Carl Linnaeus

Carl Linnaeus made it his life’s work to develop and refine a way to classify and name all life on Earth.

Carl Linnaeus

Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778)

He was one of the most influential scientists of his time. His theory of classification allowed for clear and easy descriptions of plants, animals and minerals. 

So straightforward was his new naming system, it is still used by scientists today.

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Work

The young botanist

Born in 1707 to a country parson in Råshult, southern Sweden, the young Linnaeus showed a keen interest in plants and flowers. By the age of 8, he was had gained given the nickname ‘the little botanist’.

Linnaeus studied medicine, first at the University of Lund and then at the University of Uppsala. Medicine at this time was based on herbalism, so he also studied plants. He shared his passion for plants with Olaf Celsius whom he met at Uppsala.

Appointed Lecturer in Botany, it was during this period that Linnaeus began to outline the theory of plant sexuality, which he was later to use to construct his system of plant classification.

Travels

Sponsored by the University of Uppsala, Linnaeus travelled to Lapland during 1732 to report on its natural history and economy. In 1735 he went to Holland to obtain his medical doctorate at the university in Harderwijk, and then moved to Leiden, where he gained a number of wealthy patrons.

For most of this period he stayed with George Clifford, a wealthy merchant with a magnificent botanical garden of which Linnaeus became superintendent.

During a short visit to England in 1736 he met a number of influential people including Sir Hans Sloane, President of the Royal Society, and Philip Miller, the Superintendent of the Society of Apothecaries’ garden (now known as the Chelsea Physic Garden).

Publications

Linnaeus’ publications were prolific during his 3 years in Holland. He understood that contemporary methods of classification could not accommodate the number of new plants that were being discovered.

The 1st edition of Systema Naturae , one of Linnaeus’ most influential works, was published in 1735 and outlined his new system for classifying or grouping the natural world. Over the years, Linnaeus tirelessly added to the 11-page pamphlet, resulting in a substantial 2-volume 10th edition in 1758.

While in Holland, he also published Fundamentica Botanica (1736) further explaining the rules for classification, Genera Plantarum (1737) which contains short descriptions of all 935 plants genera known at that time, Flora Lapponica (1737) on his collections from Lapland, Critica Botanica (1737) with rules for botanical nomenclature, Hortus Cliffortianus (1738) on the plants in Clifford’s garden, and Classes Plantarum (1738), a review of plant systems.

Linnaeus went to work in Stockholm as a doctor and was appointed physician to the Admiralty. He also became the first president of the newly-established Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences.

Linnaeus’ theory of classification

In the early 18th century, scientific names for species were already in Latin, but were often long and unwieldy. For example, the humble tomato was called Solanum caule inermi herbaceo, foliis pinnatis incisis, racemis simplicibus.

Linnaeus’ idea was to divide nature into groups based on shared physical characteristics. Firstly, the 3 kingdoms of plants, animals and minerals. Kingdoms were divided into classes and then into orders, which were divided into genera (singular: genus) and then species (singular: species).

Simple names

Linnaeus gave all the plants known at that time a simpler Latin name in 2 parts, known as a binomial. The first part was the genus, followed by the species. Using this system, the tomato became a more manageable Solanum lycopersicum.

He gave binomial names to animals 5 years later and, between 1753 and his death, he named thousands of plants and animals in this way. This binomial system was adopted by other scientists and became the standard way of naming organisms.

The professor of botany

1n 1741 Linnaeus was appointed Professor of Practical Medicine at the University of Uppsala and promptly exchanged jobs with Professor Nils Rosén to become Professor of Botany, Dietetics and Material Medica in 1742. He was enormously popular and well-respected as a teacher and supervisor, became a member of numerous foreign scientific societies and continued to cultivate eminent sponsors.

The Swedish Parliament wanted an inventory of all the natural resources of the country and therefore, by Order of Parliament, Linnaeus spent 3 summers in the 1740s travelling through Sweden. He published Flora Suecica and Fauna Suecica in 1745 and 1746. In 1747 Linnaeus was appointed court physician.

Transforming botany

Linnaeus’ main focus remained his reform of botany. In 1751 he published Philosophia Botanica, which dealt with the theory of botany and the laws and rules the botanist must follow in order to describe and name plants correctly.

Species Plantarum followed in 1753, describing some 6,000 plant species which, most significantly, introduced a new system of naming organisms, which he extended to animals in his definitive, updated Systema Naturae in 1758.

Linnaeus bought a country estate in Hammarby and in the same year, 1758, was made a Knight of the Polar Star. Further honours followed when he was ennobled in in 1761, taking the title of Carl von Linné in 1762.

Forced to retire from teaching in 1774 by a stroke, he suffered a further stroke and eventually died in 1778.

Linnaeus' legacy

Linnaeus’ influence has been huge. His systems of classification allowed for clear and easy descriptions of plants, animals and minerals and forms the basis for modern classification. His Species Plantarum (1753) and Systema Naturae (1758) provide the starting point for the nomenclature of plants and animals respectively.

Linnaeus identified ecology as a distinct area of investigation, emphasising the interrelationships in nature as ‘the economy of nature’. He was also one of the first naturalists to describe food chains.

Throughout his life, Linnaeus was driven by a lust for nature and a desire to understand how it worked. His legacy remains and is used by many dedicated scientists today, driven by that same desire.

Timeline

1707 Born 23 May in Råshult, southern Sweden, the eldest of five children.

1716 Attends Latin school in nearby cathedral city of Växjö. He studies Latin, religion, mathematics and science but his interest is in plants.

1727 George II ascends to the throne.

1727 Begins medical studies at the University of Lund.

1728 Transfers to University of Uppsala, where he attracts the interest of Olof Celsius, a theology professor who was interested in the plants of Sweden.

1730 Appointed Lecturer in Botany at the University of Uppsala.

1732 Travels to Lapland on a grant from the university.

1735 Becomes engaged to Sara Moraea.

1735 Publishes first edition of Systema naturae which suggests a new system of classifying living organisms and outlines the sexual system for the classification of plants. Awarded his medical doctorate from Harderwijk in the Netherlands.

1736 Travels from the Netherlands to England where he meets Sir Hans Sloane, President of the Royal Society and Philip Miller, Superintendent of the Society of Apothecaries’ garden. Publishes Fundamenta botanica explaining the rules for classification.

1738 Publishes Genera plantarum, Flora Lapponica, Critica botanica, and Hortus Cliffortianus.

1738 Linnaeus establishes a medical practice in Stockholm. Publishes Classes plantarum.

1739 Marries Sara Moraea. Appointed physician to the Admiralty and also first President of the newly-established Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences.

1741 Linnaeus becomes Professor of Practical Medicine at Uppsala University. First son, Carl, born in January.

1742 Linnaeus exchanges role for Chair of botany, dietetics and materia medica, at University of Uppsala.

1745 Publishes Flora Suecica.

1746 Publishes Fauna Suecica.

1747 Appointed court physician.

1749 Writes the thesis Specimen academicum de oeconomia that identifies ecology as a distinct area of investigation.

1750 Start of the Industrial Revolution

1751 Publishes Philosophia botanica.

1753 Publishes Species planturum,  the starting point of modern botanical nomenclature.

1758 Tenth edition of the Systema naturae is published, the equivalent for zoological nomenclature. Linnaeus buys a country estate at Hammarby and is made a Knight of the Polar Star.

1759 The British Museum opens.

1761 Linnaeus is ennobled.

1762 Linnaeus adopts the title Carl von Linné.

1774 Linnaeus suffers a stroke that forces him to retire from teaching.

1775 Start of the American War of Independence.

1776 Linnaeus suffers a further stroke.