Lives of Eminent Zoologists, from Aristotle to Linnus

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The principal author who appeared between the epoch which witnessed the destruction of the Roman Empire and the beginning of the century just specified, was Albertus Magnus; so called, according to some, not because he was great as a man of science, but because his family-name was Groot, which in Dutch signifies "great," and being Latinized, as was then the fashion, became "magnus." However, he was not a small personage in his day; for it is told of him that he constructed a brazen head which had the faculty of answering questions, and wrote so many works that, when collected for a general edition at Lyons in 1651, they filled twenty-one thick folios. His character was highly respectable, and his History of Animals is certainly a remarkable production for the age in which he lived. Born at Lavingen in Suabia in 1205, he received his education at Pavia, where he entered the order of Dominicans. Some time having elapsed, he went to Paris and delivered public lectures with applause. In 1248, he was invited to Rome by Pope Alexander III., who appointed him to the office of Master of the Holy Palace, and bestowed on him the bishopric of Ratisbon, which he soon after resigned. Returning to Cologne, he resumed his lectures, which were much frequented. Pope Gregory X. called him to assist at the general council, held at Lyons in 1274, where the conclave of cardinals for the election of the successor of St Peter was first instituted. He died at Cologne at the age of 77. The celebrated Thomas Aquinas, who was his pupil, is reported to have broken, in a fit of terror, his famous brazen oracle; and the progress of science has shown as little respect to his other works, consisting[Pg 104] chiefly of a commentary on Aristotle, with certain additions from the Arabian writers.

Sir Thomas Browne, in his famous Enquiries into Vulgar and Common Errors, thus characterizes our author:—"Albertus, bishop of Ratisbone, for his great learning and latitude of knowledge sirnamed Magnus, besides divinitie, hath written many Tracts in Philosophie; what we are chiefly to receive with caution, are his naturall Tractates, more especially those of Mineralls, Vegetables, and Animals, which are indeed chiefly Collections out of Aristotle, Ælian, and Plinie, and respectively containe many of our popular errors. He was a man who much advanced these opinions by the authoritie of his name, and delivered most conceits, with strickt enquirie into few."

It is scarcely necessary to mention here a work on the fishes of Rome, De Romanis Piscibus, by the celebrated Paolo Giovio, an Italian writer of this age, who was born at Como in the year 1483. It was dedicated to the Cardinal of Bourbon, and appeared in 1524, but is of little or no value, being the production of a person who, although eminent in general literature, had no claims to the character of a naturalist.

Another author who lived at this period, Hieronymus Bock, generally known by his Latinized name Tragus, was principally distinguished as a botanist, although he wrote also on animals. In 1549, he published a work entitled Kraeuterbuch von den vier Elementen, Thieren, Voegeln, and Fischen, of which there have been various editions. He was born at Heidesbach at Zweybruecken in 1498, and died, in the 56th year of his age, on the 21st of June 1554.[Pg 105]

The sixteenth century produced a little band of worthies, who, without having made great acquirements, may yet be justly styled the fathers of modern zoology. These were Guillaume Rondelet, a physician of Montpellier; Hippolito Salviani, also a physician, and a native of Citta di Castello in Umbria; Conrad Gesner, surnamed the German Pliny, who was born at Zurich, and followed the same profession; Pierre Belon, a Frenchman; and Aldrovandi, professor at Bologna. In presenting a sketch of the lives and labours of these venerable sages, we shall begin with him whom Haller characterizes as a prodigy of knowledge, monstrum eruditionis.

Conrad Gesner, one of the most celebrated of this class of naturalists, was born at Zurich on the 26th March 1516. His parents were of an humble rank in life, and having several other children, could not have given him the benefit of a good education, had it not been for the kindness of his maternal uncle, a clergyman, who imparted to him the rudiments of knowledge, and instructed him in botany. This relative, however, died while he was yet at an early age; and when not more than fifteen he was also deprived of his father, who was killed at the battle of Zug, in which the celebrated reformer Zuinglius or Zwingle lost his life. The small patrimony left by his parent having been divided among a large family, Gesner was reduced to great distress, which was heightened by a dropsical affection. Recovering from this disease, he resolved to seek his fortune in another country, and going to Strasburg, entered into the service of Wolfgang Fabricius Capito, professor of Hebrew in the university of that city. Soon after, receiving pecuniary assistance[Pg 106] from the canons of Zurich, he betook himself to Bourges, where he commenced the study of medicine. At the age of eighteen, he had occasion to go to Paris, where he indulged to excess his literary appetite, and devoured indiscriminately all kinds of knowledge; being supported meanwhile by a young Bernese nobleman, named Steiger, who had contracted a friendship for him. Soon after, he returned to Strasburg, whence, in 1536, he was recalled to Zurich, to teach some children the elements of grammar, with a salary barely sufficient for his support. In the following year, the magistrates, perceiving the superiority of his character, furnished him with an additional grant of money, which enabled him to go to Basil to prosecute his medical studies. To increase his income he assisted Phavorinus in editing his Lexicon, and in a short time removed to Lausanne, where the senate of Berne appointed him Greek professor, in which office he continued three years. He then went to Montpellier, where he engaged more particularly in the study of anatomy and botany, and formed an intimate acquaintance with the celebrated Laurent Joubert and the naturalist Rondelet. In 1541, he obtained the degree of doctor in medicine at Basil, where he arranged some extracts respecting botany and physic, taken from Greek and Arabian writers, which were published the following year at Zurich and Lyons; in the former of which places he now took up his residence and engaged in professional practice. Soon afterwards, he published a catalogue of plants in four languages, in which he evinced his extensive knowledge of botany, which was subsequently increased by several excursions among the Alps. In 1545, he[Pg 107] made a journey to Venice and Augsburg, where he enjoyed some valuable opportunities of consulting rare works and manuscripts. The same year, he commenced the publication of his famous Bibliotheca Universalis, which contains a catalogue of all the works then known, whether extant or lost. Several other fruits of his industry appeared successively between this period and the year 1555, when his merits induced the magistrates of Zurich to appoint him professor of natural history. The Emperor Ferdinand I., to whom he dedicated one of his works, the History of Fishes, rewarded him with various marks of his esteem. These, however, he did not long enjoy, as he fell a victim to a pestilential disease which, commencing at Basil in the spring of 1564, afterwards broke out in his native city with increased violence. When attacked by this fatal malady he betook himself to his cabinet, for the purpose of arranging his papers, and in this occupation died on the 13th December 1565, at the age of 49 years and a few months; leaving a widow who had participated in his adversity and prosperity, having been married by him when he acted as grammar-teacher at Zurich. He bequeathed his library and manuscripts to Caspar Wolf, his pupil, with injunctions to print all that could be rendered fit for the public eye. His principal work is the Historia Naturalis Animalium, chiefly composed of extracts from Aristotle, Ælian, and Pliny, without order or discrimination, but intermixed with numerous original observations, and illustrated by rude engravings. It consists of five books, and forms four folio volumes. There is an English translation by Topsell of part of it under the name of The History of four-footed[Pg 108] Beasts and Serpents, collected out of the Writings of Conradus Gesner. Down to the end of the seventeenth century his compilations were held in the highest estimation in every department of zoology: they are now considered as objects of curiosity rather than stores of useful knowledge.—The three next of whom mention is to be made were chiefly eminent as ichthyologists.


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