A Brill Calendar: December 13
Conrad Gesner: Scholarly Giant
Few representative surveys of Western intellectual traditions fail to mention – often obligatorily - the Swiss naturalist Conrad Gesner.
Gesner practiced medicine in Zürich, the city of his birth from 1541 until the day he died there, on December 13, 1565, aged 49. Yet, the value of his scholarly output – just stupendous in sheer physical size – can’t be overestimated for following generations . Endowed with a passion for vast panoramas, he authored a useful Greek-Latin Dictionary before reaching the age of 21 - whilst studying medicine in Basel – incidentally during the final years of Erasmus in that Swiss city.
Intertwined with his unremitting daily chores as a healer, Gesner published lasting monuments along the long and winding road of inquiry into nature; including a ‘Bibliotheca universalis’ (1545), a ‘Historiae animalium’ (1551 – ’56), researches in the animal kingdom, a report on some 130 different languages and massive descriptions of botanical life; including a wealth of innovative wood-engravings.
With Gesner climbing these 'Alps' of universal learning so assiduously, it should be no surprise to be informed that he also reached the top of a real Alp, Mont Pilatus, in 1555; earning him a place of honour in the proto-history of mountaineering; admittedly two centuries after Petrarca conquered in the Vaucluse Mont Ventoux - acknowledged as the moment in historical time that mountains became not only phenomena to look up to, but also positions to look down from.
It may have been different; but it is seldom that articulation of the history of science in ages – including the ‘scientific revolution’ of the early 17th century – recognizes generously and fairly the size of the debt Galileo, Newton and Huygens owed to their immediate - and not so immediate - predecessors. Anybody standing on ‘shoulders of giants’ should try and name them.