Click here to skip to the content

People Transcription

Abraham Gesner moved from Parrsboro, Nova Scotia to Saint John, New Brunswick in 1838. He had been appointed New Brunswick’s first Provincial Geologist. This was the first job of its kind in the British Empire. Gesner had trained to be a physician, but his true interest was geology and chemistry. For five years Gesner traveled on horseback and by ship and canoe, recording and mapping his geological observations. He outlined the basic geology of New Brunswick, wrote five reports to describe his findings, and produced a geologic map of southern New Brunswick.  A map of his travels shows that he covered much of the territory of New Brunswick. He followed coastlines and rivers, and the few roads that crossed the Province. His reports were more than just descriptions of geology.

Gesner wrote about the land and about the people he met. Reading his reports we can still find landscape features Gesner saw, like the Hopewell Rocks on the Bay of Fundy shore. His drawing of tilted sedimentary rocks near Quaco is still recognizable. Gesner’s job was to discover mineral resources. He described localities, like the Dipper Harbour barite discovery, and identified copper deposits near Bathurst. Gesner visited the few mines in production at the time, like the manganese mine near Shepody and the Woodstock iron mines.

Dr. Gesner identified rocks and minerals during his fieldwork. He also made collections of specimens that he brought back to Saint John. Reading his reports today we can see where he traveled by examining the rocks, minerals and fossils he noted in his reports. Gesner had a private museum on Prince William Street in Saint John that contained specimens he collected working as the Provincial Geologist, some Nova Scotia specimens he brought with him, and samples he gathered from geologists in the USA and Europe. The newspaper reported he had about four thousand specimens.

In April, 1842 Gesner opened his museum to the public. His catalogue listed about 1200 rocks, minerals and fossils from around the world like the quartz specimen from the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland. The fossil plant from Grindstone Island in the Bay of Fundy was collected during his survey work. Gesner’s Museum was one of the first public museums in Canada and his collection of New Brunswick specimens is likely the second oldest geological survey collection in the British Empire.

Gesner’s job as Provincial Geologist ended in 1842. Financial troubles forced him to give up his museum. His creditors eventually donated his collection to the Saint John Mechanics’ Institute where it became part of their museum. When he left Saint John, Gesner moved to Prince Edward Island where he continued his chemistry experiments. He developed a process to distill kerosene from bitumen, a kind of solidified oil. He used bitumen called albertite found near Albert Mines in eastern New Brunswick as his raw material. Not only did Gesner find a way to replace whale oil in lamps, he became embroiled in one of the biggest court cases in New Brunswick history about the right to mine minerals and coal.

Today Abraham Gesner is considered one of the founders of the modern petroleum industry. Sadly Gesner had more legal troubles over patent rights to his kerosene process and instead of making his fortune he returned to Nova Scotia almost as penniless as when he left decades before. Today Abraham Gesner is remembered by geologists in Atlantic Canada through the awarding of the Gesner Medal, the Distinguished Scientist Award of the Atlantic Geoscience Society.