Conrad Gesner. Historiae Animalium. Frankfurt: In Bibliopolio H. Laurentti, 1620.






The Swiss physician Conrad Gesner (1516-1565) was the first of the sixteenth century scholars to take the same process of collecting specimens and observations used by Fuchs and Mattioli for plants and apply it to animals. Encumbered by poverty, poor health and an invalid wife, Gesner was still an immensely prolific scholar. He pursued his scientific work through a voluminous correspondence with other collectors and scholars throughout Europe. Although he spent most of his life in his native Zurich, his extensive communication network enabled him to acquire specimens from all parts of the world and to receive descriptions of distant species, which he incorporated into the text of his major work, the four-volume Historiae Animalium, first published in 1551, and republished many times into the seventeenth century. Two of the  illustrations shown here accompanied his descriptions of the rhinoceros and the unicorn. Although we now know that the unicorn never existed, for Gesner it was just as likely to exist as the rhinoceros. Both were exotic animals that he had never seen in person, but which he had heard about from others. His network of correspondence allowed for the exchange of information about the new species which were being regularly discovered during the second half of the sixteenth century. Such a community was an essential element in the expansion of natural science beyond the knowledge contributed by the ancient world, and served as a beginning for international scientific societies.

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