Celebrating the ‘Prince of Botanists’

THE MOST frequently mentioned name in the history of science is that of the botanist Carl Linné.

Whenever the Latin name of a plant or an animal appears, the name of the person who first described it is also given. Linné’s naming system has proved to be an extraordinarily useful scientific invention. Most of the plants and animals, known in his day, were described by him and the Latin name, Carolus Linnaeus, has become iconic.

There were no surnames in Sweden in Carl’s time, a boy’s second name would be that of his father. When entering a university, however, a student invented a surname. Carl’s father called himself ‘Linné’ after a fine linden tree on the family farm. When Carl became famous later in life, he adopted the aristocratic ‘von Linné’, the name which appears beside his image on the 100 Kroner banknote. Ironically for a man famous for naming, the three versions of his own name lead to confusion; the plinth of his bronze statue in Lund is inscribed ‘Carl Linnaeus’, a mixture of the Swedish and Latin versions. It was he who christened our own species ‘Homo sapiens’, a brave decision; classifying humans as animals was highly controversial in those days.

But Linnaeus was no mere name-dropper. He had an extraordinary instinct, a sixth sense, for spotting connections between plants which, to outward appearances, seemed unrelated. Nor were his interests confined to botany; Linnaeus was the ultimate polymath. Anders Celsius, another famous Swede, invented a temperature scale with a hundred divisions between the boiling and freezing points of water. Celsius assigned 0° to the boiling point and 100° to freezing. Linnaeus inverted the scale to show increasing warmth, which is how we use thermometers today. The circular symbols, with the arrow denoting the male and a plus sign for the female, are another of his legacies.

Next year, the world will celebrate the third centenary of Linnaeus’ birth. Recently, as a guest of the Swedish Embassy, I retraced the steps of this scientific superstar for RTÉ’s Mooney Show. The places associated with him are a hive of activity just now. Buildings are being restored, museums are getting a face-lift and the many gardens, where the great botanist worked, are being replanted.

Linnaeus was born on May 23, 1707 near the village of Råshult in southern Sweden. His father, Nils Linné, was a Lutheran priest and his mother the daughter of a clergyman. They had five children, one of whom, Samuel, also took holy orders. Country parsons were not rich and, to keep body and soul together, would usually keep a plot of land with some vegetables and livestock. Nils was a keen botanist and it was in his parents’ vegetable and herb garden that young Carl developed his interest in horticulture and wild creatures.

The landscape of Linnaeus’ time has been recreated at Råshult. The kitchen, herb garden and field systems have been revitalised and the traditional farm buildings convincingly restored.

In due course, Carl was sent to the grammar school at Växjö. The city has a beautiful cathedral, the burial place of St Sigfrid, who arrived from England in the 11th century to convert the barbarous Swedes. The old school is still there. Einstein and Darwin were poor students. So was Carl, to the disappointment to his ambitious parents who wished him to follow his father into the ministry. It is said that Nils threatened to apprentice his son to a cobbler unless he pulled up his socks. However, a teacher spotted Carl’s aptitude for science and recommended that he study medicine at the University of Lund.

Linneaus was a genius with plants. He was almost as shrewd when it came to people and he usually managed to ingratiate himself with those who had power and influence. Killian Stobaeus, Professor of Greek and a polymath, was the dominant figure at Lund. He disliked Linneaus at first but the young student soon won him round. The university museum, in the shadow of Lund’s magnificent Romanesque cathedral, has an interesting exhibition based on Linnaeus’ time there.

At the age of 21, Carl moved to Uppsala, where, apart from his many excursions in Scandinavia and visits to Holland and Britain, he lived for the rest of his life. His doctoral thesis, presented in Holland, was on malaria. In 1741, he became Professor of Medicine at Uppsala. The famous botanical garden, established by him there, is still laid out according to his system.

Linnaeus wrote over 70 books in Swedish and Latin, the most important of which were the Systema Plantarum of 1753 and the Systema Naturae of 1756. He had a sense of humour, was an excellent lecturer and his students loved him. Strindberg wrote: “Linnaeus was really a poet, who just happened to be a scientist.”

Only five feet tall, but with beautiful eyes, he did not lack self-esteem. He wrote at least five self-congratulatory autobiographies, some of which he reviewed himself, under a false name. He once declared that while ‘God created, Linnaeus ordered’. Deeply religious, he believed that God had created every organism for a purpose. Our task was to discover what that purpose was. He married, had seven children and suffered from chronic toothache. Dying in 1778, he is buried in Uppsala’s magnificent Gothic cathedral. He had hoped that his gravestone would carry the inscription ‘Princeps Botanicorum’, ‘Prince of Botanists’, but it doesn’t. Uppsala will be the hub of the Linnaeus celebrations next year. It promises to be quite a party.

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Wednesday, September 22, 2021

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