Bethesda, Maryland

Physician, Scholar, Scientist
A quatercentenary exhibit
held November-December 1965
in the
National Library of Medicine
Bethesda, Maryland




Conrad Gessner, who died 400 years ago, was a many-sided genius, typical of his day and age perhaps, but rare in our own. Today, when the rapid advance of science has led to increasing specialization, it is refreshing to recall a period when it was possible for one man to master many disciplines. A physician whose life was plagued by poverty and chronic ill health, Conrad Gessner nevertheless managed to make important contributions to botany, zoology, bibliography and philology.

To his contemporaries, he was best known as a botanist, and indeed from adolescence this was his favorite pursuit. His letters teem with allusions to his botanical garden, to his field trips, to his or his friends’ collections, to suggested exchanges of specimens. He was not however destined to complete the magnum opus which would have rendered his position as botanist secure. The Historia stirpium on which he was intermittently engaged for twenty years remained unfinished at his untimely death at the age of 49. His botanical manuscripts were not to be published for another 200 years. Fortunately, he lived to see the first four volumes of his imposing Historia animalium published (1551-1558). The fifth volume (on snakes) was issued posthumously in 1587. The entire work can be considered as the starting point of modern zoology.

In bibliography, he was a pioneer: his Bibliotheca Universalis (1545) is an exhaustive catalogue of the Greek, Latin, and Hebrew literature published in the first century of printing. Competent later bibliographers (Ebert, Petzholdt, Brunet) have considered the Bibliotheca “one of the greatest accomplishments of any one man in the sixteenth century” (Bay (1916) p. 68). Gessner’s competence as a philologist, though less spectacular, is evidenced by a multitude of critical editions and translations of such diverse authors as Aelian, Galen, Martial, Michael of Ephesus and Porphyry, while his wide acquaintance with the Greek texts of Aristotle and his Greek commentators lends distinction to the posthumously published Meditationum... Libri V (1586). Gessner’s interest in local dialects and the modern vernaculars shows itself in his Mithridates de differentiis Linguarum (1555). This is an account of about 130 known languages, and prints the Pater noster in 22 different tongues. The work was praised by the famous nineteenth-century philologist Jakob Grimm (1785- 1863), who like Gessner combined a passion for philology with a taste and aptitude for botany.

Gessner’s very real achievements seem all the more extraordinary when we recall the slenderness of his financial resources, his indifferent health and the persistent claims on his time and money made by a steadily increasing crowd of family dependents. In a letter to his friend Cosmas Holzach written in 1560, Gessner complains of a host of distractions: his daily lectures on Aristotle (he drew an official salary as lecturer in Zürich’s Carolinum), certain literary effusions (presumably the de rigeur complimentary verses and such like demanded of all literary figures), his patients and his voluminous correspondence, all made serious inroads on his time.

He mentions the hindrance of ill health and family preoccupations in another letter to his botanist rival Melchior Guilandinus (Wieland). His medical practice nevertheless appears to have been relatively modest, though as city physician with a public stipend from 1554 onwards he was obliged to treat such patients as he had gratis. The demands made by correspondence appear to have been more real: the posthumously published Letters reveal an astonishing industry. Written to a vast circle of friends and acquaintances, they provide a vivid picture of Gessner as counsellor, colleague and friend. He was always ready with advice, and constantly inspiring others in their researches or soliciting their support for his own. His hospitality is equally well attested.

The National Library of Medicine is fortunate in having recently acquired a little book which allows us a glimpse of the many individuals who were Gessner’s guests. This, the Liber amicorum or “Book of Friends” contains over 200 autographs of physicians, scientists, and scholars who travelled to Zürich to see the great man. A reading of the Letters and the Liber leaves one in no doubt of the warmth of Gessner’s personality or of the high tone of his dealings with colleagues and co-workers in all fields.

In a century too often marked by acrimonious debate, he deliberately avoided antagonizing his professional rivals. Typically, he once wrote to his great friend Jean Bauhin: “philosophy itself, and even more religion teaches us to eschew idle controversy and polemic.” Always himself scrupulous in acknowledging his debts, he commented unfavorably on prevailing scientific ethics: “there are very many men so ambitious and ungrateful, they claim for themselves what was owed to others.”

Far from discouraging competition, he positively welcomed it, as we learn from his letter to Leonhard Fuchs. The latter, contemplating a three-volume botanical work, and aware of Gessner’s impending Historia stirpium, wrote to Gessner suggesting he drop his project. Politely but firmly Gessner refused: “We should think more of the public profit than our own, ” he wrote, and pointed out the impossibility of any one man being able to master the whole field. “But if everyone publishes his observations for the public good, it is to be hoped that from them all one day one perfect work may be achieved... but this, I feel, will not be realized in our century.” A firm belief in the possibility of progress itself helps to make progress possible.

Gessner, an optimist, inspired others to add to the sum of human knowledge so painfully and slowly acquired through the centuries.

  Richard J. Durling
History of Medicine Division


Born in Zürich 26 March 1516, the son of Urs and Agathe Gessner (née Frick), Gessner was partly brought up by his uncle on his mother’s side Johannes Frick and partly by one of his teachers, Johann Jakob Ammann. Gessner’s father, a furrier, could not himself support the full cost of his promising son’s education; he worked hard, but was poor and had a large family. When Gessner was only 15, he lost his father at the battle of Kappel (1531). His widowed mother could not keep him at home and Gessner was forced for a few months to enter the service of Wolfgang Capito at Strassburg. Returning to Zürich, he was shortly sent at the city’s expense to France, to complete his education. He traveled to Bourges in 1533 in the company of Johann Frisius (Friess) who was to remain his lifelong friend. As the city bursary proved too small to meet his expenses, Gessner had to supplement it by teaching. He remained in Bourges for a year, then traveled to Paris hoping to profit from the distinguished teaching there. He was disappointed, not so much through the fault of the university as from his own immaturity; he read too much, too haphazardly. Bitterly he wrote in his Bibliotheca universalis of the shortsightedness of city authorities who to save money sent adolescents abroad without pedagogues to direct their studies. After a year in Paris, he returned to Strassburg but was recalled to Zürich.

There, he made a hasty marriage at the age of 19. The girl was ill-educated, suffered from ill health, and was a poor housekeeper. For a while, Gessner eked out a miserable existence teaching the rudiments of Greek and Latin grammar. In his spare time, he. read medical authors. While at Basel studying medicine in 1537, he was called to the chair of Greek at Lausanne. Here life was pleasant, his salary good and his colleagues friendly. When not teaching, Gessner attended the lectures of the Professor of Hebrew Imbert Pacolet, botanized, and edited his first works for eventual publication after he had left Lausanne. He relinquished his post in summer 1540, when he traveled to Montpellier. There he had hoped to become a house pupil of one of the distinguished professors of medicine, thinking he could learn more from daily contact with a good physician than from attendance at lectures. However, he found no one who would take him in and left after a few months, traveling back to Zürich via Lyons with Leonhard Rauwolff, who was to become famous later as a botanist

The time in Montpellier had not been wasted; Gessner had perfected his knowledge of botany and anatomy, and he had made some valuable friends, not least the eminent naturalist, Guillaume Rondelet. In February 1541 he was studying medicine at Basel where he heard the lectures of Alban Thorer and Sebastian Singkeler. Within a very short time, he had obtained his doctorate after a public disputation, and returned proudly to Zürich. He was then 25.

Here, apart from regular field trips, Alpine excursions, and visits to various cities such as Augsburg, Strassburg, Stuttgart, Tülibingen and Venice, he stayed the remaining 24 years of his life. He had an official post as lecturer on Aristotelian physics at the Carolinum; from 1554 on he was city-physician; from 1558 on, he had the title and income of a Canon. Although never well off, he resisted tempting offers of posts elsewhere. The highlights of this final period were the Bibliotheca universalis, begun when its author was only 25, and the Historia animalium. Towards the end of his life, as his letters show, he was increasingly aware he had not long to live. Plague, a constant menace, claimed him in December 1565. He showed the first symptoms on the 9th and died on the night of the 13th, having in the interim put all his affairs in order. He appointed Caspar Wolff his literary executor; sold him his library at a fair price; drew up an inventory of his published and unpublished writings (the latter a veritable chaos of papers); and explained his designs for the unfinished History of Plants. At his own wish, he was finally carried into his “museum” where he died at eleven o’clock, surrounded by his collections of “natural curiosities”.  


1. Bibliotheca universalis, sive catalogus omnium scriptorum locupletissimus, in tribus linguis, Latina, Graeca, & Hebraica... Zürich, 1545.

An alphabetical listing of all the books published in Latin, Greek and Hebrew during the first century of priming, arranged by authors’ forenames, with a reverse index of surnames. Gessner began this volume, which has earned him the title of ‘father of bibliography, ‘ when he was only 25. It includes his own bio-bibliography. - Loaned by the Library of Congress

2. Pandectarum sive partitionum universalium... libri XXI. Zürich, 1548.

The Pandects are a classified rearrangement of the contents of the Bibliotheca. Theology forms one third of the whole: the next in size is Natural Philosophy, subdivided into twelve sections. Shown here is section eleven on zoology.- Loaned by the Library of Congress 

3. Epitome bibliothecae Conradi Gesneri, conscripta primum a Conrado Lycosthene Rubeaquensi: nunc denuo recognita &... locupletata per Josiam Simlerum Tigurinum... Zürich, 1555.

An abridged version of the great Bibliotheca of 1545, with the addi- don of more than 2,000 authors. Much of the new material was supplied by Gessner’s correspondents. The book was edited by Simmler, since Gessner was too occupied by his Historia animalium to supervise the publication himself.

4. Bibliotheca instituta et collecta primum a Conrado Gesnero, deinde in Epitomen redacta &... aucta per Josiam Simlerum Tigurinum... Zürich, 1574.

A very much enlarged edition of the Epitome, the Bibliotheca includes the voluminous literature published since 1555. The entry on Gessner himself occupies 13-1/2 columns and is largely reprinted from his autobibliography of 1562. Newly added are details of Gessner’s posthumous publications, and of unpublished manuscripts in the hands of his executor.

5. CHIRURGIA. De chirurgia scriptores optimi... Zürich, 1555.

To this collection of surgical texts, Gessner contributed bio-bibliographical notes on some 110 surgeons and surgical writers. Shown here is part of his entry for Amatus Lusitanus’ Centuriae, a volume of miscellaneous observations, some relating to surgery.

6. Simmler, Josias, 1530-1576. Vita clarissimi philosophi et medici excellentissimi Conradi Gesneri... Zürich, 1566.

Simmler’s biography of his friend Gessner is the basis of most subsequent accounts. It is followed by the auto-bibliography Gessner compiled in 1562 for his English friend and fellow-naturalist, William Turner. This contains a section on items as yet unpublished or in preparation.  


7. Galen. Omnia... opera in Latinam linguam conversa... Lyons, 1550 [i.e. 1548-1551].

This collected edition of Galen’s works contains Gessner’s translation of a brief excerpt from Stobaeus, a Greek anthologist of the 5th (?) century A.D. It purports to be a Galenic summary of Hippocratic doctrines.

8. Aelian. De natura animalium libri XVII. Cum animadversionibus Conradi Gesneri, et Danielis Wilhelmi Trilleri: curante Abrahamo Gronovio, qui et suas adnotationes adjecit. Heilbronn, 1765. 2v.

It was almost inevitable that Gessner, with his own Historia animalium in mind, would apply his philological skills to the editing and translating of this miscellany “On the characteristics of animals.” His Greek and Latin edition was first published in 1556.

9. Galen. Omnia, quae extant, in Latinum sermonem conversa...Basel, [1561]-1562.

To this edition Gessner contributed introductory remarks on Galen’s life and doctrines, and a list of all those who had edited, translated, paraphrased or commented on Galen, from Aetius of Amida to Vidus Vidius.

10. Cassius Iatrosophista, fl. ca. 200 A.D. Naturales et medicinales quaestiones LXXXIIII. Circa hominis naturam & morbos aliquot, Conrado Gesnero... interprete, nunc primum editae... [Zürich, 1562].

This work by an otherwise unknown Greek physician asks and attempts to answer difficult problems in medicine and natural history. Gessner here publishes his Latin version and an edition of the Greek text, the latter dedicated to his former pupil Anton Schneeberger.

11. Dioscorides, Pedanius, of Anazarbos. Ἐυπόριστα ad Andromachum, hoc est De curationibus morborum per medicamenta paratu facilia, libri II... Strassburg, 1565.

In an important letter to the reader, Gessner outlines his editorial principles, argues for the work’s genuineness (he had earlier suspected its authenticity) and lists similar compilations of “ready remedies” by a host of writers from Apollonius, an author cited by Galen, to Martin Ruland (1564).

12. Mustio. Moschionis... De morbis muliebribus liber unus: cum Conradi Gesneri... scholiis & emendationibus... Basel, 1566.

During a visit to Augsburg, Gessner found in the public library there the Greek manuscript of this work on the diseases of women. Wrongly ascribed to the Greek Moschion, it is in fact a Byzantine rendering of Mustio’s Latin paraphrase of Soranus’ Gynaecia.

13. Gessner, Conrad. Meditationum annotationum et scholiorum lib. V. Nunc recens ex variis Gesnerianae diligentiae relictis schedis et libris... collecti. . . dispositi et conscripti per Casparum Wolphium... Zurich, 1586.

The first four books are largely formal exposition, interspersed with occasional personal reflections by Gessner. The fifth book consists of detailed scholia, demonstrating Gessner’s intimate acquaintance with Aristotle and his Greek commentators. The passage shown contains advice on the reading of Aristotle and a description of some features of his style. - Loaned by the Library of Congress  


Gessner planned his great Historia animalium in six books, but lived to see only four published. Though largely a compilation, based on a reading of over 250 authorities, it nevertheless contains many original observations. It systematically discusses the nomenclature, physical characteristics, habitat, behavior and other aspects of the then known animal world. The illustrations are noted for their realism.

14. Historiae animalium lib. I de quadrupedibus viviparis... Zürich, 1551.

Typical of the handsome woodcuts included in this volume on viviparous quadrupeds are these figures o. the dromedary and various breeds of dog.

15. Historiae animalium liber III qui est de avium natura... Zürich, 1555.

Gessner in his book on birds described 188 species, of which 65 were unknown to Pierre Belon. On the other hand, 27 birds described by Belon are wanting in Gessner. Several species are mentioned for the first time, notably the wall creeper, the canary, the hummingbird and the alpine sparrow.

16. Icones avium omnium, quae in Historia avium... describuntur, cum nomenclaturis singulorum... Zürich, 1555.

Shown here on p. 22 (first figure) is the famous representation of the “Waldrapp”, for centuries the object of controversy amongst ornithologists, some of whom considered the bird either extinct or fictitious. A species of ibis now found in Egypt, Geronticus eremita, it was to be seen in Gessner’s day in Switzerland.

17. Icones animalium quadrupedurn viviparorum et oviparorum, quae in Historiae animalium... libro I et II describuntur, cum nomenclaturis singulorum... Ed. secunda... auctior... Zürich, 1560.

Shown here are the rhinoceros and elephant. The picture of the former is a copy of Dürer’s famous drawing, as Gessner acknowledges on p. 61. - Loaned by the Library of Congress

18. Nomenclator aquatilium animantium. Icones animalium aquatilium in mari & dulcibus aquis gentium, plusquam DCC cum nomenclaturis singulorum... Zürich, 1560.

Gessner occasionally made use of secondary sources such as Olaus Magnus, whose account of sea monsters is shown here. Gessner warns the reader that Olaus’ pictures are based on sailors’ tales and not drawn from life. To the left, Faroe islanders cut up a stranded whale; a companion with bagpipes provides music while they work.

19. Historiae animalium lib. V. qui est de serpentium natura... Zürich, 1587.

The book on snakes was edited from Gessner’s papers by Jakob Carron of Frankfurt am Main. Shown here is an illustration of a sea serpent: the entry on the verso quotes authorities from Aristotle to Rondelet and Belon.

20. Thierbuch... durch D. Cunrat Forer... in das Teutsch gebracht, und in ein kurtze komliche Ordnung gezogen. Zürich, 1563.

A German translation of the first two books of the Historia animalium, on viviparous and oviparous quadrupeds. Shown here is the camel. - Loaned by the Library of Congress

21. Fischbuch... von Herrn Conrad Forer... ins Teutsch gebracht, jetzt aber an vielen Orthen gebessert. Frankfurt am Main, 1598.

A translation, with some additions, of the fourth book of Gessner’s Historia animalium (1558). Shown here are various species of ray.


Botany was Gessner’s lifelong passion. He worked for twenty years on a History of Plants for which he collected specimens and drawings from all over Europe. At his death he had amassed a collection of over 1500 pictures, 150 of which he had drawn himself. These and the accompanying descriptions passed through many hands before they were published in part by C. C. Schmiedel in the eighteenth century. In 1927 some 1300 drawings with valuable notes by Gessner and others were discovered in the University of Erlangen library.

Passages in some of his letters show Gessner realized the importance of flower, fruit and seed in botanical classification. He also clearly recognized the distinction between genus and species.

22. Gessner, Conrad. Catalogus plantarum Latine, Graece, Germanice, & Gallice... Una cum vulgaribus pharmacopolarum nominibus... Zürich, 1542.

This early essay in botanical nomenclature was compiled during Gessner’s tenure of the Greek professorship at Lausanne. It is dedicated to his old teacher, Johann Jakob Ammann, whose love of botany had stimulated Gessner’s own. - Loaned by the National Library of Agriculture

23. Bock, Hieronymus, 1498-1554. Hieronymi Tragi De stirpium, maxime earum, quae in Germania nostra nascuntur, usitatis nomenclaturis... libri tres... nunc in Latinam conversi, interprete Davide Kybero... (Strassburg, 1552).

This Latin translation of Bock’s New Kreütter Buch includes Gessner’s bibliography of botanical writers, Greek, Latin, Arabic, medieval and contemporary. Of the last, Gessner says three shine like suns amongst minor stars: Bock, Jean Ruel, and Leonhart Fuchs.

24. Gessner, Conrad. De raris & admirandis herbis, quae... lunariae nominantur... Ed. 2. emendatior... Copenhagen, 1669.

This discussion of luminescence was the first ever published. It originally appeared in 1555 and is here reprinted as an appendix to Thomas Bartholin’s account of the phenomenon, De luce hominum & brutorum.

25. Guilandinus (Wieland), Melchior, 1519 or 20 - 1589. De stirpium aliquot nominibus vetustis ac novis... epistolae II. Una Melchioris Guilandini Borussi, altera Conradi Gesneri... Basel, 1557.

Gessner’s own (proof?) copy with marginal annotations, some cropped by the eighteenth-century binder. Melchior Guilandinus, a Prussian who became head of the botanical garden at Padua, wrote to Gessner on the vexed question of the identity of certain plants. In his reply, Gessner begs to differ from his correspondent and urges him in future to moderate his language, especially with regard to Mattioli: "if you must criticize, castigate the man’s faults rather than the man."

26. Gessner, Conrad. Horti Germaniae... In Cordus, Valerius. Annotationes in Dioscoridis... De medica materia libros V. [ed. By Gessner] [Strassburg] 1561.

Includes directions for establishing a botanical garden, a list of such gardens in Germany, Switzerland, Poland, France, Italy and elsewhere, and an alphabetical catalogue of cultivated plants, shrubs, and trees. Gessner describes his own garden on leaf  243V as "very small, but full of various plants."

27. Gessner, Conrad. De stirpium collectione tabulae... nunc... de novo in usum pharmacopolarum luci datae, per Casparum Wolphium... Zürich, 1587.

This general account of plant differentiation and the parts of plants is followed by directions as to when, where and how to collect them. Two lists conclude the volume: the first, in alphabetical order, lists the various species and gives their times of flowering or fructification. The second is a botanical calendar, showing what plants are in flower in any given month. - Loaned by the National Library of Agriculture

28. Gessner, Conrad. Opera botanica. ed. C. C. Schmiedel. Pars prima. Nuremberg, 1751.

Gessner’s knowledge of Alpine flora was particularly profound. Figure 1 depicts a rare species of gentian found on 1 August 1564. Gessner once wrote in a letter: ". . . There are hardly any plants that constitute a genus which may not be divided into two or more species. The ancients describe one species of gentian: I know of ten or more." - Loaned by the Library of Congress

28.1 Portrait of Gessner, signed “B”.

The verses below describe him as so prolific a writer, that his works constitute a physician’s library all by themselves.

29. Opera botanica, ed. C. C. Schmiedel. Pars secunda. Nuremberg, 1771.

Plate 30, fig. 99 shows a Swiss species of wild strawberry. Gessner was one of the first to portray individual parts of plants on an enlarged scale. - Loaned by the Library of Congress


Gessner’s interest in pharmaceutical chemistry and the “secret remedies” of alchemists and empirics is evidenced by his Thesaurus... de remediis secretis. This was first issued under a pseudonym in 1552, as Gessner was not entirely satisfied with it. It was very soon translated into English, French, German and Italian. No other work of Gessner’s proved so popular.

30. Thesaurus Euonymi Philiatri [pseud.] de remediis secretis, liber physicus, medicus, et partim etiam chymicus... Zurich, 1552.

The Thesaurus is primarily a treatise on distillation and the use of distillates in medical practice. It describes and illustrates the methods and apparatus then in use. This is a copy of the first edition, presented by Gessner to his friend Guglielmo Grataroli.

31. Thesaurus... Zurich, 1554.

The text on p. 317 ff. and the accompanying illustration of a straight-cooler are both derived from book 8 of Girolamo Cardano’s De subtilitate. Page 316 describes how to extract oils from spices such as cloves, nutmegs, saffron and mace.

32. Thesaurus... Lyons, 1559.

Distillation methods using the heat of the sun. The figure on p. 144 illustrates the use of a mirror (D) reflecting the rays of the sun (B) into a vessel (C) containing the matter to be distilled. That on p. 155 shows a variant method, employing crystal balls (A).

33. Tresor... des remedes secretz... Lyons, 1555.

A French translation of the Thesaurus by Barthélemy Aneau. It is open at pages 38-39 which describe and illustrate five of the plants to be distilled: winter cherry, pellitory, hawkweed, hyssop and endive. Winter cherry (Physalis alkekengi L.) is recommended for renal and vesical calculus.

34. Schatz. Ein kostlicher theüirer Schatz Euonymi Philiatri [pseud.]...Neüwlich verteütscht durch Joannem Rudolphum Landenberger...Zürich, 1555.

The first figure shows the Arabian Abulcasis’ “Woolcondenser”: the “Balneum Mariae” illustrated below is a water bath variously used for melting down fats, resin and the like, for extracting perfumes from flowers with fats and oil, and for chemical work.

35. Tesauro... de rimedii secreti... Tradotto... per m. Pietro Lauro... [Venice, 1556].

These figures represent various types of alembic.

36. The treasure of Euonymus... Translated... by Peter Morwyng. London, 1559.

This passage describes and illustrates one method of obtaining “oil of vitriol,” i.e. concentrated sulphuric acid (H2S04).

37. Euonymus. Conradi Gesneri... de remediis secretis, liber secundus... [Zürich, pref. 1569].

This second part of the Thesaurus was posthumously edited by Gessner’s literary executor, Caspar Wolff. The illustration on leaf 186V shows a still with water cooler (G), used for distilling aqua vitae.

38. The newe jewell of health... Faithfully corrected and published in Englishe, by George Baker, chirurgian. London, 1576.

Page 216 shows a coil condenser commonly called a “serpentina.” Vannoccio Biringuccio, in book 9 of his Pirotechnia published in 1540, gives probably the first picture of this device.

39. Quatre livres des secrets de medecine, et de la philosophie chimique. Faicts francois par M. Jean Liebaut... Paris, 1579.

This French version of part 2 of the Thesaurus was first published in 1573. Shown on leaf 20V is a new type of distillation involving circulation or “reboiling.” Three furnaces are shown. That on the right contains a fire of the “third” degree: the middle, a fire of the “second”: and the far left under a “balneum mariae,” a very small fire. Provided the fires were well regulated, one could obtain a fairly pure distillate.


Gessner practiced medicine in his native city Zürich for twenty-four years after obtaining his M.D. at Basel in 1541. From 1554 he was the senior city physician. His practice was not a large one and he usually had leisure for his many other interests. Nevertheless, medicine bulked large in his life and thoughts. The books exhibited in this case reveal his particular interest in therapeutics.

40. Joannes Actuarius, 13th cent.... De medicamentorum compositione. Joan. Ruellio interprete. Adjecimus quoque in medicinae candidatorum gratiam Succidaneorum medicaminum tabulam per Conradum Gessnerum... Basel [1540].

In his preface to the reader, Gessner explains the importance of knowing what drug may be substituted for another, when one proves unavailable. He then prints some classical lists of substitute medicines.

41. Gessner, Conrad. Apparatus et delectus simplicium medicamentorum... Omnia nunc primum aedita... Lyons, 1542.

Gessner edited this compilation on simples during his years at Lausanne. He had it printed at Lyons, where he stayed briefly in January 1541, on his way back from his abortive visit to Montpellier. A few months later, he had obtained his M.D. in Basel.

42. Gessner, Conrad. Compendium ex Actuarii Zachariae libris De differentiis urinarum, judiciis [etc.] Zürich, [1541].

Joannes Actuarius, a Byzantine physician, wrote a prolix treatise on uroscopy. Gessner here publishes his epitome of it together with a collection of Galenic prescriptions for various diseases. He dedicates the epitome to a Spanish physician and botanist he had met at Montpellier, Petrus Jacobus.

43. Brasavola, Antonio Musa, 1500-1555. Examen omnium catapotiorum vel pilularum... [Basel, 1543].

Gessner’s alphabetical list of purgative medicines, etc., is found on p. 143-166.

44. Gessner, Conrad. Enchiridion rei medicae triplicis... Zürich, 1555.

This collection of various treatises on pulse-lore, uroscopy, internal medicine and regimen in fevers was edited by Gessner, who dedicated it to his friend Achilles Pirmin Gasser.

45. Gessner, Conrad. Sanitatis tuendae praecepta... Zurich, dedication dated 28 Dec. 1555.

A collection of excerpts from classical and other authors, aimed particularly at those who lead sedentary lives. Gessner adds a warning about the evils of overindulgence and the immoderate use of venesection. This is Gessner’s presentation copy inscribed to Johannes Baptista Haintzelius, an Augsburg senator.

46. Gessner, Conrad. The practice of the new and old phisicke...Newly corrected and published in English, by George Baker...London, 1599.

An English version of part 2 of Gessner’s Thesaurus... de remediis secretis. Other editions of this popular work are shown in case V. Gessner’s interest in pharmaceutical chemistry had always a practical end in view: the curing of the patient. Often, as this book and his letters prove, he tried out new remedies on himself.


Gessner’s warm personality made him many friends. They showed their appreciation by helping him in his scientific work. In return, Gessner expressed his gratitude by naming them in his writings or dedicating treatises to them. Recently, the National Library of Medicine acquired through the generosity of the Robert Tracy Gillmore and Emma Wheat Gillmore bequest, Gessner’s Liber amicorum for 1555-1565. Here we find over 200 autographs of sixteenth-century scientists, savants, and students. Often, Gessner has added valuable notes about the contributions they had made, their interests, and their attainments. The Liber is shown here, together with some of Gessner’s published correspondence, and representative works by a few of those who signed his book.

47. Liber Amicorum, 1555-1565.

This small book (97x 77 mm.) contains 227 autographs of Gessner’s friends and acquaintances. Typical of the entries are those shown here: John Dee was a celebrated English astrologer and mathematician; Leonhart Rauwolff, a physician, explorer and botanist, after whom “Rauwolfiana” is named. Below their signatures, are comments in Gessner’s minuscule hand. Of the first, Gessner notes among other details that he was a Paracelsan; of the latter, that he was returning from Italy in the company of Jean Bauhin.

48. Gessner, Conrad. Epistolarum medicinalium... libri III... Zürich, 1577.

Gessner corresponded with a vast number of physicians and natural scientists all over Europe, usually in Latin, occasionally in Greek. This is a letter to the Augsburg physician Adolph Occo. In it, Gessner prescribes his “oxymel” for asthma: the dose should not exceed one or two drachms. A special treatise included at the end gives the complicated recipe.

49. Bauhin, Jean, 1541-1613. De plantis a divis sanctisve nomen habentibus... Additae sunt Conradi Gesneri... epistolae hactenus non editae a Casparo Bauhino... Basel, 1591.

Gessner’s letters to his friend Jean Bauhin are full of details concerning their fruitful cooperation. Both were keen botanists and exchanged specimens.

50. Alessandrini, Giulio, 1506-1590. De medicina et medico, dialogus... Zürich, 1557.

The author of this book was physician to three emperors and used his position at the Viennese court to secure Gessner’s ennoblement in 1564. Gessner contributed the Greek verses on the title page here shown.

51. Erastus, Thomas, 1524-1583. Disputationum de nova Philippi Paracelsi medicina pars altera... [Basel], 1572.

The author was a philosopher, theologian and physician. Apart from his contributions to church dogma (“Erastianism”), he is noted as an implacable opponent of Paracelsus.

52. Etschenreutter, Gallus, fl. 1561-1571. Aller heilsamer Bader und Brunnen Natur, Krafft, Tugendt, und Würckung, so in Teutschlanden bekandt und erfahren. Strassburg, 1571.

The author visited Gessner on 7 November 1561 on his return from Bologna, where the previous month he had obtained his M.D. This is the first edition of his popular book on German baths, with a picture of mixed bathing on the title page.

53. Ewich, Johann, 1525-1588. De officio fidelis et prudentis magistratus tempore pestilentiae. Neustadt an der Haardt, 1582.

The author, a native of Hörstgen in the former duchy of Cleves, visited Gessner in October 1557 on his return from Italy and promised Gessner some Greek verses for his book on fishes, published the following year. This book defines the duties of civic authorities in time of plague.

54. Gabelkover, Oswald, 1539-1616. The boocke of physicke... Dorte, 1599.

Compiled at the instance of his master; Duke Ludwig of Württemberg, Gabelkover’s collection “out of all the experiments, of litterate, and allso illiterated, highe, and laye persons” was soon translated from German into Dutch and English. It was first published under the title Nützlich Artzneybuch in 1589.

54.1 Portrait of Oswald Gabelkover, aged 70.

Engraved by Lucas Kilian in 1617.

55. Gasser, Achilles Pirmin, 1505-1577. Aphorismorum Hippocratis methodus nova, ab Achille P. Gassaro... primum quinque libris distincta deinde vero Conradi Gesneri... opera illustrata. St. Gall, 1584.

Gessner revised and completed Gasser’s topical rearrangement of Hippocrates’ Aphorisms. Appropriately, in view of their great friendship, Gasser was the first to sign the Liber amicorum on the occasion of Gessner’s visit to Augsburg in July 1555.

55.1 Portrait of Achilles Pirmin Gasser, aged 72. Unsigned.

56. Grataroli, Guglielmo, 1516-1568. De vini natura, artificio et usu, deque re omni potabili... Huic addita quedam opuscula ejusdem authoris... [Strassburg, 1565].

A Protestant refugee from Bergamo who settled in Switzerland, Grataroli wrote and edited a great number of books on medicine, natural science and the occult. His inscription in the Liber does not speak well for contemporary medical practice: ‘Many are physicians in name and fame, few in reality...’

56.1 Portrait of Guglielmo Grataroli, singed “B”.

His death date is here given as 1566.

57. Jordán, Thomas, 1539-1586. Knijha o wodách hogitedlných neb teplicech Morawských... Olomouc, 1580.

This work by a prominent Moravian epidemiologist, botanist and balneologist analyzes the medicinal properties of his native country’s springs. The portrait of the 42-year old Jordán is dated 1581, though the title page and preface are both dated 1580. Jordán signed the Liber amicorum in October 1562, when en route for Padua, to complete his medical education.

58. PHARMACOPOEIA, seu medicamentarium pro rep. Augustana. Cui accessere simplicia omnia officinis nostris usitata, & annotationes . . . ab Adolpho Occone... denuo recognita. [Augsburg, 1574].

Adolph Occo (1524-1606) compiled the Augsburg pharmacopoeia in 1564: it was the second official publication of its type. This is a later revised edition. Occo and Gessner frequently corresponded.

58.1 Portrait of Adolph Occo, aged 70.

Done from the life by “D.C.” (i.e. Dominik Custos?) in 1594.

59. Pena, Pierre, fl. 1535-1605. Nova stirpium adversaria... Antwerp, 1576.

This is a companion volume to the Plantarum seu stirpium historia (1576). Pena and his companion Jacques Raynaudet (Reginaldus) stayed a few days with Gessner in June 1564. Gessner praises the two men’s knowledge of botany.

60. Platter, Felix, 1536-1614. De corporis humani structura et usu... [Basel] 1583.

The author is better known as a pioneer psychiatrist than as an anatomist. All but plates 2 and 3 of the 50 plates in this book were copied from Vesalius’ Fabrica: plate 3 includes skeletal figures of child and embryo.



Gesner becomes Gessner

We have changed Gesner into Gessner. Cynthia M. Pyle advise to use Gessner instead of Gesner, as we can gather form the following fragment of her study about the surname of the illustrious Swiss scholar: "The confusion between the Latin spelling Gesnerus and the vernacular probably arose in the 18th century encyclopedia of Hans Jacob Leu, who separates CG from other members of his family orthographically. Gessner himself, like the rest of his family, invariably signs his name with two s's in German vernacular documents, illustrated in the above article, but uses one s (since two are unnecessary to obtain the same sound) in the Latin form, Gesnerus (with of course its Latin inflections)." (Conrad Gessner on the Spelling of his Name, Archives of Natural History 27 (2000), 175-186.)

Bibliotheca Universalis - How to organize Chaos?
Satellite meeting to the 71st World Library and Information Congress
Järvenpää, Finland 11-12 August 2005

Conrad Gesner
Father of Bibliography

Helsinki University Library, Finland

Conrad Gesner (1516-1565), one of the greatest organisers of knowledge, posed the question that has been posed several times here during these days: is it possible to organise all the information? For Gesner the question was not so problematic, I will discuss his ideas about it. In conclusion I say a few words about Gesner's position today, about his presence in our information society.

The need of organising information has been felt since people started to communicate with each other. There are, however, historical periods when this need has been felt more acutely, our own being one of them, and so was also the end of the 15th  century, when, like today, new information technology - at that time the printing press - was invented. In the 15th century the need for books had grown enormously along with the establishment of the new political, ecclesiastical and educational institutions; the medieval scriptoria-method of book production was not sufficient.

Once established, the printing press generated an enormous flow of information. Thousands of books were suddenly available. In the incunabula period, from 1450 to 1500, in only 50 years about 20 million books were produced, containing some 10,000-15,000 different texts while, according to some estimations, in the manuscript period, during a millennium, only 1 one million books were produced. Till the end of the 1990s the medieval invention – the printing press - managed to satisfy people's need for knowledge but then it was challenged by new technical methods of spreading information. Along with the new technology the concept of information, formerly considered to be something rather immaterial, has been transforming, it is industrialised and converted into merchandise, into something that can be bought and sold. There has been, accordingly, a huge change in the concept itself, partly due to the technical development.

Today we are, with these increasing masses of information, in quite a similar situation as were people in the 15th  century with the fast growing collections of monastic, university and private libraries which needed to be catalogued and classified so that the information, then available, could really be used by those who needed it.

However, very few catalogues or bibliographies were published before Gesner's epoch-making Bibliotheca universalis, which came out in 1545.

There was only one important earlier catalogue:

Johann Tritheim: Catalogus illustrium virorum Germaniae suis ingeniis et lucubrationibus omnifariam exornantium of Johann Tritheim. Mainz 1495

and two contemporary ones:

John Bale: Illustrium Maioris Britanniae Scriptorum. Ipswich 1548


Anton Francesco Doni Libraria ... Nella quale sono scritti tutti gl'Autori vulgari con cento  discorsi sopra quelli: Tutte le tradutioni fatte dell'altre lingue, ... Venezia 1550.

Gesner's Bibliotheca universalis came out in four volumes in 1545-1555:

Bibliotheca Universalis, sive Catalogus omnium scriptorum locupletissimus, in tribus linguis, Latina, Graeca, et Hebraica ... authore Conrado Gesnero Tigurino doctore medico. Tiguri: Apud Christophorum Froschoverum, 1545. [18], 631 leaves; 2:o.

Pandectarum sive partitionum universalium Conradi Gesneri Tigurini, medici & philsophiae professoris, libri XXI. Ad lectores. Secundus hic bibliothecae nostrae tomus est, ... doctore medico. Tiguri: Excudebat Christophorus Froschoverus, 1548. [6], 374 leaves; 2:o.

Partitiones theologicae, pandectarum universalium Conradi Gesneri liber ultimus ... Accedit index alphabeticus praesent libro & superioribus XIX. communis ... Tiguri: Christophorus Froschoverus excudit, 1549. [8], 157, [14] leaves; 2:o.

Appendix bibliothecae Conradi Gesneri. Typographus lectori. Quoniam bibliothecae Conradi Gesneri epitome Basileae primum superioribus annis per Conradum Lycosthenem, deinde nunc apud nos per Josiam Simlerum multo auctior aedita est ... Tiguri: Apud Christophorum Froschoverum, 1555. [16], 105 leaves; 2:o.

I concentrate here on the two basic volumes (1545, 1548), the one's approach is alphabetical
and the other'
s systematic.

In the 16th century the word Bibliotheca-library had also the meaning of an inventory of all the books ever written either on a given subject or by all the authors of a given nation. Gesner, however, gave the word a new, more universal meaning. The French book-historian Roger Chartier presents Gesner's Bibliotheca as a real, living library without walls. Gesner himself in compiling his Bibliotheca had also in mind a library, that had existed, Alexandria library and its mythical destruction. Gesner's intention was to assure the preservation of the knowledge of all the historical eras in his Bibliotheca, in this sense Bibliotheca might even be considered as a kind of security policy for the existing libraries. Thus Gesner's Bibliotheca aimed at absolute completeness with the intention of listing all the known books of all ages.

Besides being complete the Bibliotheca was also rational, for the second volume contained a
detailed classification of knowledge.

The author of this monumental work, Conrad Gesner, also called monstrum eruditionis (monster of scholarsihp), was born as the son of a furrier, Ursus Gesner, in Zürich in 1516. Conrad grew up in poor financial circumstances for the father had died at the battle of Kappel in 1531. Already as a boy Gesner had a passion for books and scholarship, and he later studied in several European universities, attending all the faculties except the faculty of law. He was a philologist, theologian, natural scientist and medical doctor. But he was also a bibliographer for he loved books not only because of the text included in them, but also as objects. This is easy to understand for his lifetime coincided with the prime of the printing press, the books published were both technically and aesthetically of astonishingly high quality, not to speak about the beautiful illuminated manuscripts.

Gesner started his university career at Bourges in 1533 with the study of theology and ancient languages. In 1534 he stayed in Paris, following different courses at the university, but as a dedicated Zwinglian, he was soon forced to leave Paris due to the rising anti-Protestant feelings. In 1536 he studied medicine at the University of Basle, and at the same time worked for the Basle publisher Heinrich Petri, compiling a Greek-Latin dictionary. In 1537-1540 Gesner held a chair of Greek at Lausanne Academy in Basle. In 1540 he left for Montpellier to study medicine. In 1541 he took his exams in medicine at Basle and returned to Zürich, where he was a lecturer in natural philosophy and ethics. In 1546 Gesner was appointed professor at the Carolinum in Zürich, and from 1552 he worked also as town physician. Gesner died in Zürich in 1565.

As a great organiser and naturalist, Conrad Gesner was eager to obtain a logical order in everything, especially in the world of herbs and animals. His magnum opus Historia animalium was published between 1552-1558, and though Gesner did not yet find a scientific system for the classification of the animal world, his Historia animalium must be considered the beginning of modern zoology. The book's innovative illustrations were mostly by Gesner's hand, and these illustrations have been, and still are, copied and recopied in zoological tracts and publications. Even in the 17th century Finland. Nowadays these illustrations are probably the most known part of his history of animals.

A copy of Gesner's illustration of the eagle was copied and published in Turku as late as 1689.

Gesner's quest for order in everything, present in all of his books, is certainly the basis for the great encyclopaedic Bibliotheca Universalis. The work that has earned him the epithet the father of bibliography.

Order of books

As a scientist Gesner always emphasised the importance of organising the knowledge. What he called ordo librorum - the order of books - was the classification of both the books as objects and the knowledge itself. The first part of Bibliotheca is an alphabetical list organized according to the author's first name; the second volume Pandectae provides a systematic exposition of the knowledge extracted from the books listed in the part Biblitoheca. Gesner's idea was that his Biblitoheca should serve as a kind of corpus that could be used for several different purposes, for example, as a guide, how to build a library and as a catalogue of individual libraries.

The first volume of Bibliotheca lists alphabetically 3 000 authors, arranged in the medieval manner by their first names (the surnames or epithets being listed in a separate index). The Appendix volume contains entries for the works of some 2 000 additional authors. He has given the basic bibliographical data of each book whenever it has been possible: title, place and year of publication, and publisher and format. Bibliotheca includes also other information:

Firstly Gesner gives a short biography of most of the authors thus emphasising, in the medieval manner, the author who, in the Middle Ages, was considered as the main definer of a scientific work. Quite a few of Gesner's biographies are, even today, of considerable biographical importance. Thus Bibliotheca universalis was also a universal biography, a lexicon of writers.

Secondly, Gesner analysed also to some extent the contents of the books, the entries included listings of the individual sections of the works. In addition to this Gesner, as a genuine scholar, also referred to the form and style of the work including even some value judgements based on his own and others. reactions

Gesner's Bibliotheca exhibits most clearly its author's great intellectual discipline. It was a work of the Renaissance, but, in some respects, it  followed medieval rationality, for example in the previously mentioned appreciation of the author.

The other medieval feature is the classification scheme, in the systematic volume Pandectae based on the traditional thinking. The scheme was borrowed from the medieval university libraries, especially from the library of Sorbonne. The medieval library classification schemes followed the curricula of universities and these can be traced back to Greek antiquity and Plato's Academy.

The system of classification in Pandectae proceeds from the seven artes liberales to the subject categories prevalent in university faculties. Gesner subdivides these into 21 principal groups called libri, which are again divided into secondary groups called tituli, and these further, when necessary, into partes. In Pandects there are listed more than 30 000 concepts with cross-references to the authors listed in the Bibliotheca. The seven artes liberales consist of: the trivium: grammar, dialectics, rhetoric, and here followed by poetics, the quadrivium: arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. These are followed by the sciences included in the medieval university curricula: astrology; divination and magic; geography; history; mechanical arts; natural philosophy; metaphysics; moral philosophy; economic philosophy; politics.

And finally, the three higher faculties of law, medicine and theology. Of these faculties only law is included, the only faculty in which Gesner did not study. The projected class 20 "De re medica" was never published and the 21st  class "De theologia Christiana" was published later separately.

As an example I have chosen "history" in Pandectae, liber 12, titulus 1 "history in general", in dealing the theme .praise of the history. Gesner refers to the authors Sabellicus, Alciatus and Beroaldus. In Bibliotheca under Alciatus's first name ANDREAS Alciatus Gesner lists the writings of Alciatus, among these also "Historiae encomium".

As most scholars in the 16th century Gesner worked for several learned printers and publishers, the contemporary "gatekeepers" of literature and scholarship. This is also manifested in Pandectae, for Gesner had dedicated each of the 21 systematic groups to a contemporary printer, mentioning in the dedication also several publications printed by them.

There are even catalogues of publications of seven famous publishing houses: Froschauer (Zürich), Officina Manutii (Venezia), Gryphe (Lyon), Wechel (Frankfurt a.M.), Herwagen (Strasbourg), Gymnich (Köln) and Frellon (Lyon).

Gesner's  Bibliotheca universalis belongs definitely to the books that have changed the world, it introduced even a new genre of literature - bibliography - a genre that still continues to flourish. Gesnerìs Bibliotheca is a consequent and comprehensive bibliography where books are recorded both as objects, and as texts, intellectual works. Gesner's accurate descriptions of the books with evaluative judgements about the work and short biographies of the authors make the Bibliotheca Universalis an invaluable tool, even today, especially for scholars of the history of sciences. The completeness of the Bibliotheca Universalis was possible because of the exceptional, unrivalled erudition of its author but also due to the period in which it was produced, for in the early16th  century it was still possible for one person - for an exceptional person - to pull together substantially all the literature published so far. After Gesner, to compile a universal and evaluative bibliography would not have been possible and the genre of bibliography has been differentiated, since, in many ways, either geographically, linguistically or by author or subject.
However, along with the possibilities given by the new information technology the idea of universality of knowledge has arisen again. There have been hopes that the masses of information and data analyzed, described and evaluated locally might be pulled together and used globally via Internet. Conrad Gesner has been revived and the title of his basic work of bibliography
Bibliotheca universalis has been adopted and used as a title for a modern project of the seven great countries (G 7), to which have joined later seven additional countries.

The basic ideas when the G7 project started, were that:
- it should strengthen the role of libraries and improve availability at international level. The digitized resources include both the bibliographic records and the information content itself (text, graphics, still image, sound and video information).
- it will promote the large scale digitization of documents and encourage the definition and adoption of international standards. The project has been working from 1995 and in 2002, the library partners decided to carry on their cooperation with some changes in the priorities.
- libraries will broaden cooperation to include all public domain documents of their digital libraries.
- programme will now consist of sharing information and experiences about specific subjects concerning digital libraries: digitisation policy, legal deposit, long-term preservation and access to the electronic documents.

The aims are quite different from those Gesner had in mind, though I think that he would certainly have shared some of these ideas concerning standardisation and classification - in a word interoperability.

The term .universal. meant different things for Gesner and for those responsible for G7 project:
- Gesner'
s universal library consists of written texts, manuscript or printed, published in Europe in universal languages: Greek, Latin and Hebrew
- with the G 7 project we are dealing with the whole world, with several languages and with texts, sounds and  images
- Gesner wanted to capture all the written human knowledge in order to save it to the posterity
- the G 7 project is virtual, the contents of this electronic data base are constantly changing
- Gesner's work was aimed for the scholars and the learned society
- the G 7 project is for the many
- Gesner aspired for completeness and consistency
- the G 7 project  works with rather general themes and doesn't strive for consistency
- Gesner is the only author of his Universal Library
- the G 7's Universal Library is a construction of several different institutions - accordingly of hundreds of people.

Probable to adopt the title of the master work of bibliography for a modern international project, was to honour Gesner - father of bibliography and not to insist on the similarity of their contents. But perhaps, in some deeper sense these two Bibliothecas do have some common features: They both reflect the cultural and intellectual atmospheres of their own period, as the libraries and their ways of organizing knowledge definitely always do Gesner's Bibliotheca reflects the period when the information and its organisation followed stationary, medieval European thinking traditions, while the G7 project is a reflection of the modern globalized, "deconstructed" world with constantly transforming truths. So, the title Bibliotheca Universalis for the G7 project might not be so bad, after all.