Johannes Gessner (1709-1790) showed a particular liking for mathematics and botany from his school days in Zurich. At the age of seventeen he went to the University of Leyden where he studied mathematics under Willem 'sGravesande and other science subjects with the anatomist Bernhard Siegfried Albinus (1697-1770) and the botanist Herman Boerhaave (1668-1738). After visiting Paris in 1727 he went to Basel in the following year where he studied mathematics with Johann Bernoulli and medicine with other scholars. After the award of his doctorate he gave an inaugural lecture "On the usefulness of mathematics in the art of medicine." Returning to Zurich he worked on mathematics, medicine and botany. He became a professor of mathematics and also taught physics. When he founded the Physical Society in Zurich in 1746 he brought together many scholars living in Zurich with wide ranging scientific interests. Gessner was elected as President of the new Society.
The Physical Society soon built up a scientific library, a collection of mathematical and physical instruments, natural history collections, a botanical garden, and an astronomical observatory built in 1759. The Society collected weather data from the time of its founding in 1746 and when the Meteorological Central Institute was founded in 1880, all the Society's weather data was given to them :-
At the regular meetings, there were enthusiastic joint observations and experiments to promote science and the common good. The wide range of activities of the Society was divided into the following five areas: Natural science, natural history, mathematics, art of medicine and technology. The meetings of the society originally took place in the Limmatburg on today's Central square, later in the guildhall Zunfthaus zur Meise in the Linenhof quarter of Zurich. The Society was responsible for accurate timekeeping in the city of Zurich for many years, conducted censuses and had lightning conductors installed. As an aid to the research, collections of instruments and natural resources as well as a library and a botanical garden were set up. This infrastructure was used from 1833 to teach at the newly founded University of Zurich. The Eidgenössische Polytechnikum (opened in 1855) (from 1911 Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule ETH) benefited, among other things, from the observatory, which had already been established in 1759.By publishing popular writings and prize questions the Society aimed at disseminating the knowledge of the natural world and see improvements in agriculture. The scientific lectures were published in three volumes of the "Essays" which appeared between 1761 and 1766. The Society was visited by leading scientists such as Johann Heinrich Lambert and Alessandro Volta, and continued to expand. The Society published the journal the Bericht über die Verhandlungen der Naturforschende Gesellschaft in Zürich (1826-1837) which later was known as the Mitteilungen der Naturforschende Gesellschaft in Zürich (1847-1856). In 1856 it changed its name to the Vierteljahrsschrift der Naturforschenden Gesellschaft in Zürich and it published four times a year. Sometimes there would be only two or three publications, with two parts appearing together. There were also often supplementary volumes, sometimes devoted to a particular topic of a collection of papers by the same author.
The 1856 volume, denoted volume 1 of the Vierteljahrsschrift der Naturforschenden Gesellschaft in Zürich, was edited by Rudolf Wolf, Professor of Mathematics in Zürich. Rudolf Wolf had become a member of the Society in 1839 and joined the committee in 1856. By 1859 the Vierteljahrsschrift was still edited by Rudolf Wolf, but with the designation Professor of Astronomy in Zürich. By 1861 Rudolf Wolf has again become Professor of Mathematics in Zürich, while in 1862 he is again Professor of Astronomy in Zürich. He continued as editor until his death in 1893 and he was still the editor of the 1893 volume. The next editor of the Vierteljahrsschrift was the mathematician Ferdinand Rudio and the first volume he edited in 1894 began with a 64-page obituary of Rudolf Wolf. Rudio continued as editor until 1911. The Vierteljahrsschrift has continued publication to the present day and there is still four parts per year.
The 1875 volume of the Vierteljahrsschrift contains several papers by Wilhelm Fiedler who had become a member of the Society in 1867 and joined the committee in 1871. This volume contains a list of members in 1875 and, in addition to Wilhelm Fiedler, these include the mathematicians: Jacob Amsler, joined 1851; Elwin Christoffel, joined 1862; Theodor Reye, joined 1863; Hermann Schwarz, joined 1869, became a committee member in 1871 and Vice-President in 1874; Heinrich Weber, joined 1870 and became a committee member in 1872; Heinrich Suter, joined 1871; and Rudolf Clausius, joined 1869.
The annual publication, the Neujahrsblatt der Naturforschenden Gesellschaft in Zürich, was established in 1799 with a first volume giving details of the purpose of the Society, described the Society's collections and promoted the benefits of the natural sciences. Switzerland was invaded by the French in 1798 who took over the country and renamed it the Helvetic Republic. When Napoleon invaded Egypt, however, the Allies decided they had a good chance to recover Switzerland and invaded the country winning several victories. In September 1799, however, the French were victorious in the Battle of Zurich. The second volume of the Neujahrsblatt der Naturforschenden Gesellschaft in Zürich, published in 1800, was entitled "The devastation of the country by the warlike events of the year 1799."
The Society has been important for mathematics over many years since it published work by leading mathematicians. For example we list some of the mathematicians who have published in the first 100 years of the Vierteljahrsschrift der Naturforschenden Gesellschaft in Zürich. (If the reader is wondering why they appear in apparently random order, let us explain that they are approximately in the order of their first publication in the journal.) Here is our remarkable list: Jacob Amsler, Rudolf Clausius, Ludwig Schläfli, Richard Dedekind, Theodor Reye, Heinrich Suter, Hermann Schwarz, Wilhelm Fiedler, Heinrich Weber, Ferdinand Rudio, Elwin Christoffel, Heinrich Burkhardt, Adolf Hurwitz, Karl Geiser, Edmund Landau, Paul Stäckel, Albert Einstein, Marcel Grossmann, Paul Bernays, Hermann Weyl, George Pólya, Rudolf Fueter, Georg Frobenius, Andreas Speiser, Oystein Ore, Henri Lebesgue, Michel Plancherel, Paul Montel, Louis Mordell, Erich Hecke, Harry Vandiver, Constantin Carathéodory, Ludwig Bieberbach, Paul Finsler, Heinz Hopf, Heinrich Behnke, Élie Cartan, Rolf Nevanlinna, and Bartel van der Waerden.
In recent years the Society has been awarding a Youth Prize for particularly exciting and creative work in the subjects of mathematics, computer science, physics, chemistry, biology or geography. This Prize is awarded to high school students in the canton of Zurich based on their Matura dissertation.
Let us end with the following taken from the Society's own description on its website :-
The Naturforschende Gesellschaft in Zurich is one of the oldest scientific associations in Switzerland, celebrating its 250th anniversary in 1996. The overall aim of the Society, which currently has around 500 members, is to promote the understanding of the natural sciences in both the fundamental and applied fields beyond the boundaries of disciplines. On the one hand, the Naturforschende Gesellschaft in Zurich wants to promote contact and exchange between the increasingly numerous disciplines of modern science, medicine and technology, and on the other hand, to facilitate the public's access to sound knowledge in all areas.
List of References (4 books/articles)
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