It’s time to celebrate ‘the second Adam’

HARDERWIJK is on the edge of the Veluwemeer, the long neck of the Zuiderzee, at the dead centre of the Netherlands.

It was once a port of the Hanseatic League, but only pleasure boats visit the place nowadays.

This attractive little town, with picturesque lanes and churches, boasts the largest marine-mammal park in Europe; bottle-nosed dolphins and enormous walruses frolic in huge artificial loughs. But the place has another claim to fame: the great Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus visited it back in 1635.

You have to admire the resourcefulness of the Harderwijkians. Linnaeus, who was born 300 years ago this year, spent a mere five days in their town. His was no 17th century equivalent of a modern papal visit but a low-key affair. But it’s still an excuse for a party and an opportunity to earn some tourist revenue. The place is ablaze with memorabilia celebrating Harderwijk’s 15 minutes of fame. Academic and theatrical events are being staged, a banner adorns the main street and signs at various landmarks proclaim that “Linnaeus was here”.

Travel in the 18th century was an exhausting and dangerous business, so what brought this student, destined to be one of the world’s great naturalists, to such an unlikely place? It had to do with a curious anomaly in the Swedish academic system. Linnaeus had studied medicine at Lund and Uppsala. However, in those days, doctorates in medicine were not available from Swedish universities. This is odd; Uppsala had two professors of medicine but what use are professors if they can’t confer degrees?

The inferior status of medicine as an academic discipline may have been a factor. The ideas of Descartes, the great French philosopher who died in Sweden in 1650, seemed to threaten the religious establishment and medical students were blamed for championing them. The prestige faculty of the time was divinity; Linnaeus’ ambitious parents were devastated that their son failed to make the grade for the ministry and had to opt for medicine. !!

Linnaeus went to Harderwijk to get his degree. The university there no longer exists; it was abolished by Napoleon in 1811. Doling out degrees was something of an industry at Harderwijk. Linnaeus was just one of many visiting Swedes. It took a mere five days for him to obtain his doctorate and two of the days were spent getting his thesis printed.

Preparing dissertations was a goldmine for printers. Innkeepers and tavern owners also benefited and visiting students brought much-needed revenue to the town. The candidate would defend his work in open forum, after which he was required to wine and dine the examiners.

I visited Harderwijk last week as part of a Linnaean pilgrimage with Derek Mooney, who is making a radio documentary on Linnaeus. Our next port of call was London. Strange as it might seem, Linnaeus’ collection of specimens, and almost all of his papers, are there. When he died in 1778, his wife, Sara Lisa Moraea, put the collection up for sale. She had a family to support and, in any case, the specimens were deteriorating and needed to be conserved. The archive was purchased by an Englishman, James Edward Smith, and transported to London. The story that the Swedes sent a gunboat after the ship, in the hope of retrieving the departing treasure, is a colourful myth but there is a whiff of Elgin Marble notoriety about the whole affair.

The collection is, after all, the legacy of Sweden’s greatest scientific son, a pioneer of the biological sciences, and surely it should be in Uppsala. The move to Britain may be regrettable from a patriotic perspective but it was probably a blessing in disguise. Swedish houses, in Linnaeus’ day, were usually made of wood, as indeed many still are. Fires were common and had the collection remained at home, it might well have gone up in flames.

The archive is held at the headquarters of the Linnaean Society in Burlington House off Piccadilly. It is kept in an environmentally regulated vault, which Gina Douglas, librarian and archivist of the Society, assured me is atomic bomb-proof. Visiting the basement chamber was like entering a pharaoh’s tomb; there is a mystical Ark of the Covenant feel to the place. The specimens, neatly mounted in drawers under glass, are arranged as Linnaeus decreed, not as scientists would group them today.

Seeing a copy of the Systema Naturae of 1635 was special; there would be 11 further editions during the great man’s lifetime. Here are the beginnings of modern biology. The discipline was slow to get off the ground. Copernicus and Gallileo had revolutionised cosmology and Newton’s Principia had transformed physics in 1683. With the publication of the Systema, botany and zoology had come of age. According to Genesis, God brought all the animals to Adam to hear what he’d call them. Linnaeus gave 13,000 plants and animals their scientific names. He deserves to be called “the second Adam”.

Derek Mooney’s 42-minute documentary will be broadcast on RTE Radio 1 later this summer.

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