Early Studies of Animals

By Michael J. North

Some of the oldest materials in the historical collections of the National Library of Medicine are on the subject of natural history and describe the vast diversity of plant and animal life. These natural history texts document the development of thought and investigation into the biological sciences, which contributed significantly to the advancement of medicine.

Woodcut portrait of Aristotle.An example is this early manuscript of Aristotle’s De Animalibus, created in France in the early 1200’s. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, who lived and wrote in the fourth century B.C.E., was one of the most influential scientists of all time, writing on subjects as varied as politics, poetry, zoology, and astronomy. His treatises on animal life include his History of Animals (De Animalibus), Parts of Animals, and Generation of Animals, which contained his observations on all facets of zoology and included philosophical and even some mythological musings as well. His surviving texts were enthusiastically copied, translated, and studied throughout the Middle Ages by Muslims and Christians alike—he seemed to have figured out and explained everything.

A page of printed latin text with hand-written initial letter and contemporary annotations.One of the earliest printed books on zoology in the collection is this early edition of Aristotle’s De Animalibus, printed in Venice in 1476 just over 20 years after Johann Gutenberg invented printing with movable type. This new translation from Greek into Latin by Theodore Gaza (ca. 1400-1475) was one of the most important of the era and was considered an authoritative zoological text for many decades.

As time went on, natural historians began to see discrepancies and errors in Aristotle’s works, especially those in Northern Europe who realized that he had only been aware of plants and animals in the Mediterranean area. Eventually travels to the New World and East Asia opened scholars’ eyes to the fact there were many more animals than were ever anticipated by the ancients and demonstrated that new research was required.

Hand colored Woodcut portrait of Conrad Gessner.An early author to address this need for new information was Conrad Gessner, whose Historiae Animalium is considered one of the first modern works on zoology.  This beautiful example from the natural history collection is the highly illustrated first edition, published in Zurich in 1551, and it built a bridge between ancient, medieval, and modern science. Gessner chronicles data from old sources, such as the Old Testament, Aristotle and medieval bestiaries, and adds his own observations, creating a new, comprehensive description of the Animal Kingdom. In what is the first attempt by anyone to describe many of the animals accurately, the book is illustrated with hand-colored woodcuts drawn from personal observations by Gessner and his colleagues.

In his day, Gessner was most noted as a physician, botanist, and Classical linguist. Born in Zürich in 1516, he spent much of his youth studying in Paris and Montpellier. In 1541, at the age of 25, he returned to Zürich where he taught Aristotelian physics until 1558, when he became the City Physician. Throughout his life Gessner was interested in biology and collected specimens and descriptions of wildlife through travel and extensive correspondence with other scholars. His approach to research centered upon four tenets: observation, dissection, travel to distant lands, and accurate description. This emergent empirical approach was new to Renaissance scholars, who usually relied entirely upon Classical writers for their research. In 1565, he died of the plague, which was common in Europe at the time.

Conrad Gessner’s Historiae Animalium is featured in NLM’s Turning the Pages project and is viewable on two kiosks at the National Library of Medicine, on the Library’s website, and now also in the Turning the Pages App for iPad available for free.

For more information about NLM’s natural history collections, please contact me at northm@mail.nih.gov.

Michael J. North in the incunaMichael J. North is the Head of Rare Books and Early Manuscripts in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.