A hand colored Illustration of a Turkey.

An Early Look at the Turkey

By Michael North

Turkeys were one of many animals and plants the Europeans encountered in the New World beginning in 1492. There were wild turkeys throughout much of North America, and Native peoples in what are now Mexico and the U.S. Southwest had domesticated them: the Spanish found them in pens kept by the Aztecs in Mexico. In 1555, Conrad Gesner described the Turkey in the third volume of his famous zoological work, Historiae Animalium, which came out in five volumes from 1551 to 1587.

A page from a book featuring a hand colored Illustration of a Turkey.
Gallopavus (Turkey) from Conrad Gesner’s Historiae Animalium, Vol. III, 1555

Conrad Gesner’s Historiae Animalium (Studies on Animals) is considered to be the first modern zoological work. Building a bridge between ancient, medieval, and modern science, he 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 was 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 Gesner and his colleagues.

Gesner was most noted in his day 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. In 1565, he died of the plague, which was common in Europe at the time.

Throughout his life he 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.

Gesner was aware that turkeys were brought to Europe from “The Indies,” but he did not know much beyond that in terms of their origins. He refers to them by the Latin name “Gallopavus,” and even to this day, the Latin name for the common domesticated turkey is Meleagris gallopavo.

The Library has a large collection of early printed books about zoology and natural history; for more information about these and other collections, please contact the History of Medicine Division at hmdref@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.

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