Happy Conrad Gesner Day! Who is he, you may ask? And why does he have a day? Conrad Gesner (sometimes spelled Konrad Gessner) was a Swiss naturalist and polymath, born on this day (26th March) in 1516; he lived much of his life in Zurich, where he died on 13 December 1565. Gesner was an extremely important figure in Renaissance science and scholarship, and when I visited Zurich in 2008 to give a seminar at the university, a tour of the old town revealed a number of references to the great man, including the memorial stone above.
Gesner’s Historia animalium (“History of Animals”) is considered one of the founding texts of modern zoology, and for that reason he is memorialised in the name Gesneria Hübner, 1825; this is a genus of moths in the family Crambidae.
However Gesner was also a botanist and wrote a couple of books on the subject, though his Historia plantarum was not published until two centuries after his death. To celebrate Gesner’s botanical achievements Linnaeus erected the genus Gesneria L. for a group of flowering plants. Sounds odd to have the same name for two very different types of organism, but this cross-kingdom duplication of genera is allowable under the various codes of taxonomic nomenclature.
Gesneria in turn is the type genus for the family Gesneriaceae. It’s quite a big family (about 3,450 species in 152 genera) and is ecologically important in the tropics and subtropics, where species may be pollinated by insects and birds, and are often epiphytic on trees. It’s not a particularly economically important family, though a number of genera are widely grown as ornamentals, and there are specialist gesneriad growers and collectors. The more familiar plants include those mainstays of Mothering Sunday (which by coincidence is also today) African Violets (Saintpaulia), Cape Primroses (Streptocarpus) and gloxinias (Gloxinia):
As I was looking through my photographs from the trip to Zurich in 2008 I spotted the following image of some wrought ironwork from the old city which may well be contemporary with Gesner. This seems a fitting way to celebrate both the great man and this week’s Spiral Sunday:
Happy Birthday Dr Gesner!