Carolus Linnaeus

Carolus Linnaeus (or Carl von Linné) (May 23, 1707 - January 10, 1778) was a Swedish scientist who laid the foundations for the modern scheme of taxonomy. He is considered one of the father of modern ecology (see History of ecology).

He was born at Stenbrohult, in the province of Smalandia in southern Sweden. As a boy Linnaeus was to be groomed for life as a churchman, as his father and maternal grandfather were, but he showed little enthusiasm for the profession. His interest in Botany, though, impressed a physician from his town and he was sent to study at Lund University, transferring to Uppsala University after one a year.

During this time Linnaeus became convinced that in the stamens and pistils of flowers lay the basis for the classification of plants, and he wrote a short work on the subject that earned him the position of adjunct professor. In 1732 the Academy of Sciences at Uppsala financed his expedition to explore Laplandia, then virtually unknown. The result of this was the Flora Laponica published in 1737.

Thereafter Linnaeus moved to the continent. While in the Netherlands he met Jan Frederik Gronovius and showed him a draft of his work on taxonomy, the Systema Naturae. In it, the unwieldy descriptions used previously - physalis amno ramosissime ramis angulosis glabris foliis dentoserratis - were replaced by the concise and now familiar genus-species names - Physalis angulata - and higher taxa were constructed in a simple and orderly manner. Although this system, binomial nomenclature, was developed by the Bauhin brothers, Linnaeus may be said to have popularized it.

Linnaeus named taxa in ways that personally struck him as common-sensical; for example, human beings are Homo sapiens "wise man", but he also described a second human species, Homo troglodytes (or Homo nocturnus - "cave-dwelling man" or "nocturnal man"), by which he seems to have meant the only-recently described chimpanzee). The group "mammalia" are named for their mammary glands because one of the defining characteristics of mammals is that they nurse their young. (Of all the features distinguishing the mammals from other animals, Linnaeus may have picked this one because of his views on the importance of natural motherhood. He also campaigned against the practice of wet-nursing, declaring that even aristocratic women should be proud to nurse their own children.)


Autograph of Carolus Linnaeus

In 1739 Linnaeus married Sara Morea, daughter of a physician. He ascended the chair of medicine at Uppsala two years later, soon exchanging it for the chair of Botany. He continued to work on his classifications, extending them to the kingdom of animals and the kingdom of minerals. The last strikes us as somewhat odd, but evolution was still a long time away - and indeed, the Lutheran Linnaeus would have been horrified by it - and so Linnaeus was only attempting a convenient way of categorizing the natural world. He was knighted in 1755, under his Swedish name, Carl von Linné.

  • Linnaeus' original botanical garden may still be seen in Uppsala.
  • He also originated the practice of using the ♂ - Mars and ♀ - Venus glyphs as the symbol for male and female.
  • Linnaeus was said to be a man of great social skills. Esaias Tegnér said about him that "he talked to peasants in the words of peasants and to the scholars he talked in Latin".
  • His picture can be found on the current Swedish 100-krona bank notes.
  • Linnaeus was one of the founders of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

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