The Best of Abraham Gesner


132 pages
Contains Photos, Bibliography
ISBN 0-88999-585-0
DDC 971.5'02





Edited by Allison Mitcham
Reviewed by Hannah Gay

Hannah Gay is a professor of history at Simon Fraser University in
British Columbia.


In her collection of his writings and in her engaging biography of
Abraham Gesner, Allison Mitcham reveals an interesting and largely
forgotten life. Gesner was born in 1797 to a farming family in
Cornwallis, Kings County, Nova Scotia. His early adult years were lived
in poverty until he was rescued by his father-in-law, William Webster,
who wanted more for his daughter Harriet and for his grandchildren.
Gesner agreed to study medicine in London at Webster’s expense. But,
like many other British-trained medical students, Gesner turned to
natural history and geology for social and professional advancement, and
established a career in geology, with medicinal practice as a back-up.

From the writings in Mitcham’s anthology, Gesner’s clear
topographical eye is everywhere apparent. The collection is largely
descriptions of places in Atlantic Canada and of forests, minerals, and
fisheries. It also contains two short pieces on Native peoples, from
which it is clear that he saw the ongoing destruction of the Micmac
people as a major tragedy.

Gesner’s reputation rested on his geological work; a follower of
Charles Lyell, he acted as Lyell’s guide on a visit to Atlantic Canada
in 1842. For a few years Gesner was employed by the New Brunswick
geological survey; while there, he found deposits of bituminous ore,
from which he extracted kerosene, becoming the pioneer of kerosene
lighting. In 1846, he gave a lecture in Charlottetown that was famous in
its time for a demonstration of paraffin oil lighting; Gesner
anticipated, by almost a quarter of a century, many of the major
developments in this technology. He was a good lecturer (much in demand
at Mechanics Institutes and similar venues), wrote on many subjects, and
promoted his gas lighting ideas in Halifax and elsewhere. Nevertheless,
he was unable to profit in any major way from his inventions or, for
legal reasons, from the ores on his land holdings. In later years,
disillusioned by his inability to control and promote his lighting
inventions in Halifax, he moved to New York to work for a kerosene gas

The entrepreneurial career Mitcham describes was typical of many in the
early 19th century. The two books should be of interest not just to
local-history enthusiasts but also to those interested, more generally,
in early 19th-century scientific careers. The lack of an index is a
major drawback in the well-researched and well-written short biography,
which is illustrated with historical photographs and some imaginative
pen-and-ink drawings.


Gesner, Abraham., “The Best of Abraham Gesner,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed May 26, 2024,