Scientist Profile #1: Carolus Linnaeus the Father of Taxonomy

Two weeks ago I presented a talk on Carolus Linnaeus- The Father of Taxonomy for The Laborastory at the Spotted Mallard. This is a short excerpt from the talk.

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Carl Linnaeus was born in 1707, at Stenbrohult in southern Sweden. When his father Nils attended university, he chose the name Linnaeus, based from the Linden tree which grows throughout Europe. As a child Carl had a strong interest in names. His “exasperated father [a lutheran pastor who would work in the garden with young Carl] told him that he would never be given [told] any more names [of plants] unless he remembered them”. After completing secondary school, his teachers believed that Linnaeus was not intelligent enough to attend university as Botany was not a ‘proper subject’ like Greek, mathematics and theology which he did not excel in. After several extra years of tutoring in anatomy and physiology, Linnaeus was finally considered ready for university.

Råshult, Stenbrohult. Carl Linneus birthplace. Kronoberg County (Småland), Sweden. August 2012. Christer Granquist
Råshult, Stenbrohult. Carl Linneus birthplace. Kronoberg County (Småland), Sweden. August 2012. Christer Granquist

In 1727 Linnaeus Started at University of Lund to study medicine, later transferring to the University of Uppsala. Learning about plants was a key part of medicine course, as doctors were required to create their own medicines. After only two years at university, Linnaeus was given the role of Lecturer in Botany as he knew more about plants than the professors. During his studies, and as a Lecturer in Botany, Carl travelled to Lapland and Central Sweden on collecting trips to observe and catalogue new plants. He was described as a man who ‘needed to see things for himself and couldn’t rely on the opinions of others.” He was sent plants from all over the world, but refused to travel himself as he thought that ‘he wouldn’t like the tropics’. Nineteen of his students including Daniel Solander who travelled with Captain Cook made voyages of exploration, many dying during the journey. As a Lecturer, Carl organised field excursions around Uppsala for up to 100’s of his students at a time. They would go out into the countryside collecting plants, animals and minerals, returning home in a parade, with some playing trumpets and drums, the procession being described as “Flora’s army.” In order to complete his medical degree, Linnaeus was required to finish the course outside of Sweden.

In 1735 Carl Linnaeus moved to the Netherlands, where he published the system for ranking and classifying organisms that we use today i.e ordered ranks of taxa into Class, Order, Family, Genus and Species. Furthermore the system of Binomial nomenclature e.g Homo sapiens is probably Linnaeus’s best known contribution to science. The idea of Binomial nomenclature had arisen from shortland while describing plant species consumed by cattle during fieldwork. It was one of the simplest systems that had been suggested.The system was not immediately successful with all of his colleges, he received a letter from a Peter Collison which said “My dear friend, we that admire you are much concerned that you should perplex the delightful science of Botany with changing names that have been well received, and adding new names quite unknown to us. Thus, Botany, which was a pleasant study and attainable by most men, is now become, by alterations and new names, the study of a man’s life, and none now but real professors can pretend to attain it.’

The class Mammalia, to which Homo sapiens belongs was named after the mammary glands which express milk to nursing young, in order to encourage women to nurse their own babies like animals did. At the time it was common among the upper classes for babies to be fed by wet nurses, but Linnaeus and others agrued that this was bad for the children, and was contributing to the high child mortality rate of the period.

Arbutus unedo ‘Watson, L., and Dallwitz, M.J. 1992 onwards. The families of flowering plants: descriptions, illustrations, identification, and information retrieval. Version: 11th May 2015. delta-intkey.com’
Arbutus unedo ‘Watson, L., and Dallwitz, M.J. 1992 onwards. The families of flowering plants: descriptions, illustrations, identification, and information retrieval. Version: 11th May 2015. delta-intkey.com’

Linnaeus’ taxonomic system was published in his best known work Systema naturae or the System of Nature. Before the Bionomial Taxonomic system was proposed the species Arbutus unedo the Strawberry Tree was known officially as ‘Arbutus with upright stems, hairless, saw-toothed leaves and many-seeded berries’. In his study of plants, Linnaeus looked at the number and arrangement of reproductive parts of plants to determine where to classify them. In his descriptions, he drew some interesting parallels between the plants and human relationships: “The flowers’ leaves. . . serve as bridal beds which the Creator has so gloriously arranged, adorned with such noble bed curtains, and perfumed with so many soft scents that the bridegroom with his bride might there celebrate their nuptials with so much the greater solemnity”

In 1739 Linnaeus married Sara Elizabeth, a doctors daughter. The couple had 5 children reach adulthood, including 4 daughters. Linnaeus encouraged his family to take up botany, and translated work from Latin into Swedish, so that the women who were not allowed to study at university, could read it. He even helped his eldest daughter to publish a paper of her own.

By 1742 Linnaeus had become a professor in Botany at Uppsala University. In Philosophia Botanica from 1751, Linnaeus writes “If you do not know the names of things, the knowledge of them is lost too” this quote is not too dissimilar to one from Professor Dumbledore who says “Always use the proper name for things. Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself”. The use of a correct name may have many implications, one modern example of this in conservation science is the recognition of two, rather than nine subspecies of tigers that creates a larger genetic pool for breeding the endangered animal. It is a sad thing that today, an undescribed species without a binomial name, is more likely to become extinct than be described scientifically.

Linnaeus built up an impressive herbarium over the years, and purpose built a museum at his home in Hammarby to store it all. He was paranoid about wildfires destroying the material and built the museum that did not contain a fireplace. This must have been impossobly cold to work in during winter where the average minimum temperature fell below the freezing point. Still an enthusiastic teacher, In his later years, Linnaeus often received his students at home while wearing only a nightgown and nightcap because “Nature does not wait for powder and wigs.”

Carl von Linné, Alexander Roslin, 1775. Oil painting in the portrait collection at Gripsholm Castle
Carl von Linné, Alexander Roslin, 1775.
Oil painting in the portrait collection at Gripsholm Castle

For his contributions to Botany and Sweden, Linnaeus was enobled by the King in 1761. Being very proud of his work, Linnaeus could have given Muhammed Ali, Kanye West or Donald Trump a run for their money illustrated here when he writes that in 3 years he has “written more, discovered more, and made a greater reform in botany than anybody before had done in an entire lifetime”. It is then fitting that in 1959 Linnaeus was designated as the type specimen for Homo sapiens when he was formally described by Professor William Stearn. Linnaeus described 1000’s of plants in his career, and has been called the ‘Father or taxonomy’, and today is one of the few people outside of mathematics who can be instantly recognised by a single letter. L.

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The Laborastory is a science storytelling event in Melbourne that comes to tell the stories of science – the heroes, the egos, the breakthroughs and the mistakes of genius. From forgotten history and lonely laboratories, science and scientists quite literally take centre stage.

On the first Wednesday of each month, The Laborastory brings together five scientists from different fields to tell the remarkable stories of the heroes of their field. Each story is just ten short minutes. They tell the tales of the tragedies and triumphs of the men and women who made science their passion, and left legacies of groundbreaking discoveries that inspire the scientists of today. For more information, and to buy tickets to upcoming shows, check out The Laborastory website. http://thelaborastory.com/

You can watch me present the talk here

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