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Carl Linnaeus

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Last updated by Meril Jeffery John.J

imageCarl Linnaeus (/lɪˈniːəs/; 23 May 1707 – 10 January 1778), also known after his ennoblement as Carl von Linné was a Swedish botanist, physician, and zoologist, who laid the foundations for the modern biological naming scheme of binomial nomenclature. He is known as the father of modern taxonomy, and is also considered one of the fathers of modern ecology. Many of his writings were in Latin, and his name is rendered in Latin as Carolus Linnæus (after 1761 Carolus a Linné).

Linnaeus was born in the countryside of Småland, in southern Sweden. He received most of his higher education at Uppsala University, and began giving lectures in botany there in 1730. He lived abroad between 1735 and 1738, where he studied and also published a first edition of his Systema Naturae in the Netherlands. He then returned to Sweden, where he became professor of medicine and botany at Uppsala. In the 1740s, he was sent on several journeys through Sweden to find and classify plants and animals. In the 1750s and '60s, he continued to collect and classify animals, plants, and minerals, and published several volumes. At the time of his death, he was one of the most acclaimed scientists in Europe.

The Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau sent him the message: "Tell him I know no greater man on earth." The German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote: "With the exception of Shakespeare and Spinoza, I know no one among the no longer living who has influenced me more strongly." Swedish author August Strindberg wrote: "Linnaeus was in reality a poet who happened to become a naturalist". Among other compliments, Linnaeus has been called Princeps botanicorum (Prince of Botanists), "The Pliny of the North," and "The Second Adam".

In botany, the author abbreviation used to indicate Linnaeus as the authority for species' names is L. In older publications, sometimes the abbreviation "Linn." is found (for instance in: Cheeseman, T.F. (1906) - Manual of the New Zealand Flora). Linnaeus' remains comprise the type specimen for the species Homo sapiens, following the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, since the sole specimen he is known to have examined when writing the species description was himself.


Carl Linnaeus was born in the village of Råshult in Småland, Sweden, on 23 May 1707. He was the first child of Nils Ingemarsson Linnaeus and Christina Brodersonia. His father was the first in his ancestry to adopt a permanent surname. Before that, ancestors had used the patronymic naming system of Scandinavian countries: his father was named Ingemarsson after his father Ingemar Bengtsson. When Nils was admitted to the University of Lund, he had to take on a family name. He adopted the Latinate name Linnæus after a giant linden tree (or lime tree), lind in Swedish, that grew on the family homestead. This name was spelled with the æ ligature. When Carl was born, he was named Carl Linnæus, with his father's family name. The son also always spelled it with the æ ligature, both in handwritten documents and in publications. Carl's patronymic would have been Nilsson, as in Carl Nilsson Linnæus.

One of a long line of peasants and priests, Nils was an amateur botanist, a Lutheran minister, and the curate of the small village of Stenbrohult in Småland. Christina was the daughter of the rector of Stenbrohult, Samuel Brodersonius. She subsequently gave birth to three daughters and another son, Samuel (who would eventually succeed their father as rector of Stenbrohult and write a manual on beekeeping). A year after Linnaeus' birth, his grandfather Samuel Brodersonius died, and his father Nils became the rector of Stenbrohult. The family moved into the rectory from the curate's house.

Even in his early years, Linnaeus seemed to have a liking for plants, flowers in particular. Whenever he was upset, he was given a flower, which immediately calmed him. Nils spent much time in his garden and often showed flowers to Linnaeus and told him their names. Soon Linnaeus was given his own patch of earth where he could grow plants.

Early years and education:

Carl Linnaeus was born on May 23, 1707, in Råshult, Sweden, the eldest of Nils and Christina Linnaeus's five children. Two years after his birth his father became the minister at Stenbrohult, Sweden. It was there that his father, who was a lover of flowers, introduced botany (the study of plants) to Carl at a young age. And at the age of five Carl had his own garden, which he later said, "inflamed my soul with an unquenchable love of plants." Carl was more interested in plants than in his studies while in grammar school. His mother hoped he would become a minister, but he showed no interest in that career. Johan Rothman, a master at the high school, encouraged Carl's interests in science and suggested that he study medicine. Nils Linnaeus agreed, and Rothman tutored Carl for a year.

In 1727 Linnaeus entered the University of Lund. The science and medical instruction was very weak there, and after a year he transferred to Uppsala University, where things were not much better. Fortunately he attracted the interest of Olof Celsius, a religion professor who was interested in the plants of Sweden. Celsius gave Linnaeus free room and board and encouraged his study. The most important development in botany at the time was the study of the sexuality of plants. Linnaeus wrote an essay on the subject, which Celsius showed to one of the professors of medicine, Olof Rudbeck. Rudbeck was so impressed with Linnaeus that he appointed him lecturer in botany and tutor of his sons.

University studies:


Statue of Linnaeus as a University student in Lund

Rothman showed Linnaeus that botany was a serious subject. He taught Linnaeus to classify plants according to Tournefort's system. Linnaeus was also taught about the sexual reproduction of plants, according to Sébastien Vaillant. In 1727, Linnaeus, age 21, enrolled in Lund University in Skåne.He was registered as Carolus Linnæus, the Latin form of his full name, which he also used later for his Latin publications.

Professor Kilian Stobæus, natural scientist, physician and historian, offered Linnaeus tutoring and lodging, as well as the use of his library, which included many books about botany. He also gave the student free admission to his lectures. In his spare time, Linnaeus explored the flora of Skåne, together with students sharing the same interests.

In August 1728, Linnaeus decided to attend Uppsala University on the advice of Rothman, who believed it would be a better choice if Linnaeus wanted to study both medicine and botany. Rothman based this recommendation on the two professors who taught at the medical faculty at Uppsala: Olof Rudbeck the Younger and Lars Roberg. Although Rudbeck and Roberg had undoubtedly been good professors, by then they were older and not so interested in teaching. Rudbeck no longer gave public lectures, and had others stand in for him. The botany, zoology, pharmacology and anatomy lectures were not in their best state. In Uppsala, Linnaeus met a new benefactor, Olof Celsius, who was a professor of theology and an amateur botanist. He received Linnaeus into his home and allowed him use of his library, which was one of the richest botanical libraries in Sweden.

In 1729, Linnaeus wrote a thesis, Praeludia Sponsaliorum Plantarum on plant sexual reproduction. This attracted the attention of Rudbeck; in May 1730, he selected Linnaeus to give lectures at the University although the young man was only a second-year student. His lectures were popular, and Linnaeus often addressed an audience of 300 people. In June, Linnaeus moved from Celsius' house to Rudbeck's to become the tutor of the three youngest of his 24 children. His friendship with Celsius did not wane and they continued their botanical expeditions. Over that winter, Linnaeus began to doubt Tournefort's system of classification and decided to create one of his own. His plan was to divide the plants by the number of stamens and pistils. He began writing several books, which would later result in, for example,Genera Plantarum and Critica Botanica. He also produced a book on the plants grown in the Uppsala Botanical Garden, Adonis Uplandicus.

Rudbeck's former assistant, Nils Rosén, returned to the University in March 1731 with a degree in medicine. Rosén started giving anatomy lectures and tried to take over Linnaeus' botany lectures, but Rudbeck prevented that. Until December, Rosén gave Linnaeus private tutoring in medicine. In December, Linnaeus had a "disagreement" with Rudbeck's wife and had to move out of his mentor's house; his relationship with Rudbeck did not appear to suffer. That Christmas, Linnaeus returned home to Stenbrohult to visit his parents for the first time in about three years. His mother had disapproved of his failing to become a priest, but she was pleased to learn he was teaching at the University.

Linnaeus's travels:

From 1732 to 1735 Linnaeus traveled throughout Sweden on behalf of the government to study the country's natural resources. Linnaeus then went to Holland to obtain a medical degree. In 1735, after a week at the University of Harderwijk, Linnaeus took the examinations, defended his thesis (a written statement containing original research and supporting a specific idea) on the cause of intermittent (not continuous) fever, and received his degree. He spent most of the next three years in Holland but also traveled in Germany, France, and England. He had many of his scientific papers published with the support of other naturalists and the wealthy banker George Clifford. Linnaeus concluded that in three years he had "written more, discovered more, and made a greater reform in botany than anybody before had done in an entire lifetime."

Linnaeus returned to practice medicine in Stockholm, Sweden, and he was very successful. In 1739 he married Sara Lisa Moraea, with whom he would have six children. Linnaeus became professor of botany at Uppsala University in 1741. He taught botany, zoology (the study of animals), natural history, and other subjects, and he was very popular with his students. The love of his students and the value of his work ensured his widespread influence and brought him many honors. He was appointed chief royal physician in 1747 and was knighted in 1758; he then took the name Carl von Linné. He retired in 1776 and died in Uppsala, Sweden, on January 10, 1778.

Binomial system and classification:

Linnaeus is most widely known for creating systems for naming and classifying plants and animals. Realizing that new plants were being discovered faster than their relationships could be established, he first came up with a simple classification based upon the number of floral parts of each plant. This system remained popular into the nineteenth century. Gradually Linnaeus also developed a system of names in which each species of plant and animal had a genus (class or group) name followed by a specific name. For example, Plantago virginica and Plantago lanceolata were the names of two species of plantain (an herb). Botanists agreed in 1905 to accept his Species plantarum (1753) and zoologists (scientists who study animals) agreed to accept his Systema naturae (1758) as the official starting points for scientific names of plants and animals.

Pioneer in ecology:

Linnaeus first discussed the subject of ecology as an area of investigation in a thesis in 1749. He discussed the importance of relationships among beings in nature, and he was one of the first naturalists to describe food chains. He also studied the different habitat (living space) requirements among species and the feeding habits of insects and animals with hoofs. He urged the use of biological knowledge not only in medicine but also in agriculture, believing that the effective control of agricultural pests must be based on a thorough knowledge of their life histories.

Major publications:

Systema Naturae:

The first edition of Systema Naturae was printed in the Netherlands in 1735. It was a twelve-page work. By the time it reached its 10th edition in 1758, it classified 4,400 species of animals and 7,700 species of plants. In it, the unwieldy names mostly used at the time, such as "Physalis annua ramosissima, ramis angulosis glabris, foliis dentato-serratis", were supplemented with concise and now familiar "binomials", composed of the generic name, followed by a specific epithet – in the case given, Physalis angulata. These binomials could serve as a label to refer to the species. Higher taxa were constructed and arranged in a simple and orderly manner. Although the system, now known as binomial nomenclature, was partially developed by the Bauhin brothers (see Gaspard Bauhin and Johann Bauhin) almost 200 years earlier, Linnaeus was the first to use it consistently throughout the work, including in monospecific genera, and may be said to have popularised it within the scientific community.

Species Plantarum:

Species Plantarum (or, more fully, Species Plantarum, exhibentes plantas rite cognitas, ad genera relatas, cum differentiis specificis, nominibus trivialibus, synonymis selectis, locis natalibus, secundum systema sexuale digestas) was first published in 1753, as a two-volume work. Its prime importance is perhaps that it is the primary starting point of plant nomenclature as it exists today.

enera Plantarum:

Genera plantarum: eorumque characteres naturales secundum numerum, figuram, situm, et proportionem omnium fructificationis partium was first published in 1737, delineating plant genera. Around 10 editions were published, not all of them by Linnaeus himself; the most important is the 1754 fifth edition. In it Linnaeus divided the plant Kingdom into 24 classes. One, Cryptogamia, included all the plants with concealed reproductive parts (algae, fungi, mosses and liverworts and ferns)

Philosophia Botanica:

Philosophia Botanica (1751) was a summary of Linnaeus' thinking on plant classification and nomenclature, and an elaboration of the work he had previously published in Fundamenta Botanica (1736) and Critica Botanica (1737). Other publications forming part of his plan to reform the foundations of botany include his Classes Plantarum and Bibliotheca Botanica: all were printed in Holland (as well as Genera Plantarum (1737) and Systema Naturae (1735)), the Philosophia being simultaneously released in Stockholm.

Contributions and Achievements:

Carolus Linnaeus put out his work “Systema Naturae” in 1735, the first edition of his classification of living things. He came back to Sweden in 1738 and practised medicine. In 1740, he took a teaching position at the University of Uppsala.

Linnaeus, primarily known as a naturalist and botanist, was a leading figure in the history of entomology. He laid down the binomial system of nomenclature, which became the basis for the moderm classification of living organisms. Widely known as the “father of biological systematics and nomenclature”, Linnaeus also devised the wing vein-based system for separation of orders, and set up the chronological starting point for the naming of insects.

Later Life and Death:

Carolus Linnaeus used to travel extensively in Europe. He collected and named several specimens from different countries of the world. His 1758 work “Systema Naturae 10th edition” is known to be the starting point for naming of insects. All names prior to it are considered outdated. Linnaeus was ennobled in 1761, and was later known as “Carl von Linne”.

He died of stroke in Uppsala, Sweden, on June 10, 1778.


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