Carolus Linnaeus

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By EUGENE M. MCCARTHY, PHD

linnean medal
young linnaeus
Wedding portrait (1739)
Carolus Linnaeus (23 May 1707 – 10 January 1778), also known as Carl von Linné or Carl Linnaeus. Swedish botanist, zoologist, and taxonomist. Established conventions for naming living organisms still in general scientific use today—in particular, he popularized binomial nomenclature, which had first been developed by the Bauhin brothers (Gaspard and Johann Bauhin) more than a century before. He was the first to use binomial names consistently. As a young man he was a creationist, but he later developed an evolutionary theory of his own.


Carolus Linnaeus was born at Stenbrohult, in the province of Småland in southern Sweden. His father was a gardening enthusiast, and this interest in plants seems to have rubbed off on the son. His family wanted Linnaeus to enter the priesthood, but he instead chose to study medicine and entered the University of Lund in 1727. The next year he transferred to the University of Uppsala, where he focused his attention on collecting and studying plants, which at that time was nothing strange for a medical student since doctors were then expected to be familiar with a wide range of medicinal plants.

Linnaeus in Lapp clothing
Species Plantarum
Title Page
In 1730, he joined the faculty at Uppsala and began lecturing on botany. Two years later he made an expedition to Lapland in northernmost Scandinavia, a region then almost unknown to European science. There he made an inventory of the plant life and investigated the indigenes, the Lapps. He later posed for a famous portrait (left), in which he is dressed in Lapp garb and holds a shaman's drum. In 1734 he mounted another expedition, this time to central Sweden.

The next year, he moved from Sweden to Holland where he made important professional connections that later assisted him in his career. There he supervised the publication of the first edition of the Systema Naturae (the slim beginnings of what would in later editions become his vast catalog of nature), the Genera Plantarum (which describes 935 plant genera), and the Flora Lapponica, where he reported on the plants he had found in Lapland.

systema naturae title page
Woodcut title vignette from the Systema Naturae

It was in the 1735 edition of the Systema Naturae that he made the memorable decision to group apes and human beings in the same category, something no other naturalist had dared to do. This classification was important in prompting later writers to propose that humans had actually evolved from apes.

After his return to Sweden, in 1738, he continued his great inventory of life. With the aid of correspondents who sent him specimens from all corners of the globe, he greatly expanded the number of plants and animals recognized by science. These were all assigned a place in what was to become known as the Linnaean taxonomy, the first version of the system of scientific classification employed by biologists today. For many of these he coined names that are still in general use, including the scientific name for human beings (Homo sapiens).

young linnaeus
Linnaeus as a young man

In the Systema Naturae ("The System of Nature"), he not only classified plants and animals within two kingdoms (Regnum animale and Regnum vegetabile), but also placed minerals in a third kingdom (Regnum lapideum). Within Regnum vegetabile, plants were grouped according the number of their stamens and pistils. The tenth edition of this book (1758), the one in which animals are first assigned binomial names, is considered the starting point of zoological nomenclature.

The first edition of Species Plantarum ("The Species of Plants") was published in 1753. This work is the beginning of all formal botanical taxonomy. No plant names appearing in any earlier literature are now considered to be validly published. In it, a binomial nomenclature for plants is used consistently for the first time. However, the groupings he created for plants have largely been abandoned in modern classification.

Other early naturalists:
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Georges Cuvier >>
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The divisions into which he placed animals have held up rather better, although many changes have since been made. But Linnaeus was far more important as a deviser of means, than as an achiever of ends. His method of classification was widely embraced by all naturalists, and in a somewhat expanded form remains the standard among biologists today.

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Major works: Systema naturae (1st ed., 1735); Genera Plantarum (1737); Flora Lapponica (1737); Flora Svecica (1745); Fauna Svecica (1746); Species plantarum (1st ed. 1753); Systema naturae (10th ed., 1758).


Notes:
  • Carolus Linnaeus is the latinized form of his name that he used in academic publications. He was also known as Carl Linnaeus, as Carl von Linnè (adopted after 1762, the year he was granted nobility in recognition of his scientific work), and as Carl Linné (the way he often signed his name late in life). If his father had not attended college (at the University of Lund), his name would have been Carl Nilsson (Carl, son of Nils) because his father's name was originally Nils Ingemarsson (Nils, son of Ingemar). At the time, this was the accepted naming convention among Swedes. However, when Nils registered at the University he had to register under a family name. so he coined the name Linnaeus, which was later used also by his son Carl. Nils took the name Linnaeus from archaic Swedish linn, meaning linden tree. In Sweden an ancient tree on the family property would be singled out as the "warden tree," which in Norse tradition was a tree that exerted a protective power over the family home. In the case of their family, the warden tree was a linden. The family farm was known as Linnagård.
  • The original Linnaean system of classification did not include two major categories now in common use (phylum and family), but included all of the others (i.e., class, order, genus, and species). It also lacked the subspecies category.
  • Originally Anders Celsius had assigned the value 100 to the melting temperature of ice and 0 to the boiling point of water. Carolus Linnaeus reversed this, assigning 0 to the melting point and 100 to the boiling point. This created the Celsius temperature scale in its modern form.
  • Carolus Linnaeus was one of the founders, and the first President of the Royal Academy of Science in Stockholm.


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