Popular Science Monthly/Volume 47/May 1895/An Old Naturalist: Conrad Gesner (1516-1565)

1228636Popular Science Monthly Volume 47 May 1895 — An Old Naturalist: Conrad Gesner (1516-1565)1895William Keith Brooks




Illustrated by Photo-engravings reduced from the Original Woodcuts.

SO many lives have been devoted to the earnest study of Nature that disinterested zeal and untiring industry are no peculiar claims to our interest, however inspiring and instructive they may be.

Conrad Gesner was not only a faithful student and a great educational influence, but a hero who took life in his hand for the service of man, and calmly facing horrors more awful than a battlefield, laid it down, like so many forgotten physicians, at his post of duty.

His great work on natural history, which was published in Zurich (1551-1587), is one of the chief sources of that interest in

Fig. 1.

the living world which has grown stronger and stronger from his time to the present day.

There were other men who merit the title of naturalist in Gesner's day. We find the spirit of original research in Rondolet, and in Belon, whose intense love of Nature led him on in his wanderings from his home in France, over the mountains and valleys of Greece and along the shores of the Archipelago, through Asia Minor far into Egypt.

Aldrovandi also made formal calls on Nature, visits of state to her haunts, taking notes on her ways, for he says: "I often wandered through the vineyards and fields, over the marshes and mountains, accompanied by my draughtsman, carrying his pencil, to draw whatever I pointed out; and by my amanuenses, with their note-books, to write down at my dictation whatever occurred to me."

It is the great distinction of Gesner that, without sacrificing the dignity of science, he made it attractive, and thus became a great educational influence. His contemporary and friend, Dürer, has been called the "evangelist of art," and the title of "evangelist of science" might with equal propriety be applied to him, for

Fig. 2.

he is one of the foremost representatives of that time of intense and contagious industry "when art was still religion."

The modern world takes morbid interest in the crudity and errors of early writers on science, and we are in no danger of forgetting their views on griffins and krakens, on goose barnacles and spontaneous generation. Their merits are less interesting and seem too antiquated and too far below our mark to be notable simply as good, faithful work.

The demands of current scientific literature leave us no time for the ponderous volumes of ancient writers, but if we had time to spare we should find in many of them both pleasure and profit, although it is quite true that their value as sources of scientific knowledge has passed away, and that later writers have helped themselves to all that is best in them, and have passed it on to us.

One of Gesner's greatest services to natural science is the introduction of good illustrations, which he gives his reader by hundreds.

Work under his severe scrutiny was a valuable training to the draughtsman and engraver of his day, and the publication of his natural history, filled with simple but spirited pictures of animals, did much to educate the critical powers of the public.

We can not appreciate the educational value of his work without tracing it into other fields, and studying its influence on contemporary art.

Before the day of photography success in drawing living animals depended to a great degree upon the study of earlier attempts, upon the imitation of their successes, and the correction of their failures and shortcomings; and the success of Gesner's draughtsmen, who had few models to copy, was very notable. Their attempts to draw strange and unfamiliar animals are not always happy, but most of the drawings of familiar forms are full of life and spirit, even after they have been interpreted by the wood engraver, who unquestionably failed to render them with perfect accuracy.

Little is known about the makers of the drawings. Gesner says he made some of the originals himself, and also employed several draughtsmen, who lived in his house and gave him all their service. He also says most of the cuts were drawn from life under his supervision, and that he gives the original source of all that are copied or supplied by friends or correspondents.

Like most authors of illustrated works on natural history, he found his own standard of accuracy hard to reach, and he says:

Fig. 3.

"I admit that all the illustrations are not well drawn, but this is not the place for explanations. Most of them are pretty fair, or at least tolerable, especially those of the quadrupeds, which may be considered the best."

The woodcuts made from these drawings are remarkable examples of the skill of the old wood engravers, and they have high claims on the interest of students of the history of their art.

All attention is concentrated on the central figure, and few of the cuts have any accessories whatever; but they are not diagrams, and the engraver boldly faces all the difficulties of texture and markings, and uses his best resources to overcome them. His success is notable, as the photographic reprints show, and work under Gesner must have contributed not a little to the advancement Fig. 4. of wood engraving. The cuts which are here reproduced are selected to exhibit the wide field which Gesner covers, and to show at the same time something of the resources of his engravers, and, while good drawings have been chosen, no attempt to pick out the best has been made. All the reproductions are considerably reduced, and they give a false impression of delicacy, although they faithfully exhibit the accuracy and versatility of the old engraver.

The names of very few of the draughtsmen or engravers are known, but Gesner says that Lucas Schrön drew the birds, and that Albrecht Dürer made the cut of the rhinoceros.

This statement has led many writers on wood engraving to reproduce this cut, which has thus become familiar to us, although it is by no means a fair sample of Gesner's illustrations.

The typography of Gesner's book and the binding of many of the copies are as notable as the cuts. In fact, all the craftsmen met the author in generous rivalry and mutual inspiration, and it would be difficult to produce a nobler monument than that which their combined labors created.

While Gesner has recorded many original observations, the work as a whole is a compilation undertaken for the express purpose of gathering in one book a summary of all trustworthy observations on living things. The work was done so thoroughly that it records for all time the status of natural science in his day, and forms a permanent landmark in its history.

Its educational influence upon his contemporaries was due to the attractive and simple way in which he presents the subject, but its scientific value to-day is due to the exhaustive completeness with which he compiled it.

He read nearly two hundred and fifty authors and his literary learning is almost unparalleled. The list of authorities quoted or referred to and of the correspondents who supplied notes, illustrations, and oral information includes nearly every ancient and mediæval writer who makes any reference to animals. He draws from many works which are now known only through his references, and his long list of friends and helpers includes Italians, Frenchmen, Englishmen, Germans, Swiss, and Poles.

He tells us that while it is easy to assert that history should be written from the best books only, he has found no book too bad to yield something to judicious study, and that he has ignored nothing.

"Only those who have tried," he says, "can know what a labor it is to compare the works of different authors and to bring all into unity, with nothing overlooked and nothing repeated. This I have tried to do so faithfully that all may be brought together, Fig. 5. a library in itself, so that no one need hereafter consult other writers on the ground which I have covered. As my only purpose," he tells us, "is to make the work more useful and accurate, I have exercised the more incredulity and have critically revised the quotations, and, when possible, verified them by original observations and dissections."

The completeness of the work is astonishing when we bear in mind that he was only thirty-five when the first part appeared, and that he had already published thirty-four works, among them two which are as remarkable as the Natural History for learning and industry, and that all the illustrations for the Natural History were prepared and the whole book written with his own hand and printed in eight years.

The dignity and thoroughness of his work are in strong contrast to many of the discursive and trivial works of his time, and his compilation was made with good judgment and independence. When he now and then quotes descriptions of fabulous or imaginary animals or repeats fanciful tales, he seldom fails to record his own opinion of their value, unless they are contained in letters from correspondents, who are always treated with courtesy.

Modern writers have disputed Gesner's title to a position among men of science on two grounds. It is held by some that since science is the reference of the phenomena of the universe to the fundamental properties of matter, none of the old naturalists who did not have this aim have any scientific standing; but as this point of view shuts out men like Wallace, Gesner is expelled in good company.

Others hold that Gesner's weakness is his lack of the conception of systematic zoölogy, and his failure to so arrange his facts as to exhibit natural affinity and do away with endless repetition.
Fig. 6.
As a matter of fact, he does recognize natural relationship, and often treats allied animals together; thus, for example, under Bos we find not only Taurus, Vacca, and Vitulus, but also Bison, Bonasus, and Urus.

He says, in the introduction to the book on water animals, that he has followed the alphabetical order, rather than a more philosophical system, for the sake of easy reference, and on account of his uncertainty regarding the affinities of many of them.

This criticism was to be expected from the systematists of the last generation, but the modern morphologist can not cast it in Gesner's face, for, while he feels sure that there is a natural or genealogical classification of animals, he admits, like Gesner, his "uncertainty about the affinities of many of them."

We are told (Encyclopædia Britannica, article Gesner) that "his life was singularly pure and blameless; his love of knowledge was as disinterested as it was engrossing. He was always ready and glad to acknowledge any help he received. When obliged to engage in controversy, he did so in a dignified and courteous manner. His medical writings show him to have been far above the silly prejudices of his day. A cheerful and amiable piety was a prominent feature in his character—a character chastened, not soured, by the trials of a hard lifetime."

Gesner's short life was a struggle with poverty and ill health, but he did not suffer neglect, for there is evidence that his contemporaries Fig. 7. held him in honor and took a just pride in his industry and simple earnestness.

The magistrates of Zurich appointed him chief physician and Professor of Philosophy and Natural History in 1553, and the magistrates of Lucerne welcomed him, in 1554, with those distinguished honors which were usually reserved for high public officers.

The Emperor Ferdinand granted armorial bearings to him and his family, with a statement of his desire to express his appreciation of his work, and to encourage others to follow his example.

His death was the glorious climax of his earnest, laborious life. When the plague broke out in Zurich in 1564 he devoted his scientific skill and professional experience to the effort to discover some way to check it; he threw himself into this inquiry with such earnestness that he himself contracted the disease, and, after a short illness, died in his museum, to which he had been Fig. 8. carried a short time before, at his request.

He was interred in the cloisters of the great church of Zurich the next day with most distinguished honors, and a large concourse of people of all ranks followed him to the tomb, amid the mourning of the whole city.

I have selected as an illustration of Gesner's method of treating his subjects the chapter on the marmot; for here, as in many other places, we find proof of the injustice of the assertion that he was not an original observer, but simply a compiler.

THE MARMOT (Mus Alpinus).

Its Shape and Outline and where to find it.—In shape, outline, and size this animal is like a big rabbit, but lower and with a broader back. Its hair is coarser than that of a rabbit, of a reddish color, darker in some places and lighter in others. It has big eyes, placed above the cheek-pouches. In its mouth are long, yellow teeth, much like those of a beaver, two above and two below. The length of its tail is two hands or more. It has short, thick, hairy feet, like those of a bear, with long, black nails, which enable it to dig deeply into the earth. While the rest of the body is lean, the back is fat, although this fat is not real fat, but something between fat and meat, like the substance of the udder of the cow. This animal is found only on the very highest tops of the Alps. The widely known Dr. Conrad Gesner has himself traveled in these regions and observed its habits.

Its Nature and Properties.—While playing and frolicking together the marmots make a noise not unlike that of a cat, but Fig. 9. when they are angry or wish to warn each other of a change in the weather, their cry is sharp and penetrating, and very disagreeable to the ear of man, like the noise of a highly pitched small flute. On account of their offensive voice they are often called manure-barkers.

This animal sometimes walks on its two hind legs. It uses its fore paws like hands, grasping its food with them, like a squirrel, and eating while it sits on its hind legs. It eats not only fruit, but many other things, such as bread, cheese, meat, fish, and nuts, especially when accustomed to them in captivity. It prefers milk and cheese above all other food, and it is often caught by the peasants in the milk cellars, where it is easily discovered by the noise it makes in drinking the milk, like a young pig.

It is a drowsy animal, sleeping often and long. It makes its nest with two openings—one, pointing up the mountain, is used for walking in and out, while the other, which points down the mountain, is not used for these purposes, but as a place for depositing urine and fæces. A short passage leads from the burrow which connects these openings to a room or nest which is lined with hay, straw, or similar light substances.

About Michaelmas, when the mountains begin to be covered with snow, they hide themselves in their house, first plugging the openings with earth so firmly that they are harder to dig with a

Fig. 10.

shovel than the undisturbed ground around them. Thus securely protected from wind, rain, and cold, and rolled up in balls, like hedgehogs, they sleep through the whole winter, without food or drink, till spring comes again. Five, seven, nine, eleven, or even more, are often found thus sleeping in one nest. The proverb "He sleeps like a marmot" is applied to lazy people by the inhabitants of these regions. Even when kept and fed in houses, they sleep through the winter. That very learned man Dr. Conrad Gesner says that he fed one for some time in his house, and at the beginning of winter, about the time when it should have gone to sleep, he put it in a small pine barrel, which he half filled with straw and then closed up tightly with the head belonging to it, to protect his pet from the cold. When he opened the barrel after many days he found the animal dead. He thinks it was suffocated and that it might have lived if he had made a hole in the barrel, although he is very much astonished by the result of his experiment, and does not now see how they can survive in their nest when the holes are plugged up.

They make use of a peculiar device for bringing home their hay. If they have gathered a great quantity they need a wagon to carry it, and one of them lies down on his back and, lifting his feet toward heaven, forms supports like those of a hay wagon, between which the others pile the hay. When the cart is loaded, the other marmots take the tail in their mouths, drag their brother home like a sled, and, after unloading him, put the hay in their holes. As each one takes his turn of service as a sled, none of them have any hair on their backs at this season of the year.

So long as it is awake this animal is rarely idle. It is always busy carrying hay, straw, etc., into its nest. It fills its mouth with these things, and the amount it can stow away is incredible to one who has not seen it. What it can not get into its mouth it takes between its paws, and carries that too. It never soils itself with its urine or fæces, but either deposits them in the proper place in the burrow, or throws them away from its body. Johannes Stumpff says, in his chronicle, that the marmot always stinks in the summer before it gets fat.

Of its Cleverness and Sweet Nature.—Occasionally they frolic in the sunshine before their holes like kittens or puppies, rolling themselves in balls and frisking and chattering to each other. When reared in the house they carry on their sports before the eye of man. When angry they bite viciously, but when they are once used to captivity they make man their playmate, and sometimes catch his lice like a monkey. Few animals become more familiar than this one. It sometimes bites the dog, which is too well trained to defend itself.

When the marmots gather in the meadows to play, one stands near the mouth of the hole on the watch for men or other enemies,

Fig. 11.

and gives warning of the approach of danger by a bark or a shrill, high-pitched whistle. As soon as the others hear this cry they run to the hole, tumbling over each other in their hurry, the sentinel standing guard till all are in.

In unfavorable weather they remain in their holes; with their high-pitched voices they give notice of changes in the weather as* well as of the approach of danger.

The Uses of these Animals.—They are caught in the following way, during their winter sleep when they are nice and fat, by hunters, who sell their meat for money: In the summer the people who live at the foot of the Alps mark the holes with long Fig. 12. sticks which will show above the snow in the winter. About Christmas they walk over the snow to these marks on broad wooden runners, carrying picks and shovels, with which they clear away the snow, and digging into the nests, catch them asleep without trouble, although one must not talk loudly or make much noise while catching them, for if awakened they burrow rapidly into the soil, throwing the earth between themselves and the hunter and making it hard for him to follow them. They are also caught in snares laid before their holes, and in many other ways. They are always found in odd numbers, as seven, nine, eleven, or even more.

The hunters who dig them up in winter notice the length of the cone of dirt with which the animal has plugged up the opening of its burrow, for if this is short the winter will be mild, but very cold and severe if it is several feet long.

The Flesh of the Animal and how to prepare it.—They are fattest about the Christmas days, and are killed while asleep by cutting the throat with a knife, as calves or swine are slaughtered. They usually die without awakening. The blood is caught, and the animal is scalded with hot water, like a hog, to remove the hair, and is cleaned and made to appear white. The intestines are then taken out, and the body, filled with the blood, is roasted on a spit or is boiled with black pepper. The flesh is sometimes salted and smoked, and is then boiled with black pepper, turnips, or a pumpkin.

The salted flesh is better than the fresh, as the salt dries it and takes away its penetrating odor. It is always indigestible and heating, but it is good for women in their confinement and also for their diseases.

Its Use in Medicine.—The stomach of the marmot is used as a remedy for stomach ache, and the fat for sclerosis of the arteries, which are rubbed with it.