Susanna McLeod

Susanna McLeod

Glimpses of Canadian History : Email:

Abraham Gesner and the Development of Kerosene

Expensive whale oil was used in lamps to provide light. Geologist Abraham Gesner developed the affordable petroleum fuel Kerosene to illuminate dark nights.

Kerosene: A Fuel for Motors, Lamps and Heaters

According to the Gage Canadian Dictionary, kerosene is composed of “a mixture of hydrocarbons, usually produced by distilling petroleum.” The flammable liquid was developed by Abraham Gesner, a geologist, physician and professor from Nova Scotia.

Kerosene Lamp to light the dark night

Kerosene Lamp to light the dark night

In the very early 1800s, a young boy named Abraham Gesner loved to explore the shoreline of the Bay of Fundy, collecting fossils and rocks. Born on May 2, 1797 in Cornwallis, Nova Scotia to Loyalist parents, the youngster was “teaching himself the science of geology,” said the Nova Scotia Museum in “Fossils of Nova Scotia”. It was the beginning of a lifelong love of the earth’s physical composition for Gesner.

From Sailor to Physician, Then Back to Geology

Working aboard vessels in the Caribbean and West Indies for three years, Gesner was twice shipwrecked by the time he was 21. Turning his keen mind to a different vocation, Gesner studied scientific experiments and medical arts in London, England, becoming a physician. Practicing in Nova Scotia, Gesner moved to New Brunswick in 1837 and changed his career to his childhood passion of geology. A year later at age 41, Gesner was appointed the Provincial Geologist of New Brunswick, a post he kept until 1842 when provincial money ran out. The head geologist was an avid gatherer of natural history specimens and unusual items, building a broad and fascinating collection of minerals, fossils and rocks. “He tried to persuade the government to purchase his collection for the Saint John Mechanics’ Institute,” noted “History” of the New Brunswick Museum, but “when that did not happen he opened his museum to the public.”

The Gesner Museum in Saint John opened on April 5, 1842, making history as the first museum in Canada. The scientist had been funding his geological surveys with money from his own pocket and loans (when provincial funding dried up), and he hoped he would recoup the money through admissions to the museum. The plan did not work. “Those to whom he owned money eventually took over his collection in lieu of payment,” said Nova Scotia Museum. The new owners passed the museum on to the Mechanics Institute in 1846 and it later became the basis of the New Brunswick Natural History Museum collection.

Gesner Found Bituminous Mineral Albertite

Surveying the geology of New Brunswick from 1838 to 1842, Gesner also surveyed Prince Edward Island in 1846. One of his finds in New Brunswick was Albertite, a bituminous mineral resembling asphalt. Gesner recorded the mineral but did not thoroughly examine his mineral find at first.

Three Patents for Kerosene

In 1846, Abraham Gesner “developed a refining process that transmuted coal, natural tar, and eventually oil into an

Canadian geologist Abraham Gesner

Canadian geologist Abraham Gesner

illuminating fuel which he called kerosene,” said the Petroleum History Society in “Canadian Beginnings.” The new petroleum fuel was welcomed as a more affordable replacement for the expensive whale oil burned in lamps to light the dark nights. (Whale oil sold for $2.50 a gallon in the mid-1800s, according to the Petroleum History Society.) Immigrating to New York City in the United States in 1853, Gesner and several partners joined to open the Asphalt Mining and Kerosene Gas Company. Polishing his process of producing kerosene, Gesner was issued three patents in June 1854.

Living with his family in Brooklyn, New York, Gesner wrote scientific reports and books about the petroleum industry, his most impressive work written in 1861, titled “A Practical Treatise on Coal, Petroleum and Other Distilled Oils.” An inventor as well, Gesner created compressed coal-dust briquettes, a process for asphalt road paving and a machine that insulated electric wire. Gesner was offered a job in 1863 as a professor of chemistry by Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Accepting the position, Gesner was not long in the job – he died on April 29, 1864.

The Gesner Medal

The Atlantic Geoscience Society instituted the Gesner Medal in Abraham Gesner’s honour, the first medal awarded in 1993. The Gesner Medal is given “to a person, who has, through his or her own efforts, developed and promoted the advancement of geoscience in the Atlantic Region in any field of geology and,” according to Graham Williams in “History” of The Atlantic Geoscience Society, “whose contributions are of such significance that they have made an impact outside of our area.”

Abraham Gesner was recognized twice by Canada Post for his work, the first stamp, titled “Kerosene, 1846,” issued on June 17, 1988 in the “Canada Day – Science and Technology, Canadian Innovations in Energy, Food, Research and Medicine.” The second stamp was part of the “Millenium Collection: Fathers of Innovation” issued on March 17, 2000 and titled “Abraham Gesner: Father of the Oil Industry.”

Considered a founding father of the oil industry for his geological findings and striking developments, Gesner’s work improved and brightened the lives of Canadians.


  • “Abraham Gesner,” Fossils of Nova Scotia, Nova Scotia Museum Accessed April 29, 2011
  • “History,” New Brunswick Museum Accessed April 29, 2011
  • “Canadian Beginnings,” Petroleum History Society Accessed April 29, 2011
  • Williams, Graham, “History,” The Atlantic Geoscience Society Accessed April 29, 2011

This article first appeared on in April, 2011.  Copyright Susanna McLeod


Comments are closed.