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Konrad Gesner

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Konrad Gesner


Konrad Gesner, De raris et admirandis herbis (Zurich, 1555), title page with Joseph Pitton de Tournefort’s signature.

Konrad Gesner (1516-1565), was one of the greatest encyclopaedists of the early modern period. Educated in Zurich, Strasbourg, Bourges, Paris and Basel, he had initially trained to be a theologian before choosing medicine. He was a true polymath and is perhaps best known for his masterpieces, the Bibliotheca universalis (1545-1555), which earned him the epithet ‘Father of bibliography’, and his Historia animalium (1551-1558). It was during his sojourn at Montpellier that his turned his attention to the study of botany and spent the rest of his life preparing a magnum opus on plants which, though it survives in manuscript form, was unfortunately not published during his own lifetime (it contained almost 1,500 plants). Worth’s copy of Gesner’s De raris et admirandis herbis, published at Zurich in 1555, bears the signature of Joseph Pitton de Tournefort (1656-1708), whose works on the classification of plants were likewise collected by Worth. Tournefort undoubtedly recognised the ground-breaking nature of Gesner’s observations: particularly the importance laid by Gesner on flowers, fruits and seeds as methods of classification, rather than the use of foliage (Pavord, 2005).


Konrad Gesner, Epistolarum medicinalium, Conradi Gesneri (Zurich, 1577), p. 13, Aconite.

Botanical studies in the sixteenth (and seventeenth) century benefited a great deal from the spirit of collaboration which materially aided many of the researchers in the field. Men such as Fuchs, Dodoens, Clusius and Gesner were well aware of their heavy dependence on the scholarly benevolence of other botanists, who shared their plants, herbaria and observations with them. However, while cooperation in the Republic of Letters was usually the norm, there were at times some exceptions which proved the rule. One of these was the contentious dispute which arose between Gesner and Pietro Andrea Mattioli (1501-77) on the subject of the identification of the aconite of Dioscorides. As Palmer (1985) reminds us, in 1542 Fuchs had claimed to have identified it as ‘Herb paris’ but his Italian counterpart Mattioli had disagreed and in his 1554 edition of the Materia Medica of Dioscorides had identified it with a plant he had located in the region of Trent. In the following year Gesner entered the fray by arguing that Mattioli had provided a false image of the plant. As Delisle (2004) notes, Gesner’s comments on the aconite of Dioscorides caused one of the bitterest disputes in the world of sixteenth-century botany. Mattioli, ever jealous of his position in the scholarly world, took grave exception to Gesner’s contention that he had in effect falsified his image of aconite.

The dispute quickly snowballed as both men enlisted their respective scholarly friendship networks to engage with the topic and in turn the ensuing correspondence found its way into the public domain via publications such as Gesner’s De stirpium aliquot nominibus (1557). This in turn was answered by Mattioli’s 1558 Appendix, leading Gesner to demand a resolution of the debate by a panel of learned colleagues, scholars such as Girolamo Donzellini and Johannes Hessus. As Delisle (2004) relates, they found in Mattioli’s favour. Even then, the matter did not end as neither scholar was prepared to give way. This woodcut, from Worth’s copy of Gesner’s Epistolarum medicinalium, published in Zurich in 1577, some twenty-two years after the start of the dispute, is a sure indication that it was still going strong after two decades.


Konrad Gesner, De raris et admirandis herbis (Zurich, 1555), p. 37 Sun dew.

Gesner’s Ros Solis (now called Drosera) is a small perennial plant which grows in boggy ground. A member of the fascinating carnivorous Droseraceae family, it is commonly known as the Sundew plant because of the sticky dew-like substance on its leaves which it uses to trap and eat insects. As Parkinson (1640) in his Theatrum Botanicum notes, the small ‘hollow’ leaves covered with red hairs are moist and sticky even in the hottest weather and Gesner’s woodcut shows these well. Parkinson mentions three types: ‘Ros Solis foliis major and minor’ (he is doubtful whether there is a real difference between them) and the Long Leaved Ros Solis sylvestris longifolius which he says had been sent to him from Dublin by the apothecary Zanche Silliard. Caleb Threlkeld who published the first Irish Flora Synopsis stirpium hibernicarum in 1727 notes that the Long Leaved Sundew had actually been found by the clergyman and botanist Richard Heaton who was in Ireland between 1630-1640 (Mitchell, 1975). Threlkeld reports that Heaton had given a plant to Silliard who sent it on to Parkinson (presumably unattributed), and Heaton had thereby lost the credit of being the first discoverer. Threlkeld used Heaton as source for many of his plants and their Irish names (Mitchell, 1974, Nelson, 1979) and may have had access to a manuscript of Heaton’s which appears to have been since lost.

There are over 194 species of Drosera found worldwide of which three grow in Ireland: the Round-leaved Sundew, Drosera rotundiflora which is quite common; the rarer Oblong–leaved Sundew Drosera intermedia; and The Great Sundew Drosera anglica.  Striking photographs of all three can seen in Doogue and Krieger’s The wild flowers of Ireland (2010).


Delisle, Candice (2004), ‘The Letter: Private Text or Public Place? The Mattioli-Gesner Controversy about the aconitum primum’ in Gesnerus vol 61, pp, 161-176.

Doogue, D. and Krieger, C. (2010), The wild flowers of Ireland (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan), pp 252, 260, 261.

International Carnivorous Plant Society

Mitchel, M. E. (1974).  ‘The Sources of Threlkeld’s Synopsis Stirpium Hibernicarum’ in Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, Section B : Biological, Geological and Chemical Science vol 74, pp. 1-6.

Mitchel, M. E. (1975) ‘Irish Botany in the Seventeenth Century’ in Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, Section B : Biological, Geological and Chemical Science Vol 75, pp. 275-284.

Nelson, Charles (1979), ‘In the Contemplation of Vegetables’- Calab Threlkeld (1676-1728), his life, background and contribution to Irish botany’ in J. Soc Bilbphy nat. Hist. 9 (3) pp. 257-273.

Palmer, Richard (1985), ‘Medical Botany in Northern Italy in the Renaissance’ in Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine vol 78, pp. 149-157.

Parkinson, John (1640), Theatrum Botanicum (London, pp 1052-3).

Pavord, Anna (2005), The Naming of Names. The Search for Order in the World of Plants (London).

Pilet, P. E. (1972), ‘Gesner, Konrad’ in Dictionary of Scientific Biography (New York), vol V, pp 378-9.

Threlkeld C Synopsis stirpium hibernicarum alphabetice dispositarum. Sive commentatio de plantis indigenis praesertim Dublinensibus institute. Being a short treatise of native plants, especially such as grow spontaneously in the vicinity of Dublin. Printed by S Powell for F Davys, Richard Norris and Josiah Worrall Dublin 1727

Webb’s (2012), An Irish Flora 8th edition, edited by John Parnell and Tom Curtis (Cork University Press).

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