Thunberg, Carl Peter

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(b. Jönköping, Sweden. 11 November 1743; d. Tunaberg, near Uppsala, Sweden, 8 August 1828), botany.

After studying at Jönköping, Thunberg entered Uppsala University in 1761, where he soon came under the influence of Linnaeus. His dissertation for the medical degree, De ishiade (1770), was not botanical and Linnaeus did not preside over the disputation; but Thunberg’s passion was, nevertheless, natural history and especially botany, and Linnaeus soon considered him a protégé. In order to complete his medical education, Thunberg went to Paris immediately after the disputation, the trip being made possible by a scholarship. Before reaching France he stayed for a while in Holland, where a letter of recommendation from Linnaeus opened the house of Jan and Nikolaus Laurens Burman to him; both were good botanists, and the father was an old friend of Linnaeus.

In Paris, Thunberg received an extraordinary offer: an invitation to follow a Dutch merchant ship to Japan, which was closed to all European nations except Holland. The Burmans had good connections with the rich bourgeoisie of Holland, among whom the enthusiasm for gardening was very great. Thunberg was expected to collect as many Japanese garden plants as possible for his employers. He was, of course, free to make his own purely botanical collections as well, a situation that pleased Linnaeus, with whom Thunberg maintained close correspondence during the voyage. In order to enter Japan, he had to behave in every respect like a good Dutchman. He learned Dutch by stopping off in South Africa, in Cape Colony, where he remained from April 1772 to March 1775, thus fortunately combining language studies with botanical excursions.

There had been very little true botanical investigation of the Cape Colony; during his stay Thunberg made three voyages into the interior, collecting and describing more than three thousand plants, of which about one thousand were new to science. On two trips he was accompanied by the gardener and plant collector Francis Masson, who had been sent to the Cape Colony by Kew Gardens in London. At this time Thunberg began describing species and revising genera from his collections, publishing his papers in the transactions of several Swedish and foreign academies.

In March 1775 Thunberg sailed on a Dutch ship to Batavia. From Java he continued on another Dutch vessel to the island of Deshima in Nagasaki harbor, the only Japanese port open to European trade. For a while Thunberg was able to make short excursions near the town, but bureaucratic difficulties soon curtailed even these few opportunities to collect Japanese plants. A journey to Tokyo with the Dutch ambassador did little to improve the situation. Thunberg nevertheless became the first Western scientist to investigate Japan botanically through the aid of the young Japanese interpreters employed by the traders. Some of them were physicians, eager to learn modern European medicine from Thunberg, who exchanged his knowledge for specimens of Japanese plants. He left the country in December 1776 with a rich collection for further analysis. On his way home he visited Java, Ceylon, and the Cape Colony. Having satisfied his Dutch employers, he went to London, its herbariums and collections being the most important at that time.

Thunberg reached Sweden in 1779 and was appointed botanical demonstrator at Uppsala University. Linnaeus had been succeeded by his son, and it soon became clear that Thunberg and young Linnaeus could not work well together. Although Thunberg was a demonstrator, Linnaeus did not allow him to enter the botanical garden. In 1784 Thunberg succeeded to the professorship of botany (in the Faculty of Medicine), a post he held until his death. He lived quietly on a little estate, Tunaberg, just outside Uppsala, traveling to his daily work in a strange, uncomfortable carriage, well-known among the students as “the rattlesnake”. The major event during this long academic period was the transfer of the botanical garden from a low and often flooded region of the town to the much more suitable park of the royal castle, where it is still situated. Most of Thunberg’s time as professor was occupied by writing about his extensive collections.

Thunberg’s first major work after returning to Sweden was Flora japonica (1784), a fundamental account of the floristics and systematics of the vegetation of Japan that describes twenty-one new genera and several hundred new species. His only predecessor of any importance was Engelbert Kaempfer, who traveled in the Far East at the end of the seventeenth century and whose collections Thunberg studied in the British Museum during his visit to London. The vast and important material from the Cape Colony occupied Thunberg for the rest of his life. A preliminary work was Prodromus plantarum capensium (1794–1800), a summary of his findings. Much more detailed and important was Flora capensis (1807–1823), completed with the help of the German botanist J. A. Schultes. Among his many shorter works are monographs on Protea, Oxalis, lxia, and Gladiolus.

Thunberg was exclusively a descriptive botanist who closely followed Linnaeus, using his methods and his already somewhat outmoded sexual system. He modified the latter slightly, reducing its twenty-four classes to twenty by excluding Gynandria, Monoecia, Dioecia, and Polygamia and distributing their members among the other classes. The aim of his reductions, however, seems to have been more practical than theoretical, the plants of the omitted classes often not being constant in their class characters and fitting more smoothly in other parts of the system. Although Linnaeus had been searching for a truly natural system, Thunberg seemed to have no penchant for speculation. His strong points were his keen eye in the field, his indefatigable spirit and eagerness in collecting, and his concise descriptions. Among his contemporaries he was perhaps the one who described the largest number of new plant genera and species. His aims certainly reached no further.

Thunberg’s description of his great voyage, published in four parts in Swedish in 1788–1793 and soon translated into English as Travels in Europe, Africa and Asia (1793–1795), as well as in French and German, contains material of great ethnographical interest.


I. Original Works. T. O. B. N. Krok, Bibliotheca botanica suecana (Stockholm – Uppsala, 1925), 705–l716, lists all Thunherg’s botanical works. Letters from his many correspondents, both Swedish and foreign, are at the University Library, Uppsala, together with other MSS. His published works include De ischiade (Uppsala, 1770); Flora japonica (Leipzig, 1784); Travels in Europe, Africa and Asia, 4 vols. (London, 1793–1795). first published as 4 vols. (Uppsala, 1788–1793); Prodromus plantarum capensium (Uppsala, 1794–1800); and Flora capensis, 2 vols. (Uppsala, 1807–1823).

II. Secondary Literature. See H. O. Juel, Plantae Thunbergianae (Uppsala, 1918), in German; and articles about Thunberg by N. Svedelius in Isis, 35 (1944–1945), 128–134; in S. Lindroth, ed., Swedish Men of Science (Stockholm, 1952), 151–159 and in Svenska Linnésällskapets årsskrft, 27 (1944), 29–64.

Thunberg and Cape Colony botany are treated by M. Karsten, in The Old Companys Garden at the Cape and Its Superintendents (Cape Town, 1951), 132-134, passim; “Carl Peter Thunberg. An Early Investigator of Cape Botany,” in Journal of South African Botany, 5 (1939), 1–27. 87–155: 12 (1946), 127–190. Thunberg and Japan are treated in C. Gaudon, Le Japon du XVllle siècle vu par Ch. P. Thunberg (Paris, 1966); and in Forskningsmaterial rörande C. P. Thunberg (Tokyo, 1953), in Japanese and Swedish.

See also G. Eriksson, Botanikens historia i Sverige intill år 1800 (Uppsala, 1969), 258–260, 268–270, 321; and S. Lindroth, Kungligia Svenska Vetenskapsaka-demiens historia, II (Stockholm. 1967), 408–412 and passim.

Gunnar Eriksson