Swiss-German naturalist and botanist.

Early life

Konrad Gesner was born in Zurich, Switzerland on March 26, 1516. He was a son of the working class, his father Urs Gesner a poor furrier by trade. His mother was Agathe Frick ( deceased 1564). The death of his father at the Battle of Kappel, (1531), when Konrad was only 15 cast him into a precarious situation, one from which he was rescued by his mentor and former master Myconius and also by Heinrich Bullinger. With the support of these two men, Gesner was able to continue his studies.


Gesner attended the universities of Strassburg and Bourges (1532-1533). His good fortune continued with the patronage of Johannes Steiger (1534), a native of Berne.

Religious conflict arose and Gesner returned to his native Zurich (1535), where he married. The marriage was not a successful one, the wife noted for being as beautiful as she was impoverished. His friends were not happy with his choice but came to his aid yet again and enabled him to continue his studies at Basel (1536). They also secured for him a position, that of Professor of Greek at the newly formed school at Lausanne (1537).


With the security of this position Gesner had the leisure to devote himself to his studies, botany being his main focus. He attended the medical university at Montpellier (1540-1541) and took his degree in medicine from Basel (1541). Returning yet again to Zurich, Gesner set up his medical practice. He also gained a lecturing position at the Carolinum in the subject of physics.

Gesner was to reside in Zurich for the rest of his life with the exception of several journeys to foreign lands and botanical collection trips in his own land conducted during each summer.

Prolific Author

Gesner set about authoring books on an amazing array of subjects. His works included the Enchiridion historiae plantarum (1541) and the Catalogus plantarum (1542). His other botanical manuscripts were not published until over two centuries had passed, finally being printed at Nuremberg (1751-1577).

Another work, his Bibliotheca Universalis was published (1545). This was a work in three languages, (Hebrew, Greek, and Latin), which listed every known author, the title of their work, etc. Not one to steer away from major projects, Gesner authored his Pandeclarium sive partitionum universalium Conradi Gesneri Ligurini libri xxi (1548). This was a massive compendium of 21 volumes, only 19 of which were complete at the time. The 21st volume, a theological encyclodedia was added (1549). The 20th volume , which was to include his medical studies, was never finished.

Next came his 4 volume zoological work entitled Historia Animalium, (1551-1558), a titanic set containing some 3,500 pages. These volumes dealt with fishes, birds, and quadrupeds. The work was beautifully illustrated by some of the most noted artists of the day and influenced both the world of zoology as well as the arts. A fifth volume which dealt with snakes was added (1587). Gesner used the classification system of Aristotle, a figure far from being forgotten by the world of the Renaissance. Gesner wisely forbore some of the opinionated asides for which Aristotle was noted, though the work was marred by inclusion of mythical creatures. Despite its shortcomings, this work is considered the starting point of modern zoology.

Gesner then turned his attention to language. His Mithridates de differentiis linguis (1555) contains information on about 130 languages, including the The Lord's Prayer in 22 of them. Gesner followed this with an edition of the works of Aelian (1556).

Natural man

Far from being a scholar locked away within his ivory towers, Gesner loved the mountains. He scaled many peaks while on his botanical expeditions collecting specimens for study. He wrote concerning the beauty of the mountains and loved them for that as well as the exercise of scaling them. He resolved to climb at least one mountain each year. His conviction was that the senses of man were refreshed and renewed by such mountain excursions.

Gesner was granted status as a noble in 1564 by the Hapsburg emperor Ferdinand I, which entitled him to use the appellation von Gesner. The following year, on December 13, 1565, Konrad von Gesner fell prey to the bubonic plague and died in his native Zurich.


French naturalist Georges Cuvier referred to von Gesner as the German Pliny, no small compliment coming from such an accomplished source.

A genus is named for the famed botanist. Gesneria is a genus of large tropical American herbs possessing showy tubular flowers.


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