Carl Linnaeus, the Man of Many Names

Carl von Linné by Alexander Roslin (1775)

The history of science is full of interesting characters, and Carl Linnaeus certainly fits the bill. Known as the father of modern taxonomy, he was born in Sweden on May 23rd, 1707. He was only the second generation of the name Linnaeus. In fact, when his father enrolled in school he was required to take a family name (instead of using the patronymic name Ingemarsson) and he chose Linnaeus after a giant linden tree that grew on his family homestead. With a name like that, Carl seemed to be destined for biological greatness.

Linnaeus showed an interest in botany from a very young age. His father, an amateur botanist, encouraged his son’s enthusiasm. When he enrolled at the Lund University in 1727, he knew that botany was a very serious subject. He registered under the name ‘Carolus Linnæus’, the latinized form of his name. He later would use this form in his scientific publications. At Lund University, Linnaeus learned how to classify plants using Tournefort’s system, as well as plants’ methods of reproduction.

After a year, Linnaeus decided to transfer to Uppsala University and the rest is history. There he wrote his thesis ‘Praeludia Sponsaliorum Plantarum’ on plant sexual reproduction. This caught the attention of one of his professors and Linnaeus was invited to give lectures on the subject despite only being a second year student. Around this time he began writing some of his most influential books and decided that Tournefort’s system of classification needed an overhaul. He thought that botanical classification should be simplified and should be based upon the number of stamens and pistils. In that way, anyone who could count and get their hands on a flower would be able to successfully classify it.

In 1732, Linnaeus traveled to Lapland, a province in northern Sweden, on a scientific expedition. His hopes were scientific (to find new plants and animals) as well as economic (to find valuable minerals). There he described approximately 100 previously unknown plant species and subsequently published Flora Lapponica, which included 534 species from the region. While he was in Lapland, he had a sudden epiphany as to the classification of mammals: “If I only knew how many teeth and of what kind every animal had, how many teats and where they were placed, I should perhaps be able to work out a perfectly natural system for the arrangement of all quadrupeds.”

After obtaining his doctorate from the University of Harderwijk in 1735, Linnaeus continued his work improving the modern methods of classification. Not long after he published his magnum opus Systema Naturae, which described binomial nomenclature, the cornerstone of modern taxonomy. Before Linnaeus, naturalists would give species long, descriptive names. For example, the tomato was called Solanum caule inermi herbaceo, foliis pinnatis incisis, meaning ‘solanum with the smooth stem which is herbaceous and has incised pinnate leaves’. That is quite a mouthful! Under Linnaeus’ method, the tomato is simply Solanum lycopersicum. In this way, the names of local species would not become longer and more complicated as more exotic species were discovered! Binomial nomenclature made scientific names shorter and more accesible.

Linnaeus continued to travel around Europe, studying plants and improving his method of classification. In 1757, Linnaeus was granted nobility by the King of Sweden, Adolf Frederick. The next year, Linnaeus left the hustle and bustle of the city and bought two farms in the country: Hammarby and Sävja. The following year he bought the neighboring farm, Edeby. In 1761, he became ennobled and took the name Carl von Linné. After years of sickness, Linnaeus died on January 10th, 1778.

Linnaeus’ influence continued long after his death. In 1783 a medical student named James Edward Smith bought Linnaeus’ enormous collection of plants, insects, shells, letters, and books. Five years later he founded the Linnean Society of London, which is still around to this day. In 1959, William Stearn wrote that because there was no type specimen for the human species, “Linnaeus himself, must stand as the type of his Homo sapiens”. That was enough to make Carl Linnaeus the lectotype, or single name-bearing type specimen, for humans. And though scientists no longer classify plants merely by the number of pistils and stamens in a flower (in reality it’s much more complicated), they still use the Linnean system of binomial nomenclature and the author abbreviation L. appears after the many plants he named.

However, he was by no means universally adored during his life. He was an arrogant man who once said, “No man has ever transformed science in the way that I have.” He had a longstanding feud with Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, a French naturalist who thought that Linnaeus’ method of classification was contrived and artificial. Regardless, Carl Linnaeus, the man with three names who developed the methods for naming every living thing, has an important place in the history of science.

To learn more about Carl Linnaeus and methods of modern taxonomy, check out the links below.

What’s in a name? A history of taxonomy

Homo sapiens

Carl Linnaeus


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