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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 35/October 1889/Sketch of Carolus Linnæus (Carl von Linné)

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 35‎ | October 1889

PSM V35 D746 Carolus Linnaeus.jpg


WHATEVER may be the future progress of the sciences of botany and zoölogy. Prof. Flower has said, in the British Association, "the numerous writings of Linnæus, and especially the publication of the 'Systema Naturæ,' can never cease to be looked upon as marking an era in their development." In the "Systema Naturæ," the speaker added, the accumulated knowledge of all the workers at zoölogy, botany, and mineralogy, since the world began, was collected by patient industry, and welded into a complete and harmonious whole by penetrating genius.

Carolus Linnæus, afterward called Carl von Linné, was born at Råshult, in the parish of Stenbrohult, in the province of Småland, Sweden, May 13, 1707, and died at Upsala, January 10, 1778. He was the eldest child of Nils or Nicolas Linnæus, commissioner and afterward pastor of the parish, and Christina, the daughter of the previous incumbent. The father was versed in natural history; a well-stocked flower-garden was attached to the house; and the child, hearing his father talking about the virtues of certain of the plants, at four years of age became interested in them, and formed the habit of asking about the names and qualities of all that he saw. The father, as a condition of further answering his questions, insisted that he should remember all that he had been told before. The child thus received a valuable mnemonic discipline that served him through life, and was familiar from the start with the Latin and the vernacular names of plants. His mother used to relate that he could always be soothed, when crying, by giving him a flower. When seven years old he was put under the private tuition of Telander, a teacher of only the ordinary stamp, and three years later was sent to Wexiö to school, his father wishing to prepare him for holy orders. The story was the same at both places. He made no progress in the routine studies of the course, except in mathematics and physics, but used every opportunity to look after flowers and turn over books of botany. With Gabriel Hök he did a little better, for that teacher allowed him some liberty to gratify his tastes; but the people at the gymnasium were again troubled by his perversity. Finally, the father and the teachers held a consultation, and it was decided that, although his moral record was unexceptionable, he offered no promise as a scholar, and must learn a trade. So he was, or was about to be, apprenticed to a shoemaker, when the father, having some bodily malady for which he had to visit Dr. Rothman, spoke incidentally of the trouble Carolus was giving him. The doctor thought the boy might succeed in medicine and natural history, and offered to take him to board, and help him in his studies. He gave him private lessons in physiology, and introduced him to Tournefort's botanical system, by the aid of which Linnæus continued to study the local plants. At the end of a year, Linnæus was sent to the University of Lund, recommended as his private pupil by Hök, who, taking great liberties with the facts, substituted his own good opinion for the curious letter with which the principal of the gymnasium had armed the candidate. This letter was to the effect that pupils might be compared to young trees in a nursery: there would sometimes be some that would grow up wild in spite of all the care that might be spent upon them, but which might still do well if transplanted to a different soil. "It is with such a hope that I send this youth to your institution, where, perhaps, another atmosphere may favor his development." At Lund, Linnæus found employment as a copyist with Dr. Kilian Stobæus, Professor of Medicine and physician to the king, who had a museum of minerals, shells, and dried plants. The professor was not at first aware of the kind of treasure which he had in his house; but Linnæus, having formed a friendship with a fellow-student who had access to the doctor's library, borrowed books from it and sat up till late in the night reading them. Mother Stobæus observed the light in his room, and, being worried about danger from fire, warned her son of it. He detected Linnæus at his reading; but the explosion and subsequent explanations resulted in a widening of the young man's opportunities for pursuing his favorite studies. On Rothman's advice, Linnæus determined to go to Upsala, where the advantages seemed to be better than at Lund. The three hundred francs that he was able to take with him were soon exhausted, and he was reduced to poverty, having, it is said, to wear other students' cast-off shoes, or mend his own with paper, when Olaf Celsius, Professor of Theology, observed his attention to botany, looked at his collections, and concluded that he would make a good assistant on the "Hierobotanicon," a treatise on the plants of the Bible, which he was preparing. He took Linnæus to board, gave him the free use of his library, found him some private pupils, and recommended him to Olaf Rudbeck, Professor of Botany. Linnæus had in the mean time had his attention directed to the sexuality of plants, by reading a letter from Burckhart to Leibnitz, a review of an address by Vaillant, and a work by Wallin, all bearing on the subject. He himself wrote a treatise on the sexes of plants, and it was this that Celsius made the occasion for the introduction. Rudbeck's advanced age did not permit him to attend personally to all his lectures, and he made Linnæus his deputy. The hand of the struggling student, who now at last, in his twenty-fourth year, saw his career taking an upward direction, was soon visible also in the remodeling and restocking of the academic gardens—he having become director in a place where his application to be employed as a subordinate had been refused a year before.

His equivocal position at the university having become unpleasant by reason of the jealousy it excited among the professors, Linnæus accepted a proposition from the Academy of Sciences of Upsala to make a scientific exploration of Lapland. He accomplished this task in the summer of 1732, depending mostly on his own resources, and, in the face of great difficulties and with no little danger, accomplishing a journey of forty-six hundred English statute miles, and brought home from it valuable fruit in knowledge and specimens. In 1734, after having been defeated by the hostility of one of the professors in an attempt to resume his lectures at Upsala, he performed, attended by seven pupils, a similar exploration of Dalecarlia. While on this journey, he lectured at Fahlun, to large audiences, and determined, at the suggestion of Chaplain (afterward Bishop) Browalius, to attend a foreign university for the degree of M. D. This would give him a position in society and science.

Arriving at Hamburg, he exposed the spurious character of a seven-headed hydra in a museum there which was composed of weasels' heads artfully sewn together, and so offended the proprietor of the establishment that he was obliged to leave the city at once. At Hardewijck he passed his examination, defended a thesis on the cause of intermittent fevers, and received his degree from the university. At Leyden he called upon Gronovius, who, upon being shown the "Systema Naturæ," was so delighted with it that he undertook to publish it at his own expense. The great physician Boerhaave, after some delay, gave him a cordial reception, and recommended him to Burman, at Amsterdam, with whom he stayed a year. Here he accepted an invitation from the wealthy banker Cliffort, who had a great garden and fine library at Hartekamp, and stayed with him three years, living at ease, working in the library and garden and at his studies and his books, and sparing no pains, through the "Hortus Cliffortianus," and his description of the banana, Musa Cliffortiana, to make the fame of his patron lasting.

In 1736 Linnæus visited England, bearing a letter of introduction from Boerhaave. He was received by the botanists there with a reserve which soon thawed and gave place to warm appreciation. Returning to Holland, he completed the printing of his "Genera Plantarum," finished arranging and describing Cliffort's collection of plants, spent a year with Van Royen at Leyden, rearranging the garden, and in 1738 started for Sweden by way of Belgium, Paris (where he formed a lasting friendship with Bernard de Jussieu), and Rouen. Hence he sailed direct for Sweden, intending to establish himself in the practice of medicine at Stockholm. Patients were slow in coming to him, and in his discouragement he said that "if he had not been in love he certainly would have left his native country." His fame, however, which had become conspicuous abroad, had at last reached Sweden, and he gradually obtained a practice, was appointed naval physician, Professor in the School of Mines, etc., and was able to marry the daughter of Dr. Moræus, who had waited for him for several years. He enjoyed the support of influential friends—Marshal the Baron Charles de Geer and Count Tessin—and by their aid succeeded, in 1741, in reaching the summit of his ambition—a professorship in the University of Upsala, which he occupied for thirty-seven years. His fame grew rapidly. "He was long a center to which all important researches in natural history were reported. Numerous disciples attended his lectures and propagated his doctrines verbally, while his own works, scattered abroad, made his system and his reforms popular. His correspondence was extensive, and his letters, many of which have been preserved, exhibit his character in the most favorable light. On his recommendation, the Swedish Government intrusted several young men with distant scientific missions. Among the most distinguished of these travelers were Ternstroem, who traversed the East Indies and died at Poulo Condor, in the China Sea, in 1743; Kalm (whence the name of our mountain laurel, Kalmia latifolia), who explored North America from 1747 to 1751; Hasselquist, who visited Smyrna, Egypt, and Palestine, and died in Smyrna in 1752; Osbeck, who explored China from 1750 to 1752; and Loeffling, who traveled in Spain in 1751 and South America, where he died in 1756."

The numerous works of Linnæus appeared now in rapid succession, and honors and invitations came to him. He declined a liberal offer from the King of Spain to settle in that country; purchased the estates of Sofja and Hammarby, at the latter of which he built a museum of stone; was made a Knight of the Polar Star, and in 1761 received a patent of nobility, antedated to 1757, in deference to which he Gallicized his Latin name, inserted a von in it, and became Carl von Linné. The last reward was, however, not for his scientific achievement, but was granted in recognition of his having devised a way to improve the quality of the pearls of the fresh-water mussels of Sweden. When sixty years of age, Linnseus's memory began to fail; in 1774 he suffered an apoplectic attack; two years later he lost, by another stroke, the use of his right side; and he died of a hydropsy in 1778. While all the academies of Europe made him their associate, and princes gave him the most striking marks of their consideration, still "in the simplicity of his life he was little accessible to the honors of the world. Living with his pupils, whom he treated as if they were his children, some singular plant, or some animal varying a little from the ordinary form, would give him more joy than anything else. He was never troubled by the attacks of his antagonists; and although he had some distinguished ones—Haller, Buffon, and Adanson—and they frequently treated him unjustly, he was never at the pains of replying to them. ... His society was charming, and all who came in contact with him conceived a tender attachment to him. His only weakness seems to have been a too great fondness for praise. Strongly attached to religion, he never spoke of the Deity but with respect, and embraced with marked pleasure the numerous occasions which natural history offered him to declare the wisdom of Providence."

The publications of Linnæus are described under more than one hundred and eighty titles. The earliest in date was the "Hortus Uplandicus," or list of cultivated plants of Upsala, in which he first outlined his plan for classifying plants according to their organs of reproduction—stamens and pistils—which appeared in 1731; and the last was his "Plantæ Surinamenses," 1775. The period of his literary activity thus lasted forty-four years. His great merits were the introduction of a system of botanical classification which, though wholly artificial and unnatural, served as an efficient tool till a philosophical system, based on affinities, could be worked out, and the extension and general application of an exact system of nomenclature. He sought to cover the whole domain of nature, and therefore wrote on minerals, animals, and plants. In mineralogy he paid particular attention to the forms of crystals, and based his classification on them. In zoölogy he looked to the organs of mastication and digestion, to the feeding, to the wings in birds, and to the presence or absence of elytræ in insects. But his distinction rests pre-eminently on his work in botany, and to this most of his publications relate. He was not the originator either of the sexual system of classification or of the binary nomenclature; for the former, as we have seen, was suggested by other students whose essays he read and whose ideas he put in practice; and the latter was applied, as has been shown in a sketch in a previous number of the "Monthly," nearly two hundred years before him, by Pierre Bdlon. But Linnæus made it general and established it in science. The formal introduction of his system of classification was made in the "Systema Naturæ," which Gronovius published at Leyden in 1735, in three sheets, according to one authority, or in eight folio sheets, according to another. It was enlarged in successive subsequent editions, of which the twelfth appeared during the author's lifetime. It was followed in 1736 by the "Fundamenta Botanica," of twenty-six pages, which contained an exposition of the author's theory as worked out after seven years of study and the examination of eight thousand plants. This work, amplified, afterward developed into two—the "Bibliotheca Botanica," Amsterdam, 1756; and the "Classes Plantarum" or "Systemata Plantarum," Leyden, 1738; while a more detailed explanation of the system of nomenclature was given in the "Critica Botanica," Leyden, 1737. These three works were the beginning of the great reform in botany; but the doctrine of Linnæus on these subjects, co-ordinated in its parts and illustrated by examples, was reproduced as a whole in 1751 in the "Philosophia Botanica," Stockholm—a work which served as the foundation for most of the minor treatises till Linnæus's artificial system of classification was supplemented by the natural system. The "Genera Plantarum," 1737, gave full descriptions of the genera, "according to the number, shape, position, and proportion of all the parts of fructification," and is pronounced by Mr. B. Daydon Jackson, in the "Encyclopædia Britannica," "a volume which must be considered the starting-point of modern systematic botany." In the "Species Plantarum," 1753, "the author's most important contribution to scientific literature," the trivial names expressing some obvious character to designate species are fully set forth.

The nomenclature introduced by Linnæus has endured, and the names he gave to species are still living; so that "in whatever part of the world one may be, if there are botanists or professional gardeners, there it is enough to give the Linnæan name of a plant to have its identity understood at once." His system of classification has given way to the more philosophical natural system by affinities based upon comparison of all the parts and qualities of the plant. There is reason to believe that he foresaw this, and regarded his system as simply a stepping-stone to something better. He is quoted as having said that whoever should found a natural system on a solid basis would be his great Apollo. An account in the "Philosophia Botanica" of a series of naturally allied families is prefaced by the words that "a natural method is the first and last thing to be desired in botany; Nature does not make leaps. All plants show affinity on either side, like the territory in a geographical map." He and Bernard de Jussieu corresponded on the subject, and the latter urged him to institute a natural system. Such a system, however, could not be built at once, or by one man, and Linnæus had to content himself with furnishing the staging by the aid of which others could more slowly build up the permanent structure.

Linnseus is described as having been a little above the medium height, rather slight, but well shaped; with broad head and frank and open physiognomy; lively and piercing eyes, with a peculiarly refined expression. He was quick-tempered, but soon recovered from his passion. "He lived simply, acted promptly, and noted down his observations at the moment. ... He found biology," says Mr. Jackson, "a chaos; he left it a cosmos. When he appeared upon the scene, new plants and animals were in the course of daily discovery, in increasing numbers, due to the increase of trading facilities; he devised schemes of arrangement by which these acquisitions might be sorted provisionally, until their natural affinities should have become clearer. He made many mistakes; but the honor due to him for having first enunciated the true principles for defining genera and species, and his uniform use of trivial names, will last so long as biology itself endures."

Another biographer gives as the peculiar features in which he surpassed, "the distinct study he made of each species, the regularity and detail of the characteristics he gave of genera, the care which he took to put in the background variable circumstances like size and color, the energetic precision of his language, and the convenience of his nomenclature."

A scheme was started for erecting a monument to Linnæus in connection with the centenary of his death. As is usual in such affairs, the subscriptions were slower in coming in than was contemplated by the promoters of the enterprise, and the completion of the monument was delayed. The statue, by Prof. Kjelberg, was unveiled on the 13th of May, 1885. It stands in the Humlegarden in Stockholm, and represents the "flower-king," as he is called in Sweden, at the age of sixty years, in a meditating attitude, holding the "Systema Naturæ" and a bunch of flowers in his right hand. It is surrounded by allegorical female figures representing botany, zoölogy, medicine, and mineralogy.