This Week in History


Abraham Gesner: A Passionate Scientist!

For the week of Monday April 28, 2003

On May 2, 1797, Abraham Gesner was born in Cornwallis, Nova Scotia. A physician with a rather unorthodox career, he had a passion for geology, wrote many scientific papers and perfected the method for refining kerosene.

Abraham Gesner

Abraham Gesner
© Canada Post Corporation, 1999.
Reproduced with permission

As a child, Abraham collected rocks and minerals he unearthed near his home. Born into a large family of modest means, he received an adequate education but his parents could not afford to send him to college. However, a wealthy doctor from the area offered to pay for his medical studies in England. Although the idea of becoming a doctor hardly appealed to him, Gesner took advantage of his time spent overseas to attend conferences on geology and the natural sciences. Upon his return to Nova Scotia, he settled in Parrsboro, where he opened a medical practice. Dr. Gesner enjoyed the region, as it was rich in minerals and geological phenomena. House calls often turned into expeditions, during which he wrote down observations and collected various samples. His personal research led him to publish his first paper on the geology and mineralogy of Nova Scotia.

In 1838, Abraham Gesner became the British colony’s first provincial geologist. He moved his family to Saint John, New Brunswick, where he catalogued and classified the province’s minerals. Unfortunately, his appraisals of the province’s coal deposits proved to be exaggerated and the government denied him funding. In 1842, Abraham opened the Gesner Museum, displaying the specimens he had collected over the years. However, profits were not high enough to pay his debts so, as payment, his friends (and creditors) accepted his collections. These were later acquired by the Natural History Society of New Brunswick and were used to create the New Brunswick Museum.

In 1843, Dr. Gesner and his family returned to Nova Scotia. In the following years, Abraham conducted experiments distilling coal oil. He discovered kerosene, a fuel he patented and used to invent a new lamp he first demonstrated in Prince Edward Island, where he was a geologist and lecturer. After discussions with American businessmen, Gesner moved to New York and opened a factory on Long Island in 1854. Kerosene became widely used in North America as a source of light and as a lubricant, quickly replacing whale oil, a very costly fuel then used in lamps. In 1863, Abraham sold his patents and returned to Nova Scotia. He died in Halifax on April 29, 1864, shortly after he had been appointed professor at Dalhousie University.

Abraham Gesner was designated a person of national historic significance for his important contribution to science.

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