Abraham Gesner

A Biography by Elizabeth V. Haigh

Tellwell Publishing, Victoria, BC ‌© 2019

ISBN: 9780228809777

 Bad debt and worse management drove Abraham Gesner off his farm in Nova Scotia's bucolic Annapolis Valley.  It turned out to be a stroke of luck.  In 1825, in spite of an education only in the 3Rs, he sailed to London where he spent a year doing medical and surgical courses in various teaching hospitals.  In the metropolis, attending sundry lectures and demonstrations, he got his first whiff of the rapidly developing new sciences of chemistry, geology and natural history.  He was hooked!

 Back home, he settled with his family in the village of Parrsborough (today's Parrsboro) where he served as a physician to the military garrison.  Traveling about the countryside visiting patients, he applied what he had learned of geology to recording and interpreting the strata of the coastline of the Minas Basin and the Bay of Fundy and then went on to examine much of the rest of the province.  Some ten years later, those observations became the subject of his first book.  It led to his appointment as the first official geologist of New Brunswick, a position which he held for about five years.  Reluctantly, like many naturalists of his time, he came slowly to be persuaded that the earth is very old and that its surface and its life forms have evolved over eons.  Meanwhile, he proved to be an engaging lecturer.  While he lived in Saint John, he addressed audiences on a range of scientific subjects and developed the region's first natural history museum.  Whenever he was not exploring, he wrote articles and then two books aimed at prospective immigrants in which he described the Maritime region and extolled its potential for development.

Aboriginal guides assisted him in all of his explorations.  He became an advocate on behalf of the indigenous people.  Back in Nova Scotia, between 1847 and 1853, he served as Indian Commissioner for the province's western counties.

 He was employed also as an aide by the 10th Earl of Dundonald, Vice-Admiral of the Fleet for British North America and the West Indies between 1848 and 1850.  In London, Gesner had observed demonstrations of the "cracking" of coal to generate the tars, oils and gases which fueled the industrial revolution.  Occasionally, back home, he had dabbled with the procedure.  Now it turned out that his employer's father, the 9th Earl, had been one of the pioneers in the development of the process of the dry distillation of bitumens and other hydrocarbons.  The men experimented in a shed on Gesner's property.  In the process, they generated what they dubbed "kerosene," an illuminating gas which produced a brighter and cleaner light than had hitherto been available.  Gesner took out patents with a view to marketing the revolutionary new product.  The proverbial prophet in his own country, he became embroiled in expensive local lawsuits over mining rights and patent infringements.

 He moved to New York where he designed and oversaw the construction of an extensive refinery for the manufacture of the gases, oils and tars increasingly demanded by the rapidly industrializing western world.  His final publication was an authoritative textbook of hydrocarbon chemistry.  Still more crippling lawsuits drove him back to his native land where he died in 1864, shortly after he was appointed to a coveted lectureship in natural history at Dalhousie University.

About the Author

Elizabeth Haigh (née Luchka) earned a B.Sc. and a M.Sc. from the University of Alberta and worked for two years in the Food & Drug Directorate in Ottawa.  Gradually it dawned on her that nature had designed her to work, not in a lab, but in libraries and archives.  She received her doctorate in the History of Science from the University of Wisconsin and in 1977-78, was a Wellcome Fellow in the History of Medicine at Cambridge University.  Until her retirement in 2006, she was Professor of the History of Science at Saint Mary's University and an adjunct Professor of History at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.




Canadian Encyclopedia

Canadian Petroleum Hall of Fame

A Practical Treatise on Coal, Petroleum, and Other Distilled Oils
(Scanned copy from the library of the Geological Survey of Canada)