Conrad Gessner: Publish or Perish

1 Blatt 338v

Hollyhock and Mallow. Gessner Notebook 2, page 338v: University Library Erlangen

The five-hundredth and first anniversary of Conrad Gessner’s (1516-1565) birth was celebrated this year, with the Biodiversity Heritage Library hosting a webinar on the Smithsonian’s Rare Book Library’s collection of Gessner works. He was a prolific writer, publishing 72 books, many of them compilations of contemporary knowledge in a number of different fields. His major aim seemed to be to organize information. In the BHL webinar, his five-volume Historia animalium (1551-1558) was highlighted, known more for its impressive woodcut illustrations than for the text, which was primarily an amalgam of information from ancient writers. Gessner was planning a companion publication on plants, but he didn’t live to see it into print. This is why he is better known for his zoological rather than for his botanical work, despite evidence from his letters and surviving manuscripts that he was more devoted to the study of plants than to anything else.

This could be a case of knowledge perishing because it wasn’t published, if it were not for a pair of notebooks at the University Library Erlangen, Germany. They contain over 800 pages of pen-and-ink drawings, most at least partially painted with watercolors. They are a joy simply to look at and PDFs of the two volumes are available on the web (Difficult to find a stable link for this site; best to search for “Historia plantarum – Universitätsbibliothek Erlangen-Nürnberg MS 2386.”). It is these notebooks that I want to discuss in this series of posts. Gessner did have an herbarium, but it’s not extant, so it would seem that this collection is not a fitting topic for a blog called HerbariumWorld. However, I can’t resist spending time looking at these images and delving into their meaning, and in fact, herbaria are part of this tale because they were important to Gessner’s studies, and there is evidence for this in the notebooks. But before I plunge into them, I should say a little more about his background.

Gessner was born in Zürich in 1516, was trained in the classics, taught Greek for three years, and eventually gained a doctorate in medicine from the University of Basel. He then became the city physician for Zürich, where he spent the rest of his life. However, his main passion seemed have been for collecting information and organizing it into publications. Besides the Historia animalium he wrote books on fossils, on medicine, and on the history of words; in addition, he published bibliographies on other subjects. These works supplemented his meager salary as a physician, but obviously, beyond monetary aims, he had a fire to learn, and this was nowhere more apparent than in his work on plants. He published Historiae plantarum, an edition of Dioscorides’s first-century text on medicinal plants and herbal, with commentary by Valerius Cordus (1515-44) who had died at a young age of malaria. Gessner also published Cordus’s manuscript Historia stirpium, which is considered important because of its excellent descriptions of plants. In 1542, Gessner produced a work shown in the Smithsonian webinar: Catalogus plantarum, a list of plant names in Latin, Greek, German, and French. It was an attempt to organize plant knowledge, reconciling names across language barriers so physicians and apothecaries could be more certain that they were all referring to the same plant. This was very much in the style of Gessner’s work in other areas. He was a compiler, and to do this he relied on the assistance of others who had the knowledge and source material he needed.

Ann Blair (2011) has written on how early modern scholars, including Gessner, amassed and organized information, and last year I heard her speak on “Credit, Thanks and Blame in the Works of Conrad Gessner.” She focused on printed acknowledgments in his publications, including dedications, title pages, appendices, and notes. It is remarkable what she has been able to glean from these. Because books were so costly and rare, Gessner could not hope to own all the ones he wanted to consult, so he relied on the collections of others. He either went to visit other bibliophiles or asked, and sometimes begged, for books to be sent to him. In either case, he thanked his lenders profusely when he published using their sources. He was hardly unique in this type of exchange, though some of his dedications do border on groveling. This was not only out of gratitude, but to smooth the way for further lending. However, Gessner didn’t just want to consult books, and this is where the herbarium specimens come in. Since he was interested in acquiring information on essentially all known animals and plants for his planned publications on these organisms, he requested information, drawings, and specimens—sometimes alive and sometimes preserved—of everything from rodents to lilies, insects to fungi. In return he promised not only acknowledgement but, if the sender had unearthed a new species, Gessner would gladly name it for him.

Blair notes that Gessner listed 81 individuals who assisted him with Historia animalium. He was obviously well connected and his voluminous correspondence, much of which still exists, indicates how important this community was to him, and how much he relied on it and also contributed to it in order to keep the information flowing. For at least the last ten years of his life, Gessner was planning an ambitious work on plants as a companion piece to Historia animalium, one that would treat as broad a spectrum of species as possible and would be illustrated.   I’ll describe this project in the following posts with an emphasis on how images were central to his research.


Blair, A. (2011). Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

2 thoughts on “Conrad Gessner: Publish or Perish

  1. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Year 3, Vol. #45 | Whewell's Ghost

  2. Pingback: Conrad Gessner: Image and Text | Herbarium World

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