Order from Chaos: Linnaeus Disposes

Synthesizing the work of predecessors and contemporaries

An important feature of Linnaeus’ Species Plantarum (Stockholm, 1753) was his synthesis of the work of selected predecessors and contemporaries. Linnaeus combed through the botanical literature and worked to correlate the observations and descriptions of numerous other naturalists. This was no small feat, as a stable and widely-accepted system of binomial nomenclature would only come into being with the publication of Species Plantarum. Prior to this, plants (and animals) were designated by long, descriptive names (polynomials) that varied from author to author; there was little agreement on how to group and organize knowledge about plants and animals. Thus determining which organism was being described in one work and matching it to a similar description in another was not a simple task. It is a tribute to Linnaeus’ natural gifts and to his sheer determination that a large-scale work such as Species Plantarum could be accomplished.

(see this image enlarged)

(see this image enlarged)
As Linnaeus worked through the literature written by himself and others, he cited his sources. Shown here are two pages from Species Plantarum with the abbreviations that Linnaeus used for the authors’ names highlighted. Links to portraits, biographical information and texts of these naturalists upon whose work Linnaeus’ efforts were built are listed below. For the original exhibition, we were unable to show some of the actual texts cited by Linnaeus on pages 356–357 of his Species Plantarum (1753) due to space constraints.

For more information on Linnaeus' system of references to earlier literature, we refer the reader to pages 3–9 of "An Appendix to the Species Plantarum of Carl Linnaeus," by John Lewis Heller and William Thomas Stearn, in Species Plantarum: A Facsimile of the First Edition 1753 (London, 1957–1959).

Albert Seba (1665–1736) [Seb.]

Leonard Plukenet (1641–1706) [Pluk.]

Joachim Camerer the Younger (1534–1598) [Cam.]

Gaspard Bauhin (1560–1624) [Bauh.]

Johann Bauhin (1541–1612) [Bauh.]

Matthias de L’Obel (1538–1616) [Lob.]

Albrecht von Haller (1708–1777) [Hall.]

John Ray (1628–1705) [Ray.]

Rembert Dodoens (1516–1585) [Dod.]

Joseph Pitton de Tournefort (1656–1708) [Tournef.]

Pietro Andrea Mattioli (1501–1577) [Matth.]

Charles de L’Ecluse (also Clusius, 1525–1609) [Clus.]

François Boissier de la Croix de Sauvages (1706–1767) [Sauv.]

A few more contemporaries who were featured in the exhibit but who are not cited in the two pages shown above:

Michel Adanson (1727–1806)

Antoine Laurent de Jussieu (1748–1836)

Georg Dionysius Ehret (1708–1770) met Linnaeus at the estate in Holland of their patron, the wealthy George Clifford (1685–1760). In an excerpt of his autobiography from Wilfrid Blunt’s The Compleat Naturalist: A Life of Linnaeus (New York, 1971, p. 107), Ehret recounts the meeting:

I showed him my work in the presence of Mr Linnaeus, than whom no one was more eager in the characters of plants. There were some quite new plans among them. Mr Clifford then asked me if I wished to sell them, and what my price was, took almost everything that I had with me, and paid me what I asked, namely 3 Dutch gulden a piece. He kept me more than a month at Haarlem; and in that time I completed all the figures which came out in the Hortus Cliffortianus — Collinsonia, Turnera, etc., which I had brought from England. I profited nothing from [Linnaeus] in the dissection of the plants; for all the plants in the Hortus Cliffortianus are of my own undertaking, and nothing was done by him in the way of placing all the parts before me as they are figured: for I had done all this, as the noble Dr. Trew knew, many years before I had ever heard of Mr Linnaeus ?

During the time I was with Mr Clifford I was treated courteously. I did not then know that Linnaeus intended to publish a Hortus Cliffortianus. Linnaeus and I were the best of friends: he showed me his new method of examining the stamens, which I easily understood, and privately resolved to bring out a Tabella of it. As my work with Mr Clifford was now coming to an end I returned to Leyden and published the plate ? With this Tabella I once more earned some money; for I sold it at 2 Dutch gulden a piece and almost all the botanists in Holland bought it of me.

Salix; vulgaris, alba … [Salix], watercolor by Georg D. Ehret (German, 1708–1770).

Populus alba majoribus … [Populus], watercolor by Georg D. Ehret (German, 1708–1770).