Biographies of Scientific Men/Linnaeus

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LINNÆUS

1707-1778

IN the same year that England and Scotland were united into one kingdom, and two days after the Act of Union came into operation (3rd May 1707), there was born at Roëshult, Sweden, Carl Linnæus, the father of modern botany. He found biology a chaos, and he left it a cosmos. He was the first to popularize the study of botany in Europe by establishing the custom of using for a plant a second or specific name in addition to the generic name under which every specimen was then only known. Linnæus was destined to rescue botany from the degraded state to which Pliny and his imitators had reduced it. To this truly great man we owe the first attempt to remove the natural sciences from the control of those into whose hands they had fallen.

The origin of the name Linnæus is supposed to have had some connection with a lofty linden or lime tree which stood in the garden of the ancestral home.

It was intended that he should follow the same profession as his father—that of a Lutheran pastor; but
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surrounding the parental home was an extremely fine garden, and in its grounds young Linnæus laid the foundation of his subsequent studies. The father's garden was noted for being the finest and most variegated in the district, having as many as four hundred species of flowers. When quite young, Carl made himself familiar with the names of trees, plants, and flowers growing in the neighbourhood.

Until the age of ten Carl was educated by his father, but in 1717, when Charles XII. of Sweden and others were intriguing against the Brunswick dynasty in England, he was sent to his first school at Wexio. He had a fair elementary education, including Latin. The principal, or rector, of the school was fond of botany, and he took a special interest in Linnæus when he discovered that his new pupil knew all the names of the trees, plants, and flowers growing in the vicinity of the school. During his school days at Wexio, Linnæus greatly neglected his studies, and to such an extent that the tutors complained to his father. He was so enraptured with botany that he was compelled to confess to his father that he had no inclination whatever for the ministry. This was such a severe blow to the father that without further delay Carl was apprenticed to a bootmaker. However, this step caused other onlookers to think that young Linnæus would waste his time and talents as a bootmaker, so much so that Professor Rothmann (professor of medicine in Linnæus' college at Wexio) invited him to become a member of his household. This was accepted, and here Linnæus studied a little physic and a good deal of botany.

In 1727 he entered the University of Lund, and attended the lectures of Stobceœus on physic and botany. Stobœus, noting the intelligence of the pupil, took him into his own home. Here he commenced the formation of a herbarium.

Afterwards Linnæus left Lund for the University of Upsala, and on an allowance of eight pounds a year the young man pursued his studies, wearing the cast-off clothes of other students, stopping up the holes in his boots with paper, and frequently feeling the pangs of hunger. This was a most distressing time, but the youthful botanist struggled through it, cheering himself with knowledge he was daily gaining. This was the brave young spirit who consoled himself that "wisdom is better than rubies." How many others would have sunk under such an ordeal!

A benefactor at this period was Celsius, professor of divinity at Upsala, who was astonished at the extent of the knowledge of botany displayed by Linnæus. Celsius offered Linnæus board-residence free in his own home on condition that he helped the professor in his literary work. The professor was writing a work on the trees and plants mentioned in the Bible, and Linnæus was to help in the compilation of the work. It was in the library of Celsius Linnæus conceived the ground-plan of the system of classification by which he was to revolutionize botanical science. The system, since modified by the advance of knowledge, was based on external resemblances. The great work of Linnæus was constructive, not interpretative; and he lived in a period that may be called the renaissance of science.

Linnæus' work was a great step forward, and his system of classification was based on the reproductive organs (stamens and pistils) of plants. The number of species known to Linnæus in 1753, when he published his Species Plantarum, amounted only to 7300. The Linnæan division of plants is into twenty-four classes, depending on the number, position, relative proportion, and combination of the stamens; and the first eleven classes are distinguished solely by the number of the stamens, such as the monandria (one stamen), diandria (two stamens), triandra (three stamens), etc. The twelfth and thirteenth classes are characterized by the situation as well as number of the stamens; the fourteenth and fifteenth classes by the number and relative proportion of the stamens; from the sixteenth to the nineteenth classes, flowers are distinguished by the combination of the stamens with each other; the twenty-first, twenty-second, and twenty-third classes are characterized by the stamens and pistils being in separate flowers; and, finally, the twenty-fourth class, which comprises the Cryptogamia or flowerless plants—the oldest in the world's history. Each of the classes is subdivided into two or more orders. Such is an outline of the system of classification of Linnæus. The system brings together, for no other purpose than for convenience of reference, plants dissimilar in structure, habit, and properties. It is an "artificial system," such as Linnæus always intended it to be. It has been superseded by the "natural system" of De Candolle, which is based on various natural systems. Linnæus knew the value of a natural system of classification. He says: "Methodi naturalis fragmenta inquirenda sunt. Primum et ultimum hoc in botanicis desideratum est. Plantæ omnes utrimque affinitatem monstrant uti territorium in mappâ geographicâ. … Methodus naturalis est ultimus finis botanicis. … Naturalis character ab omni botanico teneatur oportet." He left a slight sketch of a natural system; but the limited knowledge of genera and species in his day would have rendered such a system of classification imperfect and useless. Not so, however, "his artificial system, which, still marked by the limits that he assigned, not only offers facilities for forming an acquaintance with the names of plants, but affords ready means of reference to any system in which plants are arranged according to their natural characters." Although superseded, the system of Linnæus is still useful as an index; and even the present natural system "cannot be regarded as being perfectly evolved." Linnæus established the binomial system of nomenclature, both in botany and zoology; and the grades of classification—class, order, genus, species, and variety are his; and his great work, the Systema Naturæ (1735), which passed through twelve editions in his lifetime, forms the starting-point of modern taxonomy.

Linnæus was a non-evolutionist; he firmly believed in the fixity of species. He was a synthetic genius who gathered all that was best in the work of the systematists from Cesalpino to Tournefort, and improved it. He was pre-eminently a describer and systematist, always classifying, co-ordinating, and subordinating.

In Linnæus' time the "best botanist was he who knew the most plants," however little of each; and even Linnæus himself was not abreast of the times in which he lived in matters of physiology. He contented himself in collecting, classifying, and naming; but as Jean Jacques Rousseau says, in his Dictionnaire de Botanique: "J'ai toujours cru qui on pourrait être un très grande botaniste sans connaître un seul plante par son nom." Times have altered since Linnæus' day, and now the student of botany masters thoroughly the principal types of the vegetable kingdom.

"The greatest and most lasting service which Linnæus rendered both to botany and zoology lies in the certainty and precision which he introduced into the art of describing": but for more than a hundred years after Linnæus there was little or no attempt to illuminate the science of botany from the standpoint of evolution. Advance, however, in this direction was commenced late in the Victorian reign.

In 1730 Linnæus was appointed Lecturer on Botany at Upsala. The vivacity and novelty of his lectures charmed his audiences, and he was greatly esteemed by the college authorities.

The Royal Academy of Sciences sent Linnæus to collect the flora and fauna of Lapland, and on 17th May, 1732, at the age of twenty-five, he started on his ever memorable journey with only ten pounds. Riding and walking were the modes of conveyance. Hardships and difficulties surrounded him; rivers, bogs, forests, and want of food, however, did not stop his enthusiasm. "Nothing ventured, nothing won." Trees, shrubs, herbs, animals, mountains, etc., became the objects of his observation and attention. He used to rest his weary limbs in Laplanders' huts. It can be well imagined that the journey was a lonely and perilous one, when it is borne in mind that Lapland in those days comprised only thirty-two scattered villages.

Linnæus travelled over four thousand miles, and brought back to Sweden over a hundred plants previously unknown. He also studied the fauna and inhabitants of this inhospitable country; and in 1748 he published a book on his travels.

On his return, Linnæus was elected a member of the Kongliga Svenska Vetenskaps - Academien (Stockholm), and at once recommenced his lectures; but the demon jealousy stepped in, by somebody complaining to the authorities of the college that it was against the charter of the University that lectures should be given by any but those who had obtained the full academical degree of Ph.D. This was a critical and trying time; but, being supported by his students, he and they went on a visit to the mountainous districts of Sweden in order to study mineralogy and other sciences. At Fahlun he was introduced to Baron Reuterholm, himself a student of nature, and a man of great influence. He placed his two sons under Linnæus' care, and together with a few other young nobles, all went on a travelling tour.

On their return a little college was established under the patronage of the baron, and here Linnæus' lectures and the assaying of ores brought him friends as well as money.

In 1735 he set out for Holland, spent some time at Leyden, obtained his medical degree, visited Boerhaave, who gave him a letter of introduction to Burmann, then professor of botany at Amsterdam; and for some time he aided the professor in the description of the plants of Ceylon, which the latter had collected in the island. At this time Linnæus was introduced by Boerhaave to a wealthy patron named Cliffort, who spent large sums of money in acquiring treasures from all parts of the world, and, moreover, he was a man who was always imagining himself ill. Linnæus, who was qualified as a medical man, and was also a botanist of renown, was recommended as the very man for Cliffort. Linnæus was offered a home and an income of 1000 florins a year. Cliffords gardens and hothouses were an El Dorado for Linnæus, and from this home he wrote and published his Fundamenta Botanica and Bibliotheca Botanica (1736). Both of these books established his fame, and attracted attention in all parts of Europe.

In the same year Linnæus visited England, interviewing Sir Hans Sloane, Philip Miller, and other botanists. After a short stay in England, he returned to Holland, and then commenced in earnest the system of classification which has made his name famous. During the year 1737 he published six works which diffused the revolution in botany from his Dutch home at Hartecamp throughout Europe. These works, several of which are classics, are replete in researches and philosophical and critical doctrines. In Genera Plantarum he described 935 species of plants, and the much discussed aphorism "that the characters do not give the genus, but the genus gives the characters."

Linnæus grasped the fundamental ideas of morphology, and he referred all the parts of the flower to leaves, arguing from the numerous transitions that the parts must be homologous. The homology of appendicular organs is suggested in the phrase "principium florum et foliorum idem est," and he developed his ideas in two memoirs, Prolepsis Plantarum (1760-63); only homologous parts, he said, can change into one another; "the liver cannot become the heart, nor the heart the stomach."

In 1751 Linnæus published his famous Philosophia Botanica—a work of the greatest importance; and in the previous year he constructed his floral clock an arrangement of flowers opening and closing with regular periodicity; and he described the somnus plantarum, or the nocturnal changes of positions in flowers and leaves.

With all his ceaseless toil, impetuosity, and hardships, he was always enthusiastic in his studies and researches. In the words of Ovid: "Scribentem juvat ipse favor minuitque laborem; cumque suo crescens pectore fervet opus."

Owing to the financial difficulties of Cliffort, Linnæus was obliged to leave the beautiful and historic gardens of Hartecamp; but shortly afterwards he obtained employment in the botanical gardens at Leyden. While there he published two other works, which greatly enhanced his reputation.

At this period in his career, the Government of the Dutch Republic desired to send him on a botanical expedition to South Africa, and they promised to give him a professorship of botany in one of the universities, but the offer was declined.

Linnæus visited Leipzig, Saxony, Denmark, and Paris, and then returned to Stockholm. During his travels he met many distinguished men, and gained a vast amount of knowledge which proved useful in after years.

He reached Stockholm in September 1738, after three and a half years of fatiguing travels and laborious researches. It was only human that he expected honours and respect would be paid him. But this was not to be—"a prophet has no honour in his own country." The Swedish authorities ridiculed his system and botanical researches. He was by far too great a revolutionist in botany even in his young days: and it is a terrible crime to upset old theories in botany as well as in other sciences. The great dignitaries in science must first be consulted, and this Linnæus did not do! Think of poor Hughes and wireless telegraphy—robbed of his invention by erroneous but weighty criticism. It was nothing short of a crime; "la critique est facile, mais l'art est difficile."

In the same year Linnæus practised as a physician, and was fortunate enough to attract attention of the Queen of Sweden and other notable people in the Swedish capital.

In 1739 he married Elizabeth Moræus, the daughter of a physician, and at the same time he was elected President of the Royal Academy. The next year he was appointed Professor of Anatomy and Physics in the University of Upsala, which has a great reputation at the present day. He also devoted many years to the development of the neglected botanical gardens at Upsala. He ultimately lectured on botany at the same university, and became its rector, and many of his students came from England, France, Germany, Russia and America. He also lectured on natural history and materia medica.

In 1768 Linnæus published the last edition of his Systema Naturæ, and in the preface he says:—

I have ranged through thick and shady forests of nature; I have to and fro found sharp and perplexing thorns; I have, as much as possible, avoided them, but learned at the same time that foresight and attention do not always conciliate perfect and entire safety. I have therefore quietly borne the derision of grinning satyrs, and the jumps of monkeys upon my shoulders. I have entered the career and completed the course assigned by fate.

Concerning natural history, Linnæus published a description of the Swedish animals, birds, insects, minerals, etc., and he divided them into three kingdoms, and characterised them as follows:

Lapides, corpora congesta, nec viva, nec sentientia.

Vegetabilia, corpora organisata et viva, non sentientia.
Animalis, corpora organisata et viva et sentientia, sponteque se moventia.

Minerals are unorganized; plants are organized and live; and animals are organized, live, feel, and move spontaneously: and in the animal kingdom he had recognized—six classes mammals, birds, amphibians (including reptiles), fishes, insects, and worms. His work greatly reformed natural history in more ways than one.

Linnæus was the recipient of most of the honours awarded to men of science, and was a botanist of world-wide renown.

He died of apoplexy on 10th January 1778. He received a public funeral, and was buried in the Swedish capital.

Of posthumous honours erected to his memory, the most noted are the various Linnæan societies of the world. He was a man of great energy, untiring zeal and devotion to science, an enthusiast, a powerful lecturer, who communicated to his pupils the ideas and materials of his life's work, and withal a kind-hearted gentleman.