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Carolus Linnaeus

Carolus Linnaeus




Swedish Roots. Best known by the Latin version of his name, Carolus Linnaeus was born Carl Linne in the village of Stenbrohult in Smaland, apoor province in southern Sweden. He was the eldest son of a curate–farmer and a parson’s daughter. (His father, Nils, had devised the Latin surname Linnaeus after a linden tree on the family property.) Carl attended the universities of Lund and Uppsala. He became a medical doctor in 1735 and opened a practice that specialized in treating venereal disease, and in 1739 he was one of six founding members of the Swedish Academy of Science. In 1741 Linnaeus was appointed a professor of medicine at Uppsala University and rose steadily in the ranks of the Swedish royal service, as chief physician to the navy and as a high-ranking adviser to several rulers and ministries. He was ennobled for these contributions and his writings in 1761, at which time he added von to the Swedish form of his name (Carl vonLinné).

Botanist. Linnaeus had developed an interest in botany during hisuniversity years, despite the inferior botanical collections and libraries at Lund and Uppsala. Almost alone in his interest in botany, he was largely self–taught and originally based his work on only a few examples. His system of categorizing plants was formulated not only from firsthand observationbut also from his extensive teaching, public lecturing, and tutoring. His students helped collect examples of flora and fauna, beginning first around the Baltic Sea and then all over Europe. They also participated in refining the system of classification that made their teacher famous. After extensive discussion and experimentation, Linnaeus and his students created a system of binomial classification for living beings, especially plants, based on their reproductive characteristics. He hoped to create a system in which the essences of plants identified by Aristotle could be defined according to logical rules. Linnaeus believed that understanding and identifying the characteristics of plants and animals would reveal fundamental truths about nature and glorify God. He hoped that such a system would reflect the genuine order of nature—that it would be truly “natural,” not simply an artificial creation of the mind.

Organizing Nature. In his Systema Naturae (System of Nature), published in Latin in 1735, Linnaeus suggested a five-tiered approach to organizing the plant kingdom. Moving from the general to the specific, these categories were classes, orders, genera, species, and varieties. For indexing purposes, each species was designated by its genus and species names. By explaining the nature of the various categories and clarifying how to delineate them, Linnaeus made the cataloguing of plants accessible not only to the learned but also to amateurs. To encourage theuse of his system, he often named a species after the person who first identified it. The Linnaean system accelerated the organization and categorization of European natural history. Following in the footsteps of English scientist Isaac Newton (1624–1727), Linnaeus, a deeply religious man, saw the world as a balanced system created by God, but he also saw possibilities for change over time. In Oratio de telluris habitabilis incremento (1744; Lecture on the Increase of the Habitable Earth) Linnaeus suggested that new plants and animals might have evolved over time through hybridization. Because of this view he began a major controversy with the most widely read naturalist of his time, Frenchman Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1708–1788), head of the French Royal Gardens in Paris. Buffon, who concentrated on collecting fossil evidence and making physical experiments, rejected the notion that the classification of living beings could reveal the “truths” of nature. He saw the occupation as solely for the benefit of human understanding and argued that organisms did not change over time. Despite their differences, Buffon and Linnaeus both helped to set the stage for the evolutionary theory of Charles Darwin during the second half of the nineteenth century.


Wilfrid Blunt, The Compkat Naturalist: A Life of Linnaeus (New York: Viking, 1971).

Lisbet Koerner, Linnaeus: Nature and Nation (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999).

Sven Widmalm, “Instituting Science in Sweden,” in The Scientific Revolution in National Context, edited by Roy Porter and Mikulas Teich (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), pp. 240-262.

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