Treasures from the Collections: Conrad Gessner

Published on 27th March 2017

Title page of Gessner's Catalogus plantarum
Gessner's Catalogus plantarum Latine, Graece, Germanice, & Gallice (1572)

Born 501 years ago, on 26 March 1516, Conrad Gessner was a true Renaissance scholar. His interests ranged from the classics and linguistics to natural history and medicine. Best known as a botanist to his contemporaries, Gessner worked as a physician in Zürich for most of his life. Today, he is best known for his impressive five-volume Historiae animalium (1551–1558), whose illustrations continue to enchant but whose dense encyclopaedic text defeats all but a few tenacious scholars. For his research, Gessner relied on his rich library as well as on his own direct observation, collection and dissection of specimens. He loved walking in the mountains, not only to collect plant specimens, but for the pure enjoyment of nature. Gessner died of the plague on 13 December 1565. Legend has it that he asked to be taken to his library where he had spent so much of his life, to die among his favourite books. At the time of his death, Gessner had published 72 books, and written 18 more unpublished manuscripts. His work on plants was not published until after his death.

The Linnean Society has several books by Gessner, both in the rare books section of the Library and within the Linnaean collections. Some of these volumes have fascinating histories and are made more precious still by their provenance.

Spines of Gessner Historiae Animalium
Gessner's Historiae Animalium

The 1542 Catalogus plantarum Latine, Graece, Germanice, & Gallice was Gessner’s second botanical work, an alphabetically arranged catalogue of plant names in four languages: Latin, Greek, German and French. According to Wellisch, ‘this early work is already characteristic of Gessner’s life-long endeavour to arrange scientific topics in alphabetical or systematic order; it also shows his proficiency in languages, and his interest in their comparative treatment.’ The copy at the Linnean Society is interleaved, but the interleaves have hardly been used. In 1698, it was acquired by the physician Robert Gray (fl. 1664–1722), a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians. Gray annotated the volume heavily.

It then successively came into the possession of Philip Miller (1691–1771), chief gardener of Chelsea Physic Garden, and then of Joseph Banks (1743–1820) who donated it to the Linnean Society’s founder, James Edward Smith (1759–1828).

Gessner, Historiae animalium, ostrich
Woodcut of an ostrich

Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) owned two works by Gessner: De raris et admirandis herbis (1555), which is bound with In Dioscoridis by Amatus Lusitanus, and the second edition of the five-volume Historiae animalium (1617-21), bound in three hefty volumes. Linnaeus rarely annotated his library books, but the second volume of the Historiae animalium contains a leaf with printed text dated 1743, on the back of which Linnaeus made some brief annotations. This leaf has been left in the volume, at page 671, facing the rather impressive woodcut of an ostrich.

The history of these books show that Conrad Gessner’s work was read, valued and used by naturalists and physicians well into the 18th century. They are still very much cherished to this day.

Isabelle Charmantier, Deputy Librarian


GESSNER, Conrad. Catalogus Plantarum Latine, Graece, Germanice, & Gallice ... Adjectae Sunt Etiam Herbarum Nomenclaturae Variarum Gentium, Dioscoridi Ascriptae, Secundum Literatum Ordinem Expositae. Tiguri: Christoph. Froschouerum, 1542.

GESSNER, Conrad. Conradi Ges ... de Raris et Admirandis Herbis, Quae Sive Quod Noctu Luceant, Siue Alias Ob Causas, Lunariae Nominantur, Commentariolus: & Obiter de Aliis Etiam Rebus Quae in Tenebrislucent ... Tiguri: Apud Andream Gesnerum & Jacobum Gesnerum, 1555.

GESSNER, Conrad. Conr. Gesneri ... Historiae Animalium Liber Primus (-V) ... Editio Secunda ... Auctior Atque ... Emendatior. Francofurti: In Bibliopolio Henrici Laurentii, 1617-21.

WELLISCH, Hans H. Conrad Gessner, A bio-bibliography. Zug (Switzerland), 1984.