A Blupete Biography Page

Abraham Gesner

Roland H. Sherwood1 referred to Gesner, as: a country doctor, geologist, sailor, ship-owner, trader, author, lecturer, chemist, museum owner, failure, poor man and inventor. Towards the end of his life, because of his discovery and production of kerosene, he became rich and famous. He however became a forgotten man for nearly seventy years after his death.

Gesner was born in the Cornwallis Township to a Loyalist family who had come to Nova Scotia. His family managed to get the young Gesner over to London, England, where he studied to be become a medical doctor. In 1823, Gesner returned to Nova Scotia and set up practise in the Parrsboro area. At Parrsboro, Gesner was able to feed his increasing desire to study the wonderful geology of the area. In time his occupation as a medical doctor gave way to being a geologist.

By 1837, Gesner was in New Brunswick going about his duties as its provincial geologist. In 1841, he left New Brunswick and came to Halifax with a fantastic collection of rocks which he put on exhibition. He lost money in this effort. Loans became due, and he was obliged to give up his prized collection in settlement. In 1843, Gesner went back to the practice of medicine.

It is said2 that as a medical doctor, Gesner appreciated the problems created for people, especially for older ones, when reading in poor light. This, together with his interest in geology, drove him to experiment with the extraction of an oil from coal which would give a superior light to that of tallow candles. These efforts led Gesner to a process which separated an oil from a variety of coal called albertite. In combining the Greek words, "wax" and "oil": the product was called "kerosene." It was first used, under Gesner's supervision at the lighthouse on Meagher's beach at the mouth of Halifax Harbour and declared to be a great success.

Not being able to locate investors in Nova Scotia, Gesner travelled to New York where he found backers. A refinery was then set up for the production of kerosene on Long Island. Soon, ordinary people turned to lighting their homes and work places with kerosene lanterns. Thus it was, that after many years of pursuing his geological dreams which had made him a poor and indebted man, Gesner became a rich man.

Having secured his financial fortune, Gesner returned to Nova Scotia in 1864 to take up an offer to be chair of Natural History at Dalhousie University. He hardly had a chance to do much work at the university, as, before the year was out, he died. He was buried in the Camp Hill Cemetery, Halifax.3


[1] "Discovery of Kerosene," NSHQ, Vol. #9:2 (1979), p. 157.

[2] Sherwood, p. 160.

[3] MacKenzie, "Nineteenth-Century Physicians in Nova Scotia," NSHS, #31 (1957), pp. 124-5.


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Peter Landry
2012 (2020)