The Name Wizard: Carl Linnaeus – The Father of Taxonomy
It’s an irony that the man who is famous for clearly naming things had several names himself. Born in Sweden at a time when surnames (last names) were not important meant that his grandfather, a peasant and farmer, was known according to Scandinavian custom as Bengt Ingemarsson. His son became referred to as Nils Ingemar Bengtsson but he needed to adopt his own name when he started university and he chose the Latin name, Linnaeus, in honor of the ancient linden tree that grew on family property.
Nil’s son, born in 1707, would become a famous botanist and he called him Carolus (Carl) Linnaeus. Carl’s mother’s name was Christina Linnaea, a feminine form of Linnaeus. Later because of his contribution to science, Carl’s name changed again after being inducted into the Swedish noble class to yet another version: Carl von Linné, The Father of Taxonomy.
Finding a Study
Nils wanted his son to follow him into the priesthood, but Carl took interest in his father’s other love as a gardening enthusiast and plant lover; and most of his teachers agreed that Carl was not suited for being a man of the cloth.
Still looking for a path for the boy, Nils met Dr. Johan Stensson Rothman, a physician in the nearby town of Växjö. Rothman took a liking to Carl Linnaeus and took the boy under this wing—he saw the makings of a doctor in him. He introduced Carl Linnaeus to botany because herbs and plants were used as medicine and there his love for plants developed further.
Rothman taught Carl anatomy, physiology, and turned him on to a method of classifying plants by the shape of their petals, developed by a man named Joseph Pitton de Tournefort, a French botanist of the previous century, 1656-1708, (whose father also wanted him to become a priest and he did not go there either).
A botanist by trade has to collect species of plants, herbs and flowers and preserve them. They are meant to be housed in a herbarium, a collection of dried plants and an educational and research institution. This location becomes a reference center for verification of identifications, a documentation facility, and a data storehouse used by experts.
To begin, the plant has to go through pressing. A common plant press can be made from corrugated cardboard, felt or ink blotters, and plywood endboards. According to Loren C. Anderson, Professor of Botany and Curator of the Herbarium at Florida State University, every botanist should carry a field book, in which you record the location, date of collection, habitat and associated plants, plus, flower color, and plant branching pattern and height, in case those features aren’t evident in the pressed sample.
The plant is laid between newspaper and sheets of blotting paper, which in turn are sandwiched between two corrugates. The blotters draw moisture from the plants, and the ripples in the corrugated cardboard allow the moist air to pass from the press, which expedites drying. After it is completely dry, it is mounted on a sheet of herbarium paper, glued, labeled and stored in a cabinet.
Education Fits and Starts
Carl Linnaeus’ family was poor and education for him happened in “fits and starts”—meaning, he worked on his plant collection and even enrolled in the Lund University, but no one taught botany. Soon he met Dr. Stobaeus, Lund’s leading doctor. Again, this doctor saw something in his character and let Carl explore his library and his own collection of natural history: birds, plants, rocks and shells. In his spare time, Linnaeus explored the flora of the surrounding region, together with the other students who shared the same interests.
But unable to study botany, Carl soon transferred to Uppsala University hoping to continue his study in plants, collecting and classifying; but this changeover meant that his parent’s financial help was soon exhausted. He was out of money, unable to find a job, laid folded paper into his worn-out shoes, and he had to borrow food.
Luckily, Carl met another student, Peter Artedi, who wanted to study the animal kingdom and the two decided to divide the work between them. After collecting over six hundred kinds of wildflowers, Carl met Dr. Olaf Celsius, professor of theology and dean of the cathedral. The good doctor offered him housing and the use of the library. Carl’s work became more exacting and he was asked to teach botany!
What Went Before
The science of classification is called taxonomy. Another man had developed a way to classify or name plants; his name was John Ray (1627-1705), an English naturalist. Ray’s method involved putting plants into groups based on the resemblance of the main parts of a plant, namely its root, flower, cup seed and vessel. Problem was, his method on the ancient divisions of trees, shrubs and herbs had too many crossovers.
The other problem with his classification method and the one of de Tournefort were that one plant could have several long Latin names at different stages of its life or, if it was found in different geographical locations, it got more complicated still. It meant that memorizing the terms of new-found specimens as they poured in from previously unexplored nations was a hopeless task.
Lapland and Other Explorations
A grant from the Royal Society allowed Linnaeus to take expedition to Lapland up north, and that was the beginning of his love for exploration and collecting new specimens. His room soon began to look like a museum with thousands of insects, boxes of shells and stones, and over three thousand species of pressed flowers. In one corner of the room nestled thirty different kinds of tame birds perched in a tree!
Linnaeus’s major innovation was a system of naming referred to as: binomial nomenclature. We use this system every day without realizing it. For example, take cups. We have coffee cups, measuring cups, travel cups, and more. The first part tells what type of cup it is.
But with Linnaeus’ system it consisted of a two-word name: genus and species. In Latin, the noun is placed before the adjective so the genus—group name—comes first (and related types of plants share the same group name); and the second word, is the species—an adjective that describes a special characteristic. The letter L. follows, indicating a species named by Linnaeus.
To illustrate that Linnaeus had a sense of humor, the banana in a literal meaning is “fruit of paradise” and the species name is: Musa paradisiaca L. Tobacco literally means Nicot’s tobacco and the species name is: Nicotiana Tabacum L.
Interesting Factoids about Carl Linnaeus
- Linnaeus became the first president of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm.
- The book Systema Naturae was published in 1735 and went through many editions.
- Carl Linnaeus thought that there would be an end to his work; it was Charles Darwin’s book The Origin of Species that shattered that myth.
- He was not a good father and missed many of his children’s births; he and his wife, Sara Lisa, did not have a happy marriage.
- He objected to his daughters being educated.
- He delighted in monkeys and kept them at Uppsala.
- Students loved him and his teaching drew large numbers of students.
- In Species Plantarum, published in 1753, he described seven hundred North American species.
- His Genera Plantarum in 1754 became internationally accepted by botanists in the mid-eighteenth century as the starting point of modern botanical nomenclature.