The biological sciences, which had made hardly any progress since the Greeks, now came back to life. Botany struggled to free itself from pharmacy and stand on its own feet; it succeeded, but inevitably its masters were still medical men. Otto Brunfels, city physician at Bern, began the movement with his Herbarum vivae icones (1530-3 6)—“living pictures of plants”; its text was largely filched from Theophrastus, Dioscorides, and other predecessors, but it also described the native plants of Germany, and its 135 woodcuts were models of fidelity. Euricius Cordus, city physician to Bremen, set up the first botanical garden (1530) north of the Alps, attempted an independent summary of the nascent science in his Botanilogicon (1534), and hen returned to his medical medium in his Liber de urinis. His son Valerius Cordus wandered recklessly in the study of plants, met his death in the search at the age of twenty-nine (1544), but left for posthumous publication his Historia plantarum, which vividly and accurately described 500 new species. Leonard Fuchs, professor of medicine at Tubingen, studied botany at first for pharmaceutics, then for its own sake and delight. His Historia stirpium (1542) was typical of scientific devotion; its 343 chapters analyzed 343 genera, and illustrated them with 515 woodcuts, each occupying a full folio page. He prepared a still more comprehensive work with 1,500 plates, but no printer would undertake the expense of its publication. The genus Fuchsia is his living memorial.

Perhaps the most important single idea contributed to biology in this period was Pierre Belon’s demonstration, in his Histoire .... des oyseaux (1555), of the astonishing correspondence of the bones in men and birds. But the greatest figure in the “natural science” of this age was Conrad Gesner, whose work and learning covered so wide a field that Cuvier called him the Pliny, and might have called him the Aristotle, of Germany. Born of a poor family in Zurich (1516), he showed such aptitude and industry that the city joined with private patrons to finance his higher education in Strasbourg, Bourges, Paris, and Basel. He made or collected 1,500 drawings to illustrate his Historia plantarum, but this work proved so expensive to print that it did not emerge from manuscript till 1751; its brilliant classification of plant genera by their reproductive structures reached the light too late to help Linnaeus. He published during his lifetime four volumes (1551-58), and left a fifth, of a gigantic Historia animalium, which listed each animal species under its Latin name, and described its appearance, origin, habitat, habits, illnesses, mental and emotional qualities, medical and domestic uses, and place in literature; the classification was alphabetical instead of scientific, but its encyclopedic accumulation of knowledge invited biology to take form. Insufficiently used up by these labors, Gesner began a twenty-one-volume Bibliotheca universalis, in which he set out to catalogue all known Greek, Latin, and Hebrew writings; he completed twenty volumes, and earned the title of Father of Bibliography. In an aside called Mithridates (1555) he attempted to classify 130 languages of the world. His Descriptio Montis Pilati (1541) was apparently the first published study of mountains as forms of beauty; Switzerland now knew that it was maiestic. All these enterprises were accomplished between 1541 and 1565. In that year Conrad Gesner, the incarnate spirit of study, died.

Meanwhile Juan Vives’s De anima et vita (1538) almost created modern empirical psychology As if to elude the skepticism that Hume would expound two centuries later about the existence of a “mind” additional to mental operations, Vives advised the student not to ask what the mind or soul is, since (he felt) we shall never know this; we must inquire only what the mind does; psychology must cease to be theoretical metaphysics and must become a science based on specific and accumulated observations. Here Vives anticipated by a century Francis Bacon’s emphasis on induction. He studied in detail the association of ideas, the operation and improvement of memory, the process of knowledge, and the role of feeling and emotion. In his book we see psychology, like so many sciences before it, emerging painfully from the womb of their common mother, philosophy.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!