Just as in the realm of botany, physicians made some of the first advances in zoology during the Renaissance. Medical interest in human and animal anatomy furthered the study of living creatures, as did popular interest in the exotic beasts of newly-discovered lands. Early zoologists, like their contemporaries in the botanical fields, attempted to accurately describe and classify the animals they studied, often following the classification scheme established by Aristotle’s History of Animals. But scholars were hampered by a lack of standardized terminology to apply, as well as a lack of reliable information about species they could not observe firsthand. 16th century zoologists repeated inaccurate information in their descriptions of animal species; for example, French physician Pierre Belon’s treatise on aquatic creatures includes the hyena, and other compendiums of the animal world include fantastic creatures like the unicorn.
Swiss physician Conrad Gesner is often considered the father of modern zoology. His multi-volume History of Animals was the first landmark work on the subject, dealing with quadrupeds, fishes, and birds. Issued between 1551 and 1558, this illustrated work attempted to compile all information available about each animal, making it a comprehensive reference. The History of Animals also included descriptions of animals previously unknown to Western Europeans, including species from the Arctic and the New World, with varying accuracy. Gesner’s work on serpents and insects was issued posthumously in 1587.
With the invention of the microscope in the 17th century, scholars like Antony van Leeuwenhoek and Robert Hooke discovered they had to create their own terminology to describe the tiny structures they observed with their lenses. Hooke coined the word “cell” because he thought plant cells looked like the small rooms (called cellula in Latin) which housed monks in a monastery. Their work, published and distributed in early scientific journals, furthered understanding of the natural world, though later generations of scientists would finally standardize the vocabulary and taxonomies used to describe plant and animal life.
Selected resources at L. Tom Perry Special Collections
Pierre Belon. De aquatilibus (Of things living in or near the water). Paris: Charles Estienne, 1553.
- Call number: Vault Collection 094.2 Es86g 1553 no. 6
Robert Hooke. Micrographia, or, Some physiological descriptions of minute bodies made by magnifying glass. First edition, second issue. London: Printed for J. Allestry, printer to the Royal Society, 1667.
- Call number: Vault Collection 578.8 H763m 1667
Joannes Jonstonus. Historiae naturalis de quadrupedibus (On the natural history of four-footed animals). Amsterdam: Joannes Jacob Schipperson, 1657.
Call number: Vault Collection Quarto 574 J739h 1657
Francis Willughby. Ornithologiae. London: John Martyn, 1676.
Willughby was a minor English aristocrat and a scholar of natural history. He and his friend, botanist John Ray, collaborated on a project to establish a standard taxonomic system. Willughby worked on animals and insects, while Ray focused on plant life. After Willughby’s early death, Ray edited his work on birds and fish for publication. The Ornithology was published with the assistance of Willughby’s family, including 77 illustrations by his widow, Emma.
- Call number: Vault Collection Quarto 598.2 W686o 1676
Selected online resources
Selected images from Conrad Gesner’s Historia animalium (1551) at the National Library of Medicine
Edward Topsell, The historie of foure-footed beastes (Second edition, 1607) from Early English Books Online (Available through BYU)
Topsell’s work is an English-language translation of Gesner’s Historia Animalium.
An English translation of Jonstonus’ Historiae naturalis de quadrupedibus (1678) at the University of Wisconsin Digital Library
Gesner’s Insectorum, sive minimorum animalium theatrum (On Insects, or, the theater of small animals) (1634) at Gottinger Digitalisierungszentrum (Center for Retrospective Digitisation, Gottingen)
Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (at JSTOR, available from BYU)