The Linnaean collection

Watercolour illustration of Carl Linnaeus's classification system for plants

Watercolour illustration by Georg Ehret, of Carl Linnaeus's classification system for plants, from Systema Naturae (1736)

The Library's Linnaean collection is due chiefly to the efforts of Basil H Soulsby (1864-1933) who took charge of the Museum's General Library in 1920. By the time he retired 10 years later, Soulsby had shaped what has been described as one of the finest collections of Linnaean materials in the world, both in terms of size and rarities.

The Museum's Linnaean collection comprises approximately 12,000 items, with publication dates spanning over 300 years.

Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) was a Swedish naturalist who became known as the father of taxonomy. Taxonomy, the practice of classification, creates order from the chaos of nature by allowing us to group all plants and animals into a genus and a species, e.g. Homo sapiens. This system, known as binomial nomenclature, completely revolutionised the scientific process and is still in use today.

Linnaeus was born in 1707 in Småland, a province of Sweden. He studied medicine first at Lund University, and later at Uppsala University. At the time, medicine was based on herbalism. As a keen amateur botanist, Linnaeus was well suited to his studies. He became a demonstrator in botany at Uppsala University in 1730. In 1732, he gained funding to travel to Lapland, Finland, to report on the area's natural history and economy for the Swedish Royal Society of Sciences. Linnaeus relocated to Harderwijk in the Netherlands in 1735 to earn his medical doctorate, before moving on to Leiden.    

During his time in Leiden, Linnaeus acquired a number of wealthy patrons including George Clifford. Clifford had a widely esteemed botanical garden, which he made Linnaeus the superintendent of. Linnaeus would later write Hortus Cliffortianus (1737) based on the plants in Clifford's garden. One of the Library's copies of Hortus Cliffortianus includes a pressed specimen of Linnaea borealis, one of the hundred new plant species Linnaeus discovered on his expedition to Lapland.  

With the publication of Systema Naturae (1735), Linnaeus introduced a new system for classifying the natural world. Initially an 11-page pamphlet, the work was expanded by Linnaeus over many years. By the time the 10th edition was published in 1758, it had become a substantial two-volume set.   

Linnaeus didn't write solely on the topic of classification. Material in the Library's collection covers a wide range of topics, including botany, travel, medicine, mineralogy, geology and zoology. The Library holds almost all of his publications, in virtually every edition. Over 9,000 publications related to Linnaeus are also held, as well as various editions of all 186 dissertations that he supervised. His correspondence with important scientific figures of the time, such as the distinguished entomologist Dru Drury, is unique to the Museum Library. Additional material includes handwritten lecture notes taken by one of his students (Lars Johan Martin, 1722-1785), autographs, an oil painting, five medallions and a plaster bust.

Further information on the works of Linnaeus, including items held by the Library, can be found through the Linnaeus Link project. This project, in which the Museum is a partner, seeks to list online all Linnaean material held in libraries throughout the world. Many of the works can be read online at the Biodiversity Heritage Library, which the Library regularly contributes to.