen gardeners. Gessner obtained his information by visiting sites that were within reach; for more distant ones he relied on correspondence. He exchanged letters with individuals in France, England, and with two individuals in Poland, but most of his correspondents were in southern Germany, Switzerland, and Italy.

His studies of local plants took Gessner into the Swiss mountains, which he loved. In 1556 he published in Zurich a pamphlet with the title De raris et admirandis herbis, quae sive quod noctu luceant, sive alias ob causas, Lunariae nominantur (On rare and admirable plants called Lunariae, either because they glow at night or for some other reason). This contained his personal observations of plants and explanations of the differences between plants with similar names. In it, however, he wrote of his enjoyment of the long walks he took in the mountains. With some friends he had climbed Mount Pilatus, a 7,000-foot (2,120-m) peak beside Lucerne, and he described the pleasure with which they refreshed themselves by drinking from a spring just below the summit and eating bread soaked in the spring water. “I scarcely know if a greater, more Epicurean pleasure (though it is most sober and frugal) can touch the human senses,” he wrote. Gessner insisted that in order to gain the most benefit from the experience, a person exploring the mountains must be a true student and admirer of nature.

Gessner also wrote about animals, seeking to separate fact from mythology. His Historiae animalum (Accounts of animals) was published in five volumes between 1551 and (posthumously) 1587. The first volume contained 1,100 pages.

Conrad Gessner was born in Zurich on March 26, 1516. His father, Urs, was a furrier. Urs Gessner died in 1531, in the Battle of Kappel, which took place during the religious wars gripping Switzerland. His mother was Agathe Fritz (or Frick). After his father's death money was short, but patrons ensured that Gessner could continue his studies. In 1532 Gessner studied Hebrew at the University of Strasbourg, where he also taught Greek. He then moved to Basel and Paris, but in 1534 the persecution of Protestants meant he had to leave Paris and return to Zurich, where in 1536 he married Barbara Singerin. She had no dowry, and the couple were poor. For a time Gessner had to teach in an elementary school, but friends helped pay for him to study medicine at the University of Basel. In 1537 his patrons helped him obtain the post of professor of Greek at the Academy of Lausanne, where he also had the opportunity to study botany. While at Lausanne, Gessner compiled a Greek-Latin dictionary, which was published in 1539. The Zurich city physician persuaded Gessner to complete his medical studies, so he visited the University of Montpellier, France, and then moved to Basel, where he qualified as a physician in 1541. After graduating Gessner returned to Zurich as a lecturer in physics at the Collegium Carolinum, which later became the University of Zurich, combining this with a medical practice. In 1554 he was elected city physician, and he remained in Zurich for the rest of his life.

Gessner is known as the father of bibliography because of his Bibliotheca universalis (Universal bibliography), published in four volumes between 1545 and 1549. He intended this to be a catalog in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew of every writer who had ever lived, with the titles of all their works and his own comments. He listed approximately 1,800 authors and about 10,000 titles in the first edition. In 1538 he augmented the work with a further listing of 30,000 entries arranged by subject, but this work was never completed. His last work, published in 1555, was Mithridates: De differentis linguis, a study of about 130 languages.

In 1564 the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I (1503–64) raised Gessner to the nobility. Gessner died in Zurich on December 13, 1565, while tending the victims of plague.