Carl Linnaeus' (1707-1778)1

Carl Linnaeus was the son of a clergyman and grew up in rural Sweden at about the same time as Sweden entered a prolonged period of peace known as the "Era of Liberty" during which imperial ambitions waned and national development became the paramount concern. His early education led him toward medicine rather than the church, and brought him into contact with the works of Tournefort and Vaillant on floral morphology, and with the recently discovered evidence of the sexuality of plants.

As a university student at Uppsala he prepared a manuscript on the sexuality of plants that was later published as Praeludia Sponsalia Plantarum (1746). Even as an unpublished manuscript, this work helped to make a name for Linnaeus as a botanist, and together with other evidence of his ability and enthusiasm led to his appointment as demonstrator in botany at the University of Uppsala.

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Illustration to Sponsalia Plantarum based on a 1729 drawing by Linnaeus of wind pollination in Mercurialis (Stearn 1957).


Linnaea borealis


In 1732 he made an expedition to Lappland using a grant he obtained from the Swedish Royal Society of Science. Among his many discoveries and botanical and ethnobotanical collections was the small, creeping twinflower that he named after himself, Linnaea borealis.

Left: Ontario specimen of Linnaea borealis. Right: Linnaeus in his Lapp costume, with Lapp drum, and holding a sprig of Linnaea in his right hand.



Linnaeus spent the years 1735-1738 in Holland getting a medical degree there, publishing the botanical manuscripts he had prepared in Sweden, meeting other European botanists, and generally establishing himself as a botanist of great promise. In addition to the swedish manuscripts, Linnaeus also described the plants growing in the gardens of his patron, the banker George Clifford, in his Hortus Cliffortianus (1738).

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Linnaeus in his Lapp costume

Other publications during this time included

  • Systema Naturae (1735) - By means of this system virtually any plant can be assigned to one of 24 classes based on the number and arrangement of stamens in each flower. Within each class the plant is then assigned to an order based on the number of pistils in each flower. Pigeon-holed in this way, there are many fewer possibilities to be considered in identifying a plant. Click here to see an example of how this system could be used to classify a small, attractive North American genus named after the twelve Olympian gods.

  • Bibliotheca botanica (1736) - Linnaeus described the history of botany by classifying earlier authors of botanical works into 16 classes.

  • Fundamenta botanica (1736) - In 365 aphorisms, arranged in 12 chapters, Linnaeus laid out what he considered to be the theoretical basis of botanical science. It closes, as does the later Philosophia botanica, with the words, "In natural science the principles of truth ought to be confirmed by observation" (Stafleu 1971).

  • Critica botanica (1737) - Here Linnaeus set out his ideas about nomenclature.

  • Genera Plantarum (1737) - This was Linnaeus' re-working of Tournefort's ideas on genera according to the principles laid out in the Critica botanica. Tournefort had recognized primary genera on the basis of their fruiting structures, and secondary genera on the basis of further differences in vegetative morphology (e.g. Pinus, Abies, and Larix). Linnaeus, however, recognized only primary genera as natural (so that his Pinus included firs and larches as well as pines). More importantly, he characterized the flowers and fruits of each genus completely, as phrases under a series of headings (calyx, corolla, stamens, pistils, fruit, seeds, and additional observations). In contrast to the paragraphs of text used by Tournefort, the effect was to make comparison of genera much easier.

  • Flora Lapponica (1737) - Linnaeus' account of the Lapland flora.

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Following his return to Sweden in 1738, Linnaeus established himself first as a physician, and then as a botanist. In 1741 he was appointed professor of medicine and botany at the University of Uppsala. His Philosophia botanica appeared in 1751, and represents a comprehensive theory of botany in which ideas presented in his earlier works are reassembled, clarified, and expanded. He suggested that the goal of botany was to achieve a system of natural families, as opposed to the artificial sexual system that he had suggested earlier (Judd et al. 2002, pp. 47-48). Such families would comprise genera all of which shared certain unique diagnostic features. In this way he was able to recognize 67 such families, but was unable to accomodate all genera known to him. Although Linnaeus emphasized flower and fruit features both in the artificial sexual system and in defining natural genera, he admitted that to define natural families it was necessary to resort to vegetative features (Judd et al. 2002, p. 48).

Linnaeus revolutionized the way in which scientific names are applied to plants, fungi, and animals in his 1753 publication, Species plantarum. Click here for an essay on Linnaeus' classification of the whole of nature.

  • Without having intended to do so at the time, Linnaeus introduced the system of two-part names ("binomials," consisting of a generic name and a specific epithet) for particular kinds of plants, or species, that remains in use today. Note that the genus + species binomial corresponds to the noun + adjective format encountered earlier in our discussion of folk taxonomies.
  • Prior to Linnaeus, the names used by scientists to designate particular kinds of plants were whole phrases, such as "annual, much-branched Physalis, with strongly-angled, glabrous branches and leaves with sawtoothed edges." The Linnaean binomial for the same plant is simply Physalis angulata.

Although binomials are a valuable shorthand, what probably contributed even more to the success of the Species plantarum was the ease with which it could be used to identify plants. This was because of the 'Sexual System' that Linnaeus had devised earlier, and published in his Systema Naturae (1735).

After Linnaeus' death in 1778 his herbarium was acquired from his family by English admirers, much to the chagrin of his countrymen in Sweden. It is housed today in the headquarters of the Linnaean Society in London.

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Blunt, W. (2001). Linnaeus - The compleat naturalist. Princeton, Princeton University Press.

Stafleu, F. (1971). Linnaeus and the Linnaeans. Utrecht, International Association for Plant Taxonomy.

Stearn, W. T. (1957). "An Introduction to the Species Plantarum and cognate botanical works of Carl Linnaeus" in Carl Linnaeus, Species Plantarum - a facsimile of the first edition 1753, Vol. I. London, The Ray Society.

Stearn, W. T. (1960). "Notes on Linnaeus's 'Genera Plantarum'" in Carl Linnaeus - Genera Plantarum, fifth edition 1754, 1960 facsimile. Weinheim, J. Cramer.

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