Conrad Gessner

Conrad Gessner, 1516-1565

vol 3 pg 168.jpg

Conrad Gessner was an energetic scholar who had a love of the natural world, especially the mountains around his native Zurich. Born into a poor family, the young Gessner paid for his schooling by collecting medicinal plants with his great-uncle. As he grew, he impressed his instructors with his keen intellect, to the point that they were willing to sponsor his academic career. Gessner studied theology, physics, and medicine, as well as Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. In 1541 he received his doctoral degree in medicine and was a practicing physician for the rest of his life. His passion, however, was for the natural world.


Gessner often took his students on field trips to the mountains to collect animal, plant, and mineral specimens. In 1551, he published the first part of his masterwork, Historiae Animalium, which described four-legged animals that gave birth to live young. Over the next several years, he expanded this work to include volumes on egg-laying reptiles (1554), birds (1555), and fish (1558). A fifth volume, composed of Gessner’s notes on snakes and scorpions, was published in 1587 after his death. Each of these volumes was heavily illustrated with detailed woodcuts of animal specimens. Gessner drew on many sources to create his Historia, including accounts from classical authors, correspondences from other natural historians, and his own personal observations. The end product was an encyclopedia that attempted to describe animals as precisely as possible by finding consensus between many different sources of information. 

Historiae Animalium Liber II qui est de Quadrupedibus Ouiparis

Though printed a year apart and each being a separate text, the CRRS copy of volumes two and three of Gessner’s Historia Animalium, have been rebound together into a single book, resulting in a single record within our database.


Historiae Animalium Liber III qui est de Auium natura

Even in the early age of print, censorship was a problem for writers and publishers. Offending a powerful monarch or group could result in having your books heavily edited or destroyed. Gessner, a protestant, was placed on the Vatican’s banned book list. The CRRS’s copy of volume three of Historia Animalium has had every instance of Gessner’s name struck through. Interestingly, only his name has been censored; the rest of the information has been left intact. The censor may have disapproved of the man, but not the information he presented.


The works of Conrad Gessner remained popular long after his death. Such was the demand for Gessner’s work in a language other than Latin that this 1581 German language edition of volume three of Historia Animalium was made. It is worth noting that the woodcuts present in this edition are either the same ones used for the original edition or very good copies. The images had become so iconic that a new edition of Gessner’s work would be incomplete without them. Unique to the CRRS copy, there are several instances where someone has carefully coloured some of the woodcuts. There is no indication as to who this artist may be.

Conrad Gessner