Monday, September 3, 2007

Conrad Gesner (sometimes Konrad, sometimes Gessner)

Conrad Gesner (sometimes Konrad, sometimes Gessner) was arguably the greatest naturalist of his age. The science he practiced might seem strange by modern standards, but the disciplines he worked with were more broadly defined in the 16th century than they are today.
Between 1551 and 1558, Gesner published a four-volume masterwork, History of Animals. The first volume covered four-footed animals, the second covered amphibians, the third covered birds, and the fourth covered fishes and other aquatic animals. He incorporated observations of both classical scholars — relying heavily on a bestiary, Physiologus, likely dating from the fourth century AD — and his contemporaries, some of them obscure experts. His work was possible in a large part due to the web of correspondence he established with leading naturalists throughout Europe who, in addition to their ideas, sent him plants, animals and gems. At a time of extreme religious tension (his own Protestantism added History of Animals to the Catholic Church's Index of prohibited books), Gesner maintained friendships on both sides of the Catholic-Protestant divide. Exceedingly well read, Gesner even attempted to establish a "universal library" of all books in existence. The project might sound quaint to the modern mind, but Gesner invested tremendous energy in the project, sniffing through remote libraries as well as the collections of the Vatican Library and catalogs of printers and booksellers. In the words of science writer Anna Pavord, "He was a one-man search engine, a 16th-century Google with the added bonus of critical evaluation." To his contemporaries, who had never even heard of Google, he was known as "the Swiss Pliny." When Gesner doubted the opinions he relayed in his writings, he prudently said so. Of the multi-headed hydra, for instance, he observed, "ears, tongues, noses, and faces are inconsistent with the nature of serpents." What would strike a modern reader as strange, however, was his inclusion of proverbs related to the animal in question, along with any appearances it made in the Bible, pagan mythology, or even Egyptian hieroglyphs. But if the natural history of Gesner's day encompassed every possible way in which people related to animals, his inclusive approach to his research was entirely appropriate. What Gesner didn't include were many direct observations of his own — science would not emphasize experiment and observation until later.(more from strangescience )
Using touchscreen technology and animation software, the digitized images of rare and beautiful historic books in the biomedical sciences are offered at kiosks at the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Visitors may ‘touch and turn’ these pages in a highly realistic way. They can zoom in on the pages for more detail, read or listen to explanations of the text, and (in some cases) access additional information on the books in the form of curators’ notes. Simply click Conrad Gesner’s Historiae Animalium

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