Order from Chaos: Linnaeus Disposes

Linnaeus' scientific accomplishments

Linnaeus’ scientific accomplishments must, in fairness, be viewed in the context of his time. His science was based on extensive observation, a broad familiarity with the known natural world of his day, an inherent ability to organize and synthesize large quantities of data, the establishment of new methods and standards for the study and differentiation of species, the ability to teach his ideas and methods to a generation of students, an ambitious plan to classify and describe the three kingdoms of nature, the endless capacity for work required to complete his encyclopaedic publications, and the ability to get naturalists around the world to feed him with specimens and data for incorporation into his grand compilations. Highly opinionated by nature, Linnaeus saw the world of nature as God’s collection and he as the person created to classify and list it all — his motto was "God creates, Linnaeus disposes (or arranges)." However, despite this distasteful arrogance Linnaeus was a brilliant and popular teacher who attracted exceptional students, his "apostles," whom he dispatched to all parts of the world — some of whom died in the field in pursuit of his cause.

The son of a nature-loving father, Linnaeus developed a special devotion to botany from the age of about eleven. While at the University of Uppsala, several faculty saw his potential and gave him bed and board at their homes, providing him with reading material and other resources. Even as a student, he was asked to give lectures and botanical demonstrations.

At age 25 he took a break from his studies for his first scientific expedition. After arguing that the knowledge gained from a trip to Lapland could benefit Sweden’s economic and security interests, he received a grant from the Royal Society of Science. Thus he journeyed to Lapland (1732), with the goal of studying the area’s natural history, its mineral resources, and its people.

Linnaeus in His Lapland Dress, mezzotint engraved by R. Dunkarton (1805) after Martin Hoffman from Robert Thornton’s New Illustration of the Sexual System of Carolus von Linnaeus ... (London, 1807). HI Archives portrait no. 7.

Two similar plates of this subject can be found in Thornton’s sumptuous volume. Linnaeus sometimes wore his suit of Lapland clothing, doubtless gifts from his various hosts, around Uppsala. The Lapps believed the images on the drum to be magical.
The success of his Lapland expedition led to further scientific travels: Dalarna and the ore mines at Falun (1734), Öland and Gotland (1741), Västergötland (1746) and Skåne (1749). For these journeys he kept travelogues, packed with details of natural history and any remarkable object or event he encountered. His travelogues are now classics of Swedish literature.

Upon returning to Uppsala, Linnaeus decided to obtain a medical degree, which he did in 1735 in Holland. He practised as a physician in Uppsala from 1738 until 1741 when he became professor of medicine and botany at the University of Uppsala. He gave up medical practice but retained a lifelong academic interest in medicine, conducting studies on the classification of diseases according to symptoms. Eighty-five (out of 186) of the dissertations he wrote for his students dealt with medical subjects.

But it was Linnaeus’ youthful visit to Holland in 1735, nominally in pursuit of his degree in medicine, that cultivated his principal love, botany, and led to the first salvo of his greatest scientific publications, establishing his reputation throughout the contemporary scientific world. Quickly winning the respect and patronage of influential and wealthy sponsors, he published in an astonishingly short period his Systema Naturae (Leyden, 1735), Fundamenta Botanica (Amsterdam, 1736), Hortus Cliffortianus (Amsterdam, 1737), Flora Lapponica (Amsterdam, 1737), Genera Plantarum (Leyden, 1737) and Classes Plantarum (Leyden, 1738). These were not works of great scientific originality or the result of first-hand research. They were the results of what Stearn describes as "constructive organization and synthesis, … necessarily preceded by critical analysis of so much dispersed information and supplemented by his own extensive observations. … He was a born encyclopaedist in an age when the encyclopaedia was the most influential and esteemed vehicle of learning" (Species Plantarum, 1957, vol. 1, p. 11). In the early 1730s Linnaeus had developed the idea of using the reproductive structures of flowering plants as the basis for his artificial sexual system. Armed with this system and an ambition to classify and list the whole world of nature, Linnaeus developed a logical methodology, a consistent terminology, the acute appreciation of clear and precise differentiation, the ability to construct uniquely concise diagnoses of species, and his famous economical and universally accepted binomial nomenclature.

His encyclopaedic ambition and its practical manifestation led to his Species Plantarum (1753), which listed about 8,000 plant species from around the world, and his Systema Naturae (12th ed., 1758), which listed 4,378 animal species. That was the extent of the known world of his day. With the passage of ensuing years the sheer growth in the knowledge of world flora and fauna would far outgrow the ability of any one individual ever again to attempt a comprehensive listing.

The visits to the Falun mines in 1734 developed Linnaeus’ interests in mineralogy, and inevitably he formed a collection of specimens and created a classification of minerals based on crystalline structure rather than on chemical composition, a system that actually had no lasting influence. He also taught mineralogy and assaying at the University of Uppsala.

Linnaeus’ studies also encompassed the animal world. His Systema Naturae embodied his classification and enumeration of the animal kingdom, a six-class system partly based on single-organ characters, such as mammalian teeth, avian bills, piscine fins, but one of much less logic and value than his system for classification of plants—except for his treatment of insecta, which he based on wing types, still essentially valid today.

Not surprisingly, Linnaeus also took on the task of bibliographer. His encyclopaedic texts were peppered with literature references, but he also compiled a significant Bibliotheca Botanica in 1736. Uncharacteristically, he avoided attempting an enumeration of all known botanical literature, choosing rather to use bibliography as a didactic tool. He produced a list according to a “natural system of authors” classified according to their rôles and their merits as “Patres,” “Commentatores,” “Ichniographi,” “Descriptores,” etc., and provided a critical selection of approved works, an approach more akin to the “recommendatory bibliography,” so much favoured in Soviet culture.

Not least of Linnaeus’ contributions was that of collector. His collections of plant and animal specimens are preserved to this day, mostly in London but with some also in Uppsala. They remain vital reference points for taxonomists around the world. His scientific library, now in London (the non-scientific portion now in Uppsala), remains a valuable complement to his specimens. Linnaeus habitually annotated the books he owned, including adding his species determinations to illustrations. These notes often provide invaluable help in clarifying the sources for his species, his “typotypes,” and his interpretation of the determinations and descriptions of his respected scientific forbears. His surviving manuscripts, chiefly in London, include voluminous correspondence with over 70 overseas naturalists, specimen lists and various notes sent by correspondents, drafts for many of his publications and some unpublished works.

In today’s parlance Linnaeus would undoubtedly be described as a "workaholic." His output was prodigious as he constantly updated the ever growing Systema Naturae and Species Plantarum and wrote books and dissertations on methodology, terminology, flora, fauna, materia medica, and bibliography. As a scientist Linnaeus attained unique fame and influence throughout the world, his ideas and influence being perpetuated by his famous students and by innumerable learned societies created in his honour. Foremost of the latter is the Linnean Society of London, founded in 1788 and now the oldest extant biological society in the world, which preserved his collections, manuscripts, and library for the world of science.

Carolus Linnaeus in his Lapland dress, oil on canvas by Eleonora Lindstrom Hennig (1907) after Hollander’s adaptation of Martin Hoffman’s original (1737). HI Archives portrait no. 27.
Linnaeus, while in his mid 20s, was awarded a small grant from the Royal Society of Science to explore the little-known area of Lapland, a region mostly in northern Sweden, but also in northern Finland and Russia. The arduous journey resulted in Flora Lapponica (Amsterdam, 1737) and his travel diary, Iter Lapponicum, published posthumously, first in English translation under the title Lachesis Lapponica (London, 1811). The facts of the diary, however, do not quite match the exaggerated report provided the society at the conclusion of the trip. During this journey Linnaeus began to formulate ideas for organization of the natural world.