Abraham Pineo Gesner

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Abraham Pineo Gesner : biography

May 2, 1797 – April 29, 1864

Abraham Pineo Gesner ( May 2, 1797 – April 29, 1864) was a Canadian physician and geologist who invented kerosene. Although Ignacy Łukasiewicz developed the modern kerosene lamp, starting the world’s oil industry, Gesner is considered a primary founder. Gesner was born in Cornwallis, Nova Scotia. He died in Halifax, Nova Scotia.


Born to a well-established farming family in the Annapolis Valley, Pineo Gesner pursued a career at sea from a young age. Twice shipwrecked by his early twenties, Gesner returned to the family farm near Chipman Corner, northeast of Kentville. He married Harriet Webster, the daughter of Kentville’s Dr. Isaac Webster in 1824, then went to London to study medicine at St Bartholomew’s Hospital under Sir Astley Paston Cooper, then surgery at Guy’s Hospital under John Abernethy. While in London, he became interested in geology, making the acquaintance of Charles Lyell.


Gesner’s research in minerals resulted in his 1846 development of a process to refine a liquid fuel from coal, bitumen and oil shale. His new discovery, which he named kerosene, burned more cleanly and was less expensive than competing products, such as whale oil. In 1850, Gesner created the Kerosene Gaslight Company and began installing lighting in the streets in Halifax and other cities. By 1854, he had expanded to the United States where he created the North American Kerosene Gas Light Company at Long Island, New York. Demand grew to where his company’s capacity to produce became a problem, but the discovery of petroleum, from which kerosene could be more easily produced, solved the supply problem.

Abraham Gesner continued his research on fuels and wrote a number of scientific studies concerning the industry including an 1861 publication titled, "A Practical Treatise on Coal, Petroleum and Other Distilled Oils," which became a standard reference in the field. Eventually, Gesner’s company was absorbed into the petroleum monopoly, Standard Oil and he returned to Halifax, where he was appointed a Professor of Natural History at Dalhousie University.

Gesner himself was humble about his contribution to the development of the petroleum industry. In his 1861 work, he said that "the progress of discovery in this case, as in others, has been slow and gradual. It has been carried on by the labors, not of one mind, but of many, so as to render it difficult to discover to whom the greatest credit is due.""The Industrial Revolutionaries–The Making of the Modern World 1776-1914" by Gavin Weightman, Grove Press, 2009

In 1933, Imperial Oil Ltd., a Standard Oil subsidiary, erected a memorial in Camp Hill Cemetery in Halifax to pay tribute to Gesner’s contribution to the petroleum industry. The City of Halifax named a street at the top of Fairview between Melrose and Adelaide in honor of Gesner in Halifax, formally the street was named Dunbrack ST, The completion of the Dunbrack Street/North West Arm Drive connectors with the Highway 102 freeway during the 1980s required a remaming of the original Dunbrack St. In 2000, he was honored by the placement of his image on a postage stamp by Canada Post.

Early career

Returning to Parrsboro as a practising physician, Gesner also pursued his passion for geology. In 1836, he published a study on the mineralogy of Nova Scotia, which included a detailed geological map providing information on the key deposits of iron ore and coal in Nova Scotia. In 1838, he was appointed Provincial Geologist for New Brunswick, charged with the mission to undertake a similar geological survey. In the course of this survey, in 1839 Gesner discovered the bituminous asphalt substance albertite, which he named after Albert County, New Brunswick where it was found.

In 1842, looking for coal, Gesner travelled to Quebec, where he discovered the first of the great fossil deposits of the future Miguasha National Park. However, little notice was taken of his report until the fossils were rediscovered in 1879.

In 1842, Gesner started "Gesner’s Museum of Natural History", in Saint John, New Brunswick, the first public museum in Canada. This later became the prestigious New Brunswick Museum.