Putting the lead in your pencil

Anyone who has regularly reads this blog (does anybody regularly read this blog?) will perhaps be aware of the fact that I have a soft spot for polymaths. There is an expression in German “Fachidiot”, which translates as “discipline idiot” and refers to those academics who know more than anybody ever wanted to know about their own intellectual speciality but are totally ignorant about everything else in the world, an accusation that could not be raised against today’s the day before yesterday’s1 birthday boy Conrad Gesner  (26.03.1516 – 13.12.1565).

Born, the son of a furrier, in Zurich he attended the Cathedral School of his home town where his best friend was Georg Joachim Rheticus, who would gain ever lasting fame as the man who persuaded Copernicus to publish his De revolutionibus. The two remained life long friends and Gesner provided a refuge for Rheticus when he suffered a mental breakdown later in life. Gesner was poor and could not afford an education but his obvious great intelligence and abilities led a series of prominent scholars to act as his patrons enabling him to study at the universities of Zurich, Straßburg and Bourges. Following his studies he became a schoolteacher and in 1537 he was appointed professor of Greek at the university of Lausanne. In 1541 he was appointed professor of physics at the University of Zurich having obtained a doctorate in medicine from the University of Basel in the same year. In 1554 he was appointed chief town physician of Zurich. Today he is best known as a natural historian but in his own time he was a well known medical authority regarded as one of the leading humanist physicians of Europe who published extensively being especial well known as one of the leading critics of the medical rebel and reformer Theophrastus von Hohenheim better known as Paracelsus. In fact much of what we know about Paracelsus originates in Gesner’s comments on him.

Gesner wrote widely and published much and he is regarded as one of the founding fathers of zoology because of his massive six volume Historia animalia (volumes five and six were published posthumously), the most extensive catalogue in its time of the animal kingdom.

He planned an equally massive work on plants and collected specimens his whole life that he drew and described in detail in preparation for this work, unfortunately he died before he could complete the project and unlike his work on animals which was already largely published and so completed posthumously, the plant book initially disappeared from sight. The pictures with their descriptive texts eventually found their way to the University of Altdorf near Nürnberg and Gesner’ s Historia plantarum appeared in shortened form in 1750. The original illustrations finally landed in the university library of my Alma Mata, Erlangen, where they live in the rare books room. As John Wilkins, the Aussie AnthropoidTM, visited me I arranged for him to view the Gesner originals. We got shown the facsimile edition of the Historia plantarum that was paid for and published by the Swiss Government and the University Library at the beginning of the 20th century together with about a dozen of Gesner’s original sheets of drawing, which are both artistically and scientifically very impressive.

In his Species book John writes the following about Gesner:

Of the bestiary writers of the Reformation, Gesner is the most interesting, because like Frederick and Albert, he studied the organisms for himself. Of equal note is that he engaged woodcuts to be made of his specimens, allowing readers to identify which actual species he was talking about. His Historia animalium ran to 3500 pages in four volumes, organised by Aristotelian categories of viviparous and oviparous organisms, then birds, fishes and reptiles and insects […]. In his Historia plantarum (1548 – 1566) he summarized twenty years’ work of direct description and drawings of 1,500 plants, including dissections of flowers and fruits.

The formal distinction into genera and species in botany arises in the work of Gesner, according to Aber […], when he employs the practice of giving genera substantive names, and Arber considers him the earliest to do so. However, his work was not widely known [because it was only published 200 years after his death ThC], and Aber instead considers that Fabius Columna […] published the first views on the nature of genera in botany…

Although a Protestant and friend of Zwingli. Gesner was regarded well by all, except his rival Ulisse Androvani, who plagiarized him and sneered when referring to him…2

Gesner’s animal and plant books would be considered a life’s work by any standards but there is much more. A passionate categoriser he set out to produce a systematic bibliography of all the books that had been published since the introduction of printing 100 years before. His Bibliotheca universalis contains 10, 000 works with a description of their contents and laid the foundations of systematic bibliography making Gesner to a sort of patron saint of librarians and bibliographers. This was followed by his 21 volume Pandectae sive Partitiorum universalium which listed the works according to disciplines covered.

Outside of his academic work Gesner was by no means a couch potato but in fact plays an important role in the history of mountain climbing. On the whole mountains were regarded with suspicion and foreboding by those who lived on the plain or in the valleys the earliest description in literature of somebody going up a mountain for pleasure being by Petrach in the 14th century. Gesner was an enthusiastic mountain climber who set himself the aim of climbing at least one mountain a year for his whole life. Naturally he used these excursions to collect specimens and make drawings for his natural history studies.

Some readers might be puzzled by the title of this post, which will now be explained. Like other natural historians Gesner also wrote and published a book on mineralogy his De Omni Rervm Fossilivm Genere. In Gesner’s time the word fossil referred to anything found in the earth and his fossil book contains the first ever published description of the pencil, graphite being a product of the earth.

Conrad Gesner professor for Greek and physics, physician and medical author, zoologist, botanist, mineralogist, bibliographer and mountain climber is my type of scholar a true polymath.

1) The best laid plans of mice and men…

2) John S. Wilkins, Species: A History of the Idea, University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles, London, 2009, p 55.


Filed under Early Scientific Publishing, History of science, Renaissance Science

20 responses to “Putting the lead in your pencil

  1. Pingback: Putting the lead in your pencil | Whewell's Ghost

  2. Especially after the invention of movable type, keeping up with received knowledge was like drinking from a fire hose. Over and beyond their own investigations, 16th Century polymaths like Gesner were warriors in the battle against information overload. In this connection, Ann M. Blair puts Gesner’s bibliographic efforts in to context in her aptly titled book, Too Much to Know, that appeared last year.

    I agree with your high opinion of Gesner, though my opinion is based mostly on reading a bit of his animal book. Some of the other Renaissance men and, even more, the less often discussed Baroque men like Athanasius Kircher, who managed to have entertaining but goofy theories about pretty much everything, strike me less as universal geniuses and more as versatile idiot savants.

    • Is Ann Blair’s book as good as its reviews?

      • I hadn’t realized the book was that well reviewed. If you care about the topic, it’s fascinating. Since you’re probably one of the small number of potential readers who has heard about many of the scholars who put together all those enormous folios, I expect you’d enjoy it greatly. More to the point, Blair makes the important claim that the learned world had already begun to respond to the sheer volume of information in new ways even before printing, thus challenging the view of Elizabeth Eisenstein and many others going back to Sir Francis Bacon at least. Anyhow, that was the biggest thing I got out of the book, other than the sheer pleasure of indulging my taste for immoderate erudition, aka pathological pedantry.

    • The newspapers and magazines that I read have reviews of books like that!

  3. Wow! That’s one cool pencil – I totally want one.

    Another unlikely pencil pioneer was Thoreau, who’s family ran a pencil manufacturing business in Concord, MA and who perfected a method for controlling pencil hardness by binding the graphite with clay.

    • The process of mixing clay with graphite to make pencils was originally developed to be able to manufacture pencils from ground graphite, all earlier pencils had been cut from massive graphite. The process was first developed in Nürnberg down the road from where I live and the city is the home base of both Faber-Castell and StaedtlerMars. As the Americans would say it’s the pencil capital of the world.

  4. Thanks Thony, very interesting. I knew of (and love) Gesner’s ‘Historia Animalia’ but wasn’t aware of his various other scholarly activities.

    I don’t know I’d agree with the characterising of Kircher as an idiot savant. I rather think he was just an ordinary fellow in the right place at the right time with an overactive imagination and above average marketing skills.

  5. Just to make it clear, “Fachidiot” is “discipline idiot” but “discipline” in the sense of “area of study”, not in the sense of, say, self-discipline, military drill or a 1970s King Crimson album.

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  14. The link to the description of the pencil goes to some unrelated page about jet skis!

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