200 Years. 200 Stories. Story 100: “Gesner's Historiae Animalium ”

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antique illustration of an elephant
Woodcut of an elephant from Volume 1 of Conrad Gesner’s Historiae Animalium.Ewell Sale Stewart Library and Archives.

Gesner's Historiae Animalium

The Ewell Sale Stewart Library and Archives holds nearly 200,000 printed volumes ranging from the latest issues of scientific journals to a remarkable collection of rare books that detail significant developments in the field of natural history. Among these treasures is Conrad Gesner’s magnum opus, Historiae Animalium. This five-volume masterwork, which contains more than 4,500 pages, was published in Switzerland between 1551 and 1587 and is widely considered to be the first comprehensive scientific treatment of animals since the time of Ancient Rome.

Like many of his contemporaries, Gesner relied heavily on ancient Hebrew, Greek, and Roman sources, but unlike them, he attempted to verify these accounts with direct observation and—where possible—provide illustrations drawn from life. Despite these efforts, Historiae Animalium contains several entries for unicorns, sea monsters, and other mythological beasts. On the other hand, it presents a far greater number of entries for real animals, including many recently discovered marvels from the Americas. In addition to providing detailed descriptions of these animals, Gesner frequently supplied information on their medicinal properties and utility to humans as well as their place in history and literature.

Read more about the secrets of the Ewell Sale Stewart Library and Archives.

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