Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Father of modern taxonomy

Today marks the 310th anniversary of the birth of Carl Linnaeus, known as the father of modern taxonomy. He showed an aptitude for, and a great interest in, botany from an early age, and though he qualified as a physician, he is remembered most for his work on creating a modern system for the classification and naming of organisms. During his first expedition, when still only 25, to the north of Sweden to study the flora, fauna and natives of Lapland, he kept a detail journal - though there is little evidence that he kept a diary at other times in his life.

Linnaeus was born on 23 May 1707 in Råshult around 100km northwest of Malmo in southern Sweden. His father was a priest and an amateur botanist, (and he was the first in the family to take a surname, choosing Linnaeus, the Latin name for linden tree). Having been tutored at home until the age of 10, Carl was sent to school in Växjö, but is said to have preferred wandering the countryside looking for plants than to be in class. He studied classics and theology at Växjö Katedralskola from 1724, but Johan Rothman, a doctor and teacher, encouraged him towards botany. In 1727, he enrolled to study medicine in Lund university, Skåne, where Professor Kilian Stobæus, a natural scientist, helped him with tutoring and also gave him a place to lodge. After only a year, though, he was encouraged to continue his studies at Uppsala university.

Once in Uppsala, Linnaeus was taken in by another benefactor, Olof Celsius, a professor of theology who also happened to have one of the finest botanical libraries in the countries. The following year, 1729, Linnaeus wrote a thesis on plant sexual reproduction. This led Olof Rudbeck the Younger, professor of medicine, to invite him to lecture at the university, even though he was only a second year student, and to tutor his own children. In 1732, Linnaeus won a grant from the Royal Society of Sciences in Uppsala to visit Lapland (searching for new plants, animals and information on the native Sami people) - Rudbeck had visited Lapland more than 40 years earlier, but all his notes and findings had been lost in a fire. Linnaeus’s expedition lasted six months, and led to him describing more than 100 previously unidentified plants - as detailed later in his book Flora Lapponica (1737).

In 1735, Linnaeus went to the Netherlands, where he finished, in a very short space of time, his medical degree at the University of Harderwijk before enrolling at the University of Leiden. That same year, he published the first edition of his new classification of living things, Systema Naturae; and in 1736, he travelled to England visiting many eminent scientists. He returned to Sweden in 1738, where he practiced medicine (specialising in the treatment of syphilis) and lectured in Stockholm. In 1739, he married Sara Elisabeth Moræa, and they would have seven children. In 1741, Linnaeus was awarded a professorship at Uppsala, and in time would restore and expand the botanical garden, arranging the plants according to his own classification system.

Linnaeus continued to revise and extend his Systema Naturae into a multi volume work. He inspired a generation of students, his ‘apostles’, who took part in expeditions all across the world - Daniel Solander, for example, was the naturalist on Captain James Cook’s first round-the-world voyage. Linnaeus himself took on three further expeditions in Sweden. He continued to published highly significant works, Flora Suecica and Fauna Suecica in 1745); Philosophia Botanica (in 1751) with a complete survey of his taxonomy system as well as information on how to keep a travel journal; and Species Plantarum (in 1753), a huge work describing over 1,300 species. In 1750, he was appointed rector of Uppsala university.

In 1758, Linnaeus bought the manor estate of Hammarby, outside Uppsala, where he built a small museum. The same year also saw the tenth edition of Systema Naturae. In 1761, he was ennobled and took the name Carl von Linné. He continued teaching and writing, and even practising medicine, as physician to the Swedish royal family. His latter years, though, were marked by ill health. He died in 1778. When his son, Carl the Younger, also died, five years later with no heirs, Linnaeus’s library, manuscripts and collections were all sold to the English natural historian Sir James Edward Smith, who founded the Linnean Society in London. Further information on Linnaeus can be found at Wikipedia or the websites of The Linnean Society, The Linnaean Correspondence, Uppsala University and the University of California Museum of Paleontology.

Given that Linnaeus published his own instruction on how others should keep travel journals (in Philosophia Botanica), it seems likely he kept such journals on all his expeditions. However, as far as I can tell from online research, only two of these have ever been published in English. The most significant is the diary of his youthful expedition to Lapland,
 as edited by James Edward Smith and published in two volumes in 1811 as Lachesis Lapponica; or, A tour in Lapland, now first published from the original manuscript journal of the celebrated Linnaeus. The work is freely available to read online at Internet Archive (vol. 1 and vol 2.). Much more recently (2007), GotlandsBoken has published Linnaeus in Gotland: from the Diary at Linnean Society, London, to present-day Gotland by Marita Jonsson.

Somewhat confusingly, ‘Linnaeus’s diary’ is often quoted by other writers, but more often than not they are referring not to a diary per se but to a text, written by Linnaeus himself (probably in 1762), cataloguing the events of his life. This was published in 1805 (by J Mawman) in Richard Pulteney’s book: A General View of the Writings of Linnaeus. The Second Edition With Corrections, Considerable Additions and Memoirs of the Authur - To which is Annexed the Diary of Linnaeus Written by Himself and Now Translated Into English, from the Swedish Manuscript in the Possession of the Editor. In his preface, Pulteney gives a provenance for the so-called diary, and quotes from a letter by Linnaeus’s son, who says the text was dictated, ‘with all the ingenuous simplicity of Linné, and in some places interlined and corrected by himself. It is certainly the only Life of him wholly composed by himself, and of course the most interesting and worthy to be published of all the other papers.’ The book (including the ‘diary’) can be read online at Internet Archive and Googlebooks.

Here, though, are several extracts from the real diary Linnaeus kept while on expedition through Lapland, taken from Lachesis Lapponica.

13 May 1732
‘Here the Yew (Taxusbaccata) grows wild. The inhabitants call it Id or Idegran.

The forest abounded with the Yellow Anemone (Anemone ranunculoides), which many people consider as differing from that genus. One would suppose they had never seen an Anemone at all. Here also grew Hepatica (Anemone Hepatica) and Wood Sorrel (Oxalis Acetosella). Their blossoms were all closed. Who has endowed plants with intelligence, to shut themselves up at the approach of rain? Even when the weather changes in a moment from sunshine to rain, though before expanded, they immediately close. Here for the first time this season I heard the Cuckoo, a welcome harbinger of summer.

Having often been told of the cataract of Elf-Carleby, I thought it worth while to go a little out of my way to see it; especially as I could hear it from the road, and saw the vapour of its foam, rising like the smoke of a chimney. On arriving at the spot, I perceived the river to be divided into three channels by a huge rock, placed by the hand of Nature in the middle of its course. The water, in the nearest of these channels, falls from a height of twelve or fifteen ells, so that its white foam and spray are thrown as high as two ells into the air, and the whole at a distance appears like a continual smoke. On this branch of the cascade stands a saw-mill. The man employed in it had a pallid countenance, but he did not complain of his situation so much as I should have expected.

It is impossible to examine the nature of the inaccessible black rock over which the water precipitates itself.

Below this cataract is a salmon fishery. A square net, made of wicker work, placed at the height of an ell above the water, is so constructed that the salmon when once caught cannot afterwards escape.

Oak trees grow on the summits of the surrounding rocks. At first it seems inconceivable how they should obtain nourishment; but the vapours are collected by the hills above, and trickle down in streams to their roots.

In the valleys among these hills I picked up shells remarkable for the acuteness of their spiral points. Here also grew a rare Moss of a sulphur-green colour.

From hence I hastened to the town of Elf-Carleby, which is divided into two parts by the large river, whose source is at Lexan in Dalecarlia. The largest portion of the town stands on the southern side, and contains numerous shops, occupied only during the fairs occasionally kept at this place.

I crossed the river by a ferry, where it is about two gun-shots wide. The ferryman never fails to ask every traveller for his passport, or license to travel. At first sight this man reminded me of Rudbeck’s Charon, whom he very much resembled, except that he was not so aged. We passed the small island described by that author as having been separated from the main land in the reign of king John III. It is now at a considerable distance from the shore, the force of the current rendering the intermediate channel, as Rudbeck observes, every year wider. The base of the island is a rock. Only one tree was now to be seen upon it.

The northern bank of the river is nearly perpendicular. I wondered to see it so neat and even, which may probably be owing to a mixture of clay in the sand; or perhaps it may have been smoothed by art. Horizontal lines marked the yearly progress of the water. The sun shone upon us this morning, but was soon followed by rain. 
Elf-Carleby is two miles and a half further. On its north side are several sepulchral mounds.

Here for the first time I beheld, what at least I had never before met with in our northern regions, the Pulsatilla apii folio (Anemone vernalis), the leaves of which, furnished with long footstalks, had two pair of leaflets besides the terminal one, everyone of them cut halfway into four, six or eight segments. The calyx, if I may be allowed so to call it, was placed about the middle of the stalk, and was cut into numerous very narrow divisions, smooth within, very hairy without. Petals six, oblong; the outermost excessively hairy and purplish; the innermost more purple and less hairy; all of them white on the inside, with purple veins. Stamens numerous and very short. Pistils cohering in a cylindrical form, longer than the stamens, and about half as long as the petals.

We had variable weather, with alternate rain and sunshine.

A mile from Elf-Carleby are iron works called Härnäs. The ore is partly brought from Danemora in Roslagen, partly from Engsiö in Sudermannia. These works were burnt down by the Russians, but have since been repaired.

Here runs the river which divides the provinces of Upland and Gestrickland. The soil hereabouts is for the most part clayey. In the forests it is composed of sand (Arena mobilis and A. Glarea). The post-houses or inns are dreadfully bad. Very few hills or lakes are to be met with in Upland. When I had passed the limits of these provinces, I observed a few oak trees only in the district of Medelpad.

The forests became more and more hilly and stony, and abounded with the different species of Winter-green (Pyrolae).

All along the road the stones were in general of a white and dark-coloured granite.

I noticed great abundance of the Rose Willow (Salix Helix), which had lost all its leaves of the preceding season, except such as composed rosaceous excrescences at the summits of its branches, and which looked like the calyx of the Carthamus (Safflower), only their colour was gone.

Near Gefle stands a Runic monumental stone, rather more legible than usual, and on that account more taken care of.

I noticed a kind of stage to dry corn and pease on, formed of perpendicular posts with transverse beams. It was eight ells in height. Such are used throughout the northern provinces, as Helsingland, Medelpad, Angermanland, and Westbothland.’

15 June 1732
‘This day afforded me nothing much worthy of notice. The sea in many places came very near the road, lashing the stony crags with its formidable waves. In some parts it gradually separated small islands here and there from the main land, and in others manured the sandy beach with mud. The weather was fine.

In one marshy spot grew what is probably a variety of the Cranberry (Vaccinium Oxycoccus), differing only in having extremely narrow leaves, with smaller flowers and fruit than usual. The common kind was intermixed with it, but the difference of size was constant. The Pinguicula grew among them, sometimes with round, sometimes with more oblong leaves.

The Bilberry (Vaccinium Myrtillus) presented itself most commonly with red flowers, more rarely with flesh-coloured ones. Myrica Gale, which I had not before met with in Westbothnia, grew sparingly in the marshes.

In the evening, a little before the sun went down, I was assailed by such multitudes of gnats as surpass all imagination. They seemed to occupy the whole atmosphere, especially when I travelled through low or damp meadows. They filled my mouth, nose and eyes, for they took no pains to get out of my way. Luckily they did not attack me with their bites or stings, though they almost choked me. When I grasped at the cloud before me, my hands were filled with myriads of these insects, all crushed to pieces with a touch, and by far too minute for description. The inhabitants call them Knort, or Knott, (Culex reptans, by mistake called C. pulicaris in Fl. Lapp. ed. 2. 382.)

Just at sunset I reached the town of Old Pithoea, having previously crossed a broad river in a ferry boat. Near this spot stood a gibbet, with a couple of wheels, on which lay the bodies of two Finlanders without heads. These men had been executed for highway robbery and murder. They were accompanied by the quartered body of a Laplander, who had murdered one of his relations.

Immediately on entering the town I procured a lodging, but had not been long in bed before I perceived a glare of light on the wall of my chamber. I was alarmed with the idea of fire; but, on looking out of the window, saw the sun rising, perfectly red, which I did not expect would take place so soon. The cock crowed, the birds began to sing, and sleep was banished from my eyelids.’

17 July 1732
‘In the morning we arrived at the abode of Mr. Kock, the under bailiff, where I could not but admire the fairness of the bodies of these dark-faced people, which rivalled that of any lady whatever.

Here I saw some Leming Rats, called in Lapland Lummick. The body of these animals is grey; face and shoulders black; the loins blackish; tail, as well as ears, very short. They feed on grass and reindeer-moss (Lichen rangiferinus), and are not eatable. They live, for the most part, in the alps; but in some years thousands of them come down into the woodland countries, passing right over lakes, bogs, and marshes, by which great numbers perish. They are by no means timid, but look out, from their holes, at passengers, like a dog. They bring forth five or six at a birth. Their burrows are about half a quarter (of an ell ?) deep.

Here I found the little Gentian, or Centaury, with a hyacinthine flower in five notched segments (Gentiana nivalis).’

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