Elias Magnus Fries

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Fries, Elias Magnus

(b. Femsjö, Sweden 15 August 1794; d. Uppsala, Sweden, 8 February 1878)


Fries was born in a parsonage in the southwestern part of the province of Småland, in southern Sweden. His father was interested in natural history and inspired the same interest in his son. The area is poor in phanerogams but extremely rich in fungi, which may have contributed to Fries’s becoming, even in his teens, an advanced mycologist. He graduated from the Gymnasium in Växjö and in 1811 he enrolled at the University of Lund. There his botanical interest took on a more serious character and was guided principally by the professor of botany, C. A. Agardh. Undr Agardh, Fries took his degree in philosophy (filosofie magister) in 1814, having defended the first part of his dissertation “Novitiae florae Suecicae.” From then until his death Fries was totally devoted to botany. He became a docent at the university, which gave him the right to teach there without salary. In 1819 he advanced to adjunct, which brought him a small income, and in 1828 he became botanices demonstrator, a slightly more lucrative post. All this time he had to depend upon his father for his living.

During his first ten years at the university Fries devoted most of his studies to mycology, soon acquiring an international reputation. In 1815 he published the first volume of his first important work in mycological systematics, Observationes mycologicae (2 vols., Copenhagen, 1815–1818); and in 1821, when he was only twenty-seven he began publishing his Systema mycologicum, the great work which, more than anything else he wrote, brought him his fame (3 vols.: I, Lund, 1821; II, in 2 pts., Lund, 1822–1823; III, 2 pts., Greifswald, 1829–1832).

For the lichens, then regarded as a natural class or order, Fries worked out a general systematics in his Lichenum dianome nova (Lund, 1817), partly inspired by the great Swedish lichenologist Acharius. In the second half of his twenties he was intensely absorbed by the lichens, and with his friend Christian Stenhammar, a vicar and naturalist, he published Lichenes Sueciae exsiccati (Lund, 1824–1827), which consisted of dried specimens of lichens and an accompanying text. His lichenological studies were crowned by his authoritative Lichenographia Europaea reformata (Lund, 1831), containing a survey of all known lichens of Europe and information on their distribution.

From 1835 Fries was professor of botany at Uppsala. He soon rose to a central position in Swedish botany and was regarded as its unrivaled leader. Throughout his life he was an extremely prolific writer. He strengthened his international position in mycology through a number of works, such as Epicrisis systematis mycologici, 2 vols. (Uppsala, 1836–1838; new ed. with the title Hymenomycetes Europaei, Uppsala, 1874); Monographia hymenomycetum Sueciae, 2 vols. (Uppsala 1857–1863), which appeared both as a series of academic dissertations and as a separate work, Sveriges ätliga och giftiga svampar, 10 pts. (Stockholm, 1860–1866); and Icones selectae hymenomycetum nondum delineatorum (I, Stockholm, 1867–1876; II, Stockholm-Uppsala, 1877–1884), the second volume of which was published, following his wishes, by his sons Thore and Robert. Among the phanerogams such critical genera as Hieracium (Epicrisis generis Hieraciorum, Uppsala, 1862), Salix, and Carex were his favorites. His long floristic experience in Skåne was summarized in his Flora Scanica (Uppsala, 1835).

Fries’s foremost accomplishment in botany was in systematics. Almost from the beginning he showed a passion for understanding the underlying principles of this discipline and for tackling the questions concerning the real and natural relationship between plants and plant groups—all problems of great difficulty in the age before Darwin. A factor that proved critical for all his work was his encounter with the romantic German Naturphilosophie in the years after 1810. During his first decade as a systematist he admired Lorenz Oken and his extremely speculative system of nature, as presented in Oken’s Lehrbuch der Naturphilosophie (1809–1911). Oken conceived of the universe as built of spiritual principles, the four “elements,” which in diverse combinations and refinements constitute animals and plants. At the same time the different classes of plants reflect in different degrees the main organs of an individual plant: the root, the stem, the flower, and the fruit. In Systema mycologicum Fries sought to apply Oken’s principles to fungus systematics. His four main groups of fungi—Coniomycetes, Hyphomycetes, Gasteromycetes, and Hymenomycetes—were thus considered as expressing diverse “cosmic moments,” very reminiscent of Oken’s “elements.” In this work Fries also took up ideas from Oken’s friend C. G. Nees von Esenbeck, whose highly romantic System der Pilze und Schwämme had been published in 1817. Nees argued that the fungi represent a special aspect of the vegetable world, its negative pole and autumn side, manifested in their conspicuous fruit bodies (spore organs), which seemed to dominate their vegetable parts. In the same vein Fries spoke about a nisus reproductivus among the fungi, which separated this plant group from all other vegetables.

Already in Systema orbis vegetabilis (1825) Fries had to a great extent freed himself from the influence of Oken and Nees. Yet his views still reflected the same visionary and speculative romanticism, his conviction of nature’s inner spirituality and unity. He expressed his belief in a close relationship between human logic and nature’s way of separating the organisms into classes, orders, genera, and species. In every taxon he found four subdivisions, which in their turn could be divided in four units of lower degree. He called this consequent quartering a double dichotomy, reflecting the dichotomous method of ordinary logical division. Thus he divided the whole plant kingdom into the four groups Dicotyledoneae, Monocotyledoneae, Heteronemeae (ferns and mosses), and Homonemeae (algae and fungi).

Later, Fries gradually turned away from the extravagant speculation of his youth. More and more he became convinced that human reason could not grasp the great scheme according to which the Creator had distributed his creatures in systematic groups. Instead, he stated that one can trace the true relationships only through painstaking observation of the different species in their natural surroundings. In this context his vitalism became more and more apparent; life represents a secret and divine force, which determines the essence of each species, and the true characteristics of species can be determined only through empirical observation of the living specimens.

Yet Fries never completely abandoned his vision of a great natural system that would cover all of the vegetable kingdom in some detail. This was to a certain degree realized in 1835 in his Flora scanica, and even there one could retrace fundamental points of view which had their origin in German romantic philosophy.

Three characteristics of Fries’s systematics are of special importance:

1. His idealistic conception of natural relationships. He thought that all organisms were related to certain types or ideas, which they expressed and resembled in a higher or lower degree, belonging to such a type being the basis for their true affinity. In his vision the taxa constituted “spheres”; the type was in the “center” and the other members of the taxon on the “radii” at different distances from the center and facing in different directions toward other groups.

2. The distinction he drew between affinity and analogy. By “analogy” he meant a kind of similarity in the outer appearance of two or more organisms which have no inner relationship or affinity. In his terminology this meant that the analogous forms are related to different types, belong to different spheres, but are situated at the same distance from the center of their respective spheres. These concepts found their way to British biologists through William Sharp Macleay’s article “Remarks on the Identity of Certain General Laws Which Have Been Lately Observed to Regulate the Natural Distribution of Insects and Fungi” (Transactions of the Linnean Society, 14 [1823]).

3. His ideas on evolution. Since the 1820’s Fries had been convinced that evolutionary processes had taken place within the organic world and that through the ages the organisms had passed from more primitive to more perfect stages. But for a long while he could not accept any theory of descent. Thus, according to him, all species had existed from the beginning, rude and primitive but definitely different from each other. Through the ages they had separately and gradually reached their present forms. Later, Fries had to concede that not all species had an evolutionary history separate from all other species. He began to believe that all forms within a genus had only one common ancestor and that the different species now existing within it were temporis filiae, daughters of time. He considered that the driving force behind this evolution was mainly a tendency within the organisms to strive toward the perfect state of the respective types or ideas, a reflection of his basically romantic vision. When, in old age, Fries had read Darwin’s Origin of Species, he could agree with the general theory of evolution, but he hesitated before the idea of the descent of nearly all organisms from one or a few original forms. And he absolutely could not accept the mechanism of “struggle for existence” and natural selection as the main force acting in evolution.

Today Fries’s renown is based primarily upon his mycological work. His views on the large taxa, e.g., the “classes” within which he ordered the fungi, certainly are obsolete. He could never admit the importance of those microscopic characters which were detected with the new and better instruments available from the 1830’s. Therefore he hesitated too long when confronted with the discovery of basidia and asci (reported to him in the 1830’s by the British mycologist Miles Berkeley), fundamental for the modern grouping of the main categories of fungi. Yet his distinction of different spore colors still has important taxonomic value, and he is especially remembered for his ability to describe species. In fact, according to a decree of the Seventh International Botanical Congress (Stockholm, 1950), Systema mycologicum forms the basis for the nomenclature within all groups of fungi except Uredinales, Ustilaginales, and Gasteromycetes.


I. Original Works. Fries’s most important works are mentioned in the text. For a detailed bibliography, see T. O. B. N. Krok, Bibliotheca botanica Suecana (Uppsala–Stockholm, 1925), pp. 199–215. There are facsimiles of Systema mycologicum and Elenchus fugorum (New York, 1952; Weinheim–Bergstrasse, 1960); Monographia hymenomycetum Sueciae (Amsterdam, 1963); and Hymenomycetes Europaei (Leipzig, 1937; Amsterdam, 1963).

Unpublished correspondence is in the Uppsala University library and a number of other Swedish libraries (see Svenskt biografiskt lexikon, XVI [Stockholm, 1965], 526); the Botanisk Centralbibliotek, Copenhagen; the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris; the British Museum (Natural History), London; and the Arnold Arboretum and Gray Herbarium of Harvard University.

II. Secondary Literature. On his life and work, see J. Arrhenius, “Elias Magnus Fries,” in Levnadsteckningar över K. Svenska Vetenskapsakademiens ledamöter, II (Stockholm, 1878–1885), 195–226; Gunnar Eriksson, Elias Fries och den romantiska biologin (Uppsala, 1952), with a summary in English, pp. 457–462; and Svenski biografiskt lexikon, XVI, 522–526; and R. Fries, “Elias Fries,” in Swedish Men of Science (Stockholm, 1952) 178–185.

Gunnar Eriksson

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