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JOSEPH, ABRAHAM – Volume XI (1881-1890)

d. 20 March 1886 in Quebec City


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GESNER, ABRAHAM, physician and surgeon, geologist, and inventor; b. 2 May 1797 in Cornwallis Township, N.S., third son of Colonel Henry Gesner and Sarah Pineo; d. 29 April 1864 at Halifax, N.S.

The Gesner family was of German origin. About the middle of the 18th century Abraham’s grandfather, Nicholas Gesner, came from the Netherlands and settled in the Hudson valley near Tappantown (Tappan, N.Y.). When the American revolution broke out he had a large and prosperous farm, but being of loyal sentiments he was dispossessed by the insurgents. His twin sons, Abraham and Henry, 16 years of age, joined the loyalist forces, fought throughout the war, and then came to Nova Scotia. Their land grant in New Brunswick proved unsuitable for farming, and they remained in Nova Scotia, purchasing, in 1785, a small farm in Cornwallis Township, Kings County. There Henry married Sarah Pineo, daughter of an Acadian family. In 1807 and again in 1812 Abraham Sr and Henry petitioned for a grant of land in the Annapolis valley, and the former was awarded 500 acres in Wilmot Township. Meanwhile the brothers had purchased a large farm near Chipman Corner, about three miles northeast of Kentville. We must assume that when Abraham Sr moved to Wilmot he turned over the Chipman Corner farm to Henry, for the latter lived there the remainder of his life.

Abraham Jr, along with his brothers, received the elementary schooling of rural children in the early 19th century: reading, spelling, and “ciphering.” When he was 21 he set out to make his own way. He tried shipping horses from Nova Scotia to the West Indies, but was twice shipwrecked, once off Bermuda and once off Nova Scotia. Deciding not to risk a third venture, he returned to his father’s farm, and, in 1824, married Harriet, daughter of Dr Isaac Webster of Kentville and sister of William Bennett Webster. Tradition has it that Dr Webster’s consent was obtained on the condition that Abraham accept his financial help to enrol as a medical student in London. The following year he began to study medicine at St Bartholomew’s Hospital under Sir Astley Paston Cooper, and surgery at Guy’s Hospital under Dr John Abernethy. He appears to have taken lectures also in mineralogy and geology, for on completion of his medical course he brought back to Nova Scotia not only a medical diploma but also a keen interest in the earth sciences.

Gesner settled in Parrsboro, on the north side of Minas Basin, and began to practise medicine. He deliberately chose Parrsboro because it lies in an area rich in mineral occurrences and curious geological features. As he made his visits to patients, either on foot or on horseback, he recorded observations and gathered specimens. Soon he had a representative collection and a fund of knowledge, not only of the local area, but also of Cape Blomidon across the basin and of the Chignecto shore north to Joggins. He acquired such geological books as were available, and was especially impressed with a paper on the geology and mineralogy of Nova Scotia written by Charles Thomas Jackson and Francis Alger of Boston. Using this as his model, Gesner, in 1836, wrote his first book, Remarks on the geology and mineralogy of Nova Scotia (Halifax). It had a more popular manner than its predecessor and it improved somewhat on the subdivisions of the geological regions of the province. As a result of this work Gesner was asked in 1837 to examine certain areas in New Brunswick for coal, and the following year was engaged by the government of that province to make a geological survey. His is said to be the first appointment of a government geologist in a British colony.

Gesner moved with his family to Saint John in 1838, and for the next five years spent his summers on geological field work and his winters classifying his specimens and writing his reports. For the first three years he concentrated on the more accessible southern parts of the province, but in the last two he extended his explorations to the north and northwest, pushing his way up turbulent streams and over rugged mountains seldom seen by white men. His assistants and guides were mostly Indians, who were not always prepared to travel as hard and as far as their leader. The observations made and the conclusions reached as a result of these five field seasons were recorded in successive annual reports as provincial geologist from 1839 to 1843. He described all the mineral occurrences and geological features he saw, and classified the different rock formations of the province into five “districts.” He recorded the occurrence of fossil plants and deduced that there was an association between these and the presence of coal seams. His generalizations were embodied in a geological map of southern and central New Brunswick, published 54 years later. In addition to recording the geology and natural resources, Gesner included in his reports graphic descriptions of picturesque scenery and accounts of curious incidents of history and travel. He was enthusiastic about the potentialities of his adopted province, and did not hesitate to predict the future development of its riches.

Gesner’s geology, by modern standards, is crude, and is marred by errors in identification and correlation of various formations. But by the standards of the 1840s it was of high quality, quite in the same rank with most of what was being done in the United States and Europe. In England he was highly respected as a geologist, and was elected a fellow of the Geological Society of London. Yet in one respect Gesner was behind the geology of his own time. He had little knowledge of fossils and almost none of their use in stratigraphic correlation, a technique that had been known for over 50 years. Had he been able to employ this method he would have avoided some of the errors for which he was later criticized. Nevertheless, he laid the foundations of geological knowledge in New Brunswick, on which later workers such as Sir John William Dawson*, Robert Wheelock Ells, and George Frederick Matthew* were to build.

A different kind of error had more serious and immediate consequences for Dr Gesner. With no experience in practical mining, he was not able to make a realistic appraisal of the economic potential of the mineral occurrences he discovered. Thus his enthusiasm saw in every galena vein or coal seam a lead mine or a coal field. But some people who accepted his appraisals and attempted to develop such occurrences were disappointed in the quality, extent, or accessibility of the product. The value of Gesner’s survey was strongly questioned by such disappointed investors, with the result that in 1842 the Legislative Assembly of New Brunswick refused to provide funds for that year’s field work. Gesner went ahead anyway, with the authorization of Sir William Colebrooke, the lieutenant governor, completing his summer’s explorations and writing his final report. Only a few copies were ever published, and his map was relegated to the archives.

Gesner had borrowed from friends to finance the work of 1842. Biographers disagree as to whether or not he was ever paid by the New Brunswick government, but in 1842 he was seriously in debt, with no funds immediately available. Therefore he felt justified in retaining the large collection of minerals, wildlife specimens, and ethnological artifacts that he had accumulated during his travels, and using them as the basis for a public museum. His former Micmac Indian guides were employed as assistants; they thought highly of the doctor and called him by a name meaning Wise Man. But the Gesner Museum, open by April 1842, was a financial failure, and its proprietor was now worse off than before, with no buyer for the collections. Gesner’s creditors, who were also his friends, took over the collections in lieu of repayment, although it was obvious that they did this out of charity, for they promptly donated the objects to the Saint John Mechanics’ Institute. There the Gesner collections were displayed for a time, but eventually went into storage. In 1890 they were acquired by the Natural History Society of New Brunswick. This acquisition has led to the tradition that the New Brunswick Museum was founded by Abraham Gesner, whereas in fact that museum had been established independently by the society in 1870. Gesner’s museum was one of the first two established in Canada, the other being the museum of the Geological Survey of Canada, begun by William Edmond Logan* at Montreal.

While still a resident of Saint John in 1841, Gesner had purchased the Chipman Corner farm from his father, giving a mortgage in part payment. One reason for this action was perhaps his father’s advancing years. The doctor probably also realized that his position as provincial geologist was soon to terminate. In fact, he wound up his affairs in Saint John in 1843 and returned to Cornwallis Township to settle down as a farmer and general practitioner.

Had Gesner been willing to confine his restless intellect to farming and “doctoring” he might have prospered, but the world would have been poorer. Instead, he spent much of his time and no doubt some of his small income on scientific experiments. He became interested in “galvanism,” that is, current electricity, and expanded the experiments of Faraday and others to construct electric generators and motors. In order to provide insulation for the large amounts of copper wire used in such devices he designed a machine for winding yarn around the wire.

In 1846 or earlier Gesner turned to the investigation of hydrocarbons. During the voyages to the West Indies he had probably seen the great pitch lake of Trinidad, and he stated in later years that it was with material from there that he began his experiments. By means of a specially designed retort he was able to distil this bitumen and obtain among other products a light oil, which could be used much more effectively than sperm oil in argand lamps, the last word in domestic illumination at that time.

In 1846 the government of Prince Edward Island invited Gesner to make a geological survey of that province. He accepted, and in addition to his field work undertook a series of public lectures in Charlottetown. According to Gesner’s own account, it was at one of these lectures, in August 1846, that he gave the first public demonstration of the preparation and use of the new lamp fuel. However, a Charlottetown newspaper of the time reports his lectures as having been given in June and September, and in August printed a letter from the doctor in the field. The lectures, which were very popular, were mostly on geology or electricity, but on 19 June his subject was “caloric” (heat), and for his experiments he needed the extra space of the court house instead of the mechanics’ institute. This must have been the occasion of his demonstration of the new hydrocarbon lamp fuel. His audience was enthusiastic, but little knew that they were witnessing the birth of the petroleum refining industry. Gesner returned to Nova Scotia in late September and resumed his many activities at the Chipman Corner farm.

One of these activities was the writing of reports and books. In 1846 he published a geological map of Nova Scotia and also the report of his survey of Prince Edward Island. The following year one of his two major works, New Brunswick, with notes for emigrants, appeared. Not only were the natural resources of that province described, but also the topography, natural history, ethnology, and commerce. A similar, shorter account on Prince Edward Island appeared the same year. At this time also he was appointed commissioner to the Indians of Nova Scotia, and in this capacity submitted a report in 1847.

The success of his lecturing and writing, and the difficulties of operating a large farm while carrying on a medical practice, led Gesner, early in 1848, to sell the Chipman Corner property back to his father, or, more correctly, to exchange it for the original mortgage of 1841. He then moved to Sackville, a village north of Halifax. His son George says this move was in 1850, but it must have been in 1848, for the Chipman Corner home had been sold that year. From Sackville he went to Halifax, his son says in 1852. But we have records of his activities in Halifax in 1851, so again the move must have been earlier, probably 1850. In Halifax he made the acquaintance of Thomas Cochrane, 10th Earl of Dundonald, who after an incredible career as a naval warrior was now, in his 75th year, commander-in-chief of the North American and West Indian station of the Royal Navy. Dundonald had long been interested in the improvement of illumination, and had acquired control of the Trinidad bitumen deposits in the hope of exploiting them for fuel. Although 22 years younger, Gesner had at last found a kindred spirit in this legendary hero and firm believer in the virtues of technology. The all-too-short period of their association must have been the happiest of Gesner’s life. With Dundonald’s encouragement and probable participation he resumed his experiments with the hydrocarbon lamp fuel.

The major problem was finding raw material for the distillation process. The Trinidad pitch lake was a long sea voyage away. But in 1849 renewed interest was taken in a deposit of a natural bitumen now known as albertite (named for Albert County) occurring in eastern New Brunswick. Gesner tried to acquire the mining rights for this deposit, and began his operation. However, he was partly anticipated by William Cairns, who purchased the coal-mining lease for the area. Cairns had Gesner’s men forcibly expelled from their workings, and Gesner brought suit against Cairns for trespass. The case appeared to hinge on whether or not the deposit was coal; if so, it would be covered by Cairns’ lease. At a preliminary trial in Halifax in 1852 the decision was that it was asphaltum, not coal. Later the same year, however, a more elaborate trial was held in Albert County, New Brunswick. Expert witnesses were called by both Gesner and Cairns to testify as to whether the Albert material was asphaltum or coal; curiously enough, each gave his opinion in favour of the side that employed him. At the end, however, Judge Lemuel Allan Wilmot* instructed the jury that Cairns’ lease included “and other minerals,” and the material was certainly a mineral. With this bias the jury found in favour of Cairns, adding their opinion that the material was coal.

Gesner was more bitter about this injustice than over any of his previous disappointments, and he referred sarcastically in after years to the jury of farmers who transformed asphaltum into coal, although the judge had left the jury with little choice. Meanwhile, back in Halifax Gesner had been trying to organize a company to manufacture and sell the new lamp fuel. One of his first actions was to coin a name for it. As one residue of the distillation was a kind of wax, Gesner decided to call his lamp fuel wax-oil. So he combined the Greek words κηρός, and έλαιου, and came up with “keroselain” and “keroselene”, but finally decided on “kerosene” as neater and more analogous with such established names as benzene and camphene. This christening must have been in 1850, for we find the name being used in his publicity ventures in 1851. These included illuminating the citadel courtyard with a lamp hung from the east signal yard arm.

Lack of interest in Halifax, and the shattering blow of the Albert County trial, must have finally convinced Gesner that the future of kerosene was elsewhere. In 1853 he moved to New York City. Probably he had already made arrangements with businessmen there, for Horatio Eagles, Erastus W. Smith, Philo T. Ruggles, and others formed the Asphalt Mining and Kerosene Gas Company, with Gesner as chemist. On 27 June 1854 Gesner obtained U.S. patents nos. 11,203, 11,204, and 11,205 for “Improvement in kerosene burning fluids.” The three patents are essentially the same in text, but cover respectively what Gesner called “A”, “C”, and “B” kerosene. “A” kerosene was the lightest fraction, what was later called volatile hydrocarbon and subsequently gasoline. The patent states that it could be used with a jet of air to produce a luminous flame, a forecast of the gasoline vapour lamp. “B” kerosene was somewhat less volatile, and was intended mainly for mixing with the other grades. “C” kerosene was the lamp fuel, which soon came to be known as “coal-oil” or “carbon-oil.”

Although the manufacture of kerosene in the 1850s was mainly from New Brunswick albertite or Scottish “boghead” coal, Gesner states in his patents that he obtained it from “petroleum, maltha, or soft mineral pitch, asphaltum, or bitumen.” It is worthy of note that coal is not mentioned. The essential point of Gesner’s patents was in the temperatures of distillation, all less than 427°C (800°F). Also crucial was the purification process, in which the original distillate was decanted, the liquid fraction redistilled, then treated with sulphuric acid to separate impurities and with “calcined lime” to absorb water and neutralize the acid. Finally the liquid was distilled a third time, to obtain the three grades of kerosene.

Under Gesner’s guidance the Asphalt Mining and Kerosene Gas Company set up a factory at Newtown Creek on Long Island. Modern engineers have admired the efficient design shown in the published plans. The name of the company was changed to the North American Kerosene Gas Light Company. The brothers John H. and George W. Austen were engaged as sales agents. By 1857 kerosene was being advertised as an illuminant and lubricant throughout the United States and the British American provinces. John H. Austen found a simple, inexpensive lamp burner in Austria, and brought it to America to sell as the Vienna burner. The Kerosene Company prospered, and Gesner lived comfortably in Brooklyn, N.Y., a prominent figure in the local church and community. But ill fortune was about to strike again.

The first cloud was the appearance in 1857 of a rival manufacturer, Samuel Downer of South Boston, Mass. His product was inferior in quality to Gesner’s kerosene, and he was soon glad to pay a royalty for the use of Gesner’s name and process. A more serious threat came from abroad. In 1848 a Scottish chemist, James Young, working in Manchester, had distilled boghead coal to produce a light lubricant. He subsequently found that with purification it served as an excellent lamp fuel. Unaware of Gesner’s earlier discovery, he obtained a British patent in 1850 and an American patent in 1852 for what he called “paraffine-oil.” When Young’s product began to meet competition in the late 1850s from Gesner’s kerosene, he brought suit for patent infringement and won. The value of Gesner’s patents was thus seriously impaired. Thereafter the Kerosene Company had to pay royalties to Young to continue the manufacture of the lamp fuel. The final blow came in 1859, when the commercial production of petroleum began on a frenzied scale in northwestern Pennsylvania and southwestern Canada West. By converting to petroleum as the raw material, a change made easy by Gesner’s flexible design, the kerosene factories began producing the illuminant at about one-quarter its former cost. The age of the kerosene lamp and the petroleum industry was launched but Gesner benefited little. He had made his contribution to refining technology and he was replaced as the chemist of the Kerosene Company.

For a time he stayed in Brooklyn, practising medicine and writing a book that would have been a claim to fame in itself. This was entitled A practical treatise on coal, petroleum, and other distilled oils (1861). In this modest volume Gesner outlined the history of natural hydrocarbons, described the various source materials for distillates, and gave highly practical accounts of how to build and operate a hydrocarbon refining factory. This work, and its second edition completed in 1865 by George Weltden Gesner, became the textbook for petroleum refining and was translated into several other languages. But Abraham Gesner derived little profit from it.

At last, in 1863, disappointed and tired but still full of plans for the future, Gesner returned to Halifax and began preparing the edition of his Practical treatise which would be published in 1865. At this time he took out Nova Scotia patent no.108, for the manufacture of kerosene. Unfortunately it was 17 years late. He was now famous, and was appointed professor of natural history at Dalhousie University. With his broad interests in geology, natural history, and ethnology, his experience as a practical chemist, and his proven ability as a public lecturer, he would have been a great success as a professor and his courses would have been immensely popular. But again the reward for originality and hard work was denied him and he died in Halifax on 29 April 1864.

Dr and Mrs Gesner had seven sons and three daughters for whom they provided a Christian home and a good education. Two sons carried on their father’s work as chemists and metallurgists, one became a United States Army surgeon who served in the American Civil War, and another was a distinguished Episcopal clergyman. With such an admirable family it is hard to understand why their father’s grave in Camp Hill Cemetery, Halifax, was left unmarked for 69 years. It remained for Imperial Oil Limited, mindful that their great refinery across the harbour was the direct descendant of Gesner’s retort, to erect a handsome shaft over his grave in 1933 and inscribe on it a tribute to the pioneer geologist and the founder of the hydrocarbon refining industry. In 1969 the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada set up an impressive monument to Gesner in front of his former home at Chipman Corner.

According to his son George Weltden, Abraham Gesner was of medium height but with broad shoulders. His eyes were black and piercing, and his hair remained black all his life. The published portrait shows him as partly bald, with heavy side-whiskers, perhaps in emulation of his friend Lord Dundonald. He played the flute and the violin, and was fond of the old Scottish airs. He loved to tell stories, and joined in the laughter as fully as his audience. He was abstemious, his only indulgence being an occasional good cigar. His religion was important to him and he was an active member of the Church of England in Nova Scotia and the Episcopal Church in Brooklyn.

Abraham Gesner was a man who believed that science was good, and that through technology it could make a better world in which to live. This philosophy, together with his religion, enabled him to meet his many disappointments without self-pity, and to pick up the pieces and go on to the next project with undiminished enthusiasm. If he could come back today and see the great aircraft now propelled over continents and oceans by his kerosene, he would be delighted but not surprised.

Loris S. Russell

[The above account includes statements that are at variance with previously published biographies of Abraham Gesner, or which do not appear in those biographies. The author’s sources for these are as follows. The Gesner (“Gisner”) petitions for land grants are preserved in PANS, RG 20, A, 28, 43, 48. Copies of deeds covering purchases and sales of land by the Gesners in Cornwallis Township are in the Registry of Deeds for Kings County, Kentville, N.S. From these, and with the help of Mr Durrell Sutton of Port Williams, Mr Ernest Eaton of Upper Canard, and Miss Muriel Murray of Chipman Corner, the author located in 1966 the former Gesner home and the site of the original kerosene distillation. Gesner’s lectures and other activities in Prince Edward Island are reported in the Charlottetown Islander of 1846. Accounts of Gesner’s activities in Halifax in the early 1850s appear in the Halifax Morning Chronicle. Sale of the Gesner collections to the Natural History Society of New Brunswick is recorded in that society’s Bull. (Saint John), no.IX (1890), 33–35. The gravestones of Gesner’s father and mother and his brother Henry are still legible in St John’s Anglican churchyard at Port Williams. Copies of the Gesner and Young patents were obtained from the United States and Canadian patent offices.  l.s.r.]

See also: Abraham Gesner, The industrial resources of Nova Scotia: comprehending the physical geography, topography, geology, agriculture, fisheries, mines, forests, wild lands, lumbering, manufactories, navigation, commerce, emigration, improvements, industry, contemplated railways, natural history and resources, of the province (Halifax, 1849); New Brunswick, with notes for emigrants: comprehending the early history, an account of the Indians, settlement, topography, statistics, commerce, timber, manufactures, agriculture, fisheries, geology, natural history, social and political state, immigrants, and contemplated railways of that province (London, 1847); A practical treatise on coal, petroleum, and other distilled oils (New York, 1861; 2nd ed., rev. G. W. Gesner 1865). G. W. Gesner, “Dr. Abraham Gesner – a biographical sketch,” N.B. Natural History Soc., Bull., no.XIV (1896), 2–11. G. F. Matthew, “Abraham Gesner: a review of his scientific work,” N.B. Natural History Soc., Bull., no.XV (1897), 3–48. Kendall Beaton, “Dr. Gesner’s kerosene: the start of American oil refining,” Business History Rev. (Boston), XXIX (1955), 28–53. L. M. Cumming, “Abraham Gesner (1797–1864) – author, inventor, and pioneer Canadian geologist,” Geological Assoc. of Can., Proc. (Toronto), 23 (1971), 5–10. L. K. Ingersoll, “A man and a museum,” N.B. Museum, Museum Memo (Saint John), 4, no.1 (March 1972), 2–5. K. A. MacKenzie, “Abraham Gesner, M.D., surgeon geologist, 1797–1864,” Canadian Medical Assoc., Journal ([Toronto]), 59 (1948), 384–87. Ian Sclanders, “He gave the world a brighter light,” Imperial Oil Rev. (Toronto), 39 (February 1955), 22–25. W. A. Squires, “Abraham Gesner: a short biography of New Brunswick’s first provincial geologist,” Atlantic Advocate (Fredericton), 53 (1962–63), no.5, 92–95.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Loris S. Russell, “GESNER, ABRAHAM,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 20, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/gesner_abraham_9E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/gesner_abraham_9E.html
Author of Article:   Loris S. Russell
Title of Article:   GESNER, ABRAHAM
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1976
Year of revision:   1976
Access Date:   March 20, 2023