Swartz, Olof

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(b. Norrköping, Sweden, 21 September 1760; d. Stockholm, Sweden, 19 September 1818)


Swartz began his studies in the field of medicine at Uppsala University in 1778, the year of Linnaeus’ death. He had been interested in botany at an early age, and had already traveled to different parts of Sweden and Finland in order to collect plants and other objects of natural history. His doctoral thesis, written under Linnaeus the younger (who succeeded his father in the chair of botany at Uppsala), and entitled Methodus muscorum illustrata (1781), indicated further his scientific devotion. The great adventure in Swartz’s life was his journey to the West Indies. He began his trip in 1783, traveling first through eastern North America, stopping at Boston and Philadelphia. Then, during the next two years, he visited Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Haiti, and Cuba. On his way home in 1786 and 1787 he studied the great botanical collections of Linnaeus and Banks in London, comparing his own extensive material with what had already been brought together by botanists of an earlier generation. As a result of studies made during his voyage, Swartz published in 1788 Nova genera et species plantarum and other lesser articles and papers. This work was summed up in his magnificent Flora Indiae Occidentalis I-III (1797–1806), which included descriptions of all the new genera and speices he had found. He described nearly 900 species, most of them new to science.

For several years Swartz lived in Stockholm on a small private income, devoting himself entirely to his botanical research. In 1791 he became Bergian professor and intendant at a newly established school of gardening in Stockholm, owned by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. He received several other appointments in the service of the academy, and finally, in 1811, was elected permament secretary, the most important position in the academy. He held this office until his death. From 1813 he was professor of botany at the Caroline Institute.

Besides his work on the flora of the West Indies, Swartz is best known for his taxonomic studies of specific plant groups, often in the context of their worldwide distribution. Thus, for example, through his studies of orchids, summarized in Genera et species Orchidearum (1805), he was able to improve the systematics of these plants on the basis of the morphological traits of their highly specialized flowers. Swartz’s greatest fame, however, rests on his studies of the cryptogams. He broadened greatly the knowledge of Swedish mosses, and he described in his works on the West Indies many new species of lichens and fungi; but, principally, he worked with the ferns of the world. His main works in this field are Genera et species filicum (1801) and the monumental Synopsis filicum (1806). As in his work on mosses and orchids, Swartz based his fern systematics upon studies of the fructification organs. He tried to deepen the views common in the Linnaean tradition, of which he was a strong adherent, thus opening the way for further study.

Swartz was, along with the much more conservative Thunberg, the most internationally oriented of Swedish botanists. He carried on a huge foreign correspondence and thus had the opportunity to publish his works in Germany, where they found their way to the international scientific community more easily than they would have if published in Sweden. Nevertheless, because of his central position in the Academy of Sciences and because of his universally praised generosity and frieindliness, Swartz was the unifying link between the other botanists in his own country.


I. Original Works. Swartz’s published workes in botany are listed in T.O.B.N. Krek, Bibliotheca botanica suecana (Uppsala-Stockholm, 1925). Part of his correspondence is in the library of the Royal Academy of Sciences, Stockholm, in the Brinkmanska Arkivet, Trolle-Ljungby, and in the Riksarkivet, Stockholm.

II. Secondary Literature. In the posthumous work of Swartz, Adnotationes botanicae, J. E. Wikström, ed. (Stockholm, 1829), there are biographies by Wikström, K. Sprengel, and C. A. Agardh. See further S. Lindroth, Kungl. Svenska Vetenskapsakademiens historia, II (Stockholm, 1967), 71–75, 229–234, 416–420, and passim, and G. Eriksson, Botanikens historia i Sverige intill år 1800 (Uppsala, 1969), 290–292, 326–328.

Gunnar Eriksson