Deus creavit, Linnaeus disposuit
God created, Linnaeus organised[1]

Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus (1707 – 1778) left the scientific world an important legacy.  His system for naming plants and animals survives to this day and provides us with a standard way of classifying organisms.  Because of Linnaeus, scientists and lay people all over the world can use a common descriptive language for all living things.

Linnaeus was an explorer as well as a scholar, seeking out new knowledge and mounting expeditions to little-known regions.  He was also a doctor, a lecturer and a prolific writer.  But he did not have an easy run.  He was faced with many setbacks during his life – lack of funds, the death of friends and collaborators, exhaustion from overwork – but he always persevered. Linnaeus had a driving passion and enthusiasm for his work which sustained him and inspired others.

Father of Taxonomy

Linnaeus’ early love of plants and desire for discovery led him to go against his parents’ wishes and take up medicine instead of the priesthood.  During his studies, he came to believe he had been chosen by “the Creator” for the task of classifying all living things.  The plan to embark on this ambitious task originally formed in discussion with his friend, Peter Artedi (and Artedi is often considered the more intellectual of the two).  The two men divided up the natural world between them, with Artedi starting on fishes.  Sadly, Artedi drowned in a canal in Amsterdam at a young age.  Linnaeus arranged for the publication of his friend’s ichthyological work, and continued with the mission himself.

Linnaeus is often referred to as the Father of Taxonomy.  His primary contribution to the biological sciences was standardising the naming system for all living things.  Thanks to Linnaeus, everything has two Latinised names: one for the genus (eg Homo, meaning human) and one for each species within the genus (eg sapiens, meaning wise).  Linnaeus was not the first to use a two-word classification system, but through his life’s work, he led to it becoming standard international practice, a legacy which still endures.

This was enormously important to the biological sciences.  Before Linnaeus, there were dozens of classification systems, using different languages and different approaches.  Some used alphabetical systems; some included mythological animals alongside real ones.  Names were often long, unwieldy and descriptive – full  of adjectives.  By convincing scholars across Europe and beyond[2] to adopt his classification system, Linnaeus made it possible for biologists all over the world to communicate in a common language and use a standard methodology.

Linnaeus’ system is based on a hierarchy: plants and animals are organised into classes and orders according to their similarities[3].  His system worked where others had failed because it was both simple and systematic.  The simplicity of his classification system for plants lay in the fact that he based it on the arrangement of plant reproductive organs – the female pistils and male stamens – in the flower.  This approach scandalised many of his critics but its reliance on sex probably helped to popularise his system.  This was no doubt aided by Linnaeus’ very poetic descriptions of the flowers in his scientific papers, referring to the pistil as a bride and the stamen as a bridegroom. [4]   The Swedish author August Strindberg wrote of him: “Linnaeus was actually a poet who happened to become a naturalist”.

During his lifetime, he classified 4,400 species of animals and 7,700 species of plants.  He was the first to place human beings in a classification system – amongst the primates, where we have stayed ever since.  This was controversial in his time[5] and still manages to attract controversy amongst conservative religious communities today.  He also attempted to classify human beings into races, with descriptions that, today, we would find racist.[6]

Linnaeus made a deep impression on  many of the great thinkers of the eighteenth century and received many accolades.  In a review in Gentleman’s Magazine in 1754, Sir William Watson referred  to Linnaeus’ work, Species Plantarum, as “the masterpiece of the most compleat naturalist the world has seen”.  The philosopher, Jean Jacques Rousseau, sent this message to Linnaeus:  “Tell him I know no greater man on earth.”  And after Linnaeus’ death, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the German author, wrote  “With the exception of Shakespeare and Spinoza, I know of no one among the no longer living who has so strongly influenced me.”

He was visited by aristocrats, he corresponded with scholars all over Europe and eventually he received a knighthood, thereafter being known as Carl von Linné.

Linnaeus, the Writer

Linnaeus was a prolific writer, publishing 70 books and 300 scientific papers over the course of his life.  Through this huge body of work, he was able to promulgate his system amongst the naturalists of the day and gain widespread acceptance.  His most important work, which he added to and republished throughout his life, was the Systema Naturae, his classification system of the three natural kingdoms (animals, plants and minerals – as the world was viewed then[7]).   From eleven pages in the first edition in 1735, it grew to three thousand pages in the final (thirteenth) edition in1767.

Title page of the 1758 edition of Systema Natu...

Image via Wikipedia

Linnaeus also used the later publications to correct errors he had made – for example, he moved whales from Pisces to Mammalia.  The tenth edition (published in 1758), remains the internationally accepted starting point for zoological taxonomy.  Scientific names published prior to this are invalid, unless subsequently adopted by Linnaeus or later authors.

He was a lyrical writer and a persuasive speaker. Johann G Acrel, a former student, wrote “Those who heard him speak about his Introduction to the Systema Naturae…were more moved than by the most eloquent sermon.”

Known for his self-promotion and lack of modesty, Linnaeus also published many autobiographical accounts.

Linnaeus the Explorer

In 1732, Linnaeus led an expedition to Lapland, travelling nearly five thousand kilometres by horseback, on foot and by boat.   The journey took him five months, during which time  he collected and named a hundred new plants.

He also made numerous notes and sketches of the cultural lives of the Sami people of Lapland.  He returned to Uppsala with a magical drum and a Sami costume, which he often dressed in when he gave lectures about his expedition.  He mounted several other expeditions to various parts of Sweden, including the islands of Öland and Gotland.

During his travels, he solved problems that had left others puzzled.  In one village, Linnaeus worked out that the annual “distemper” that killed many cattle was caused by their eating poisonous water hemlock.

The accounts he wrote of his travels, including descriptions of the local customs and hunting methods, were very popular.

Linnaeus the Academic

Linnaeus began lecturing while he was still a student himself [9], covering botany, zoology, mineralogy and diet.  He was a popular speaker.  One of his students, Sven Hedin, referring to Linnaeus’ lectures on diet, wrote “he often made his students roar with laughter by his descriptions of the follies of fashion, using a joke and a light touch to teach a valuable lesson…”

When Linnaeus was a second year student[13], Professor Olof Rudback gave him the job of holding  the botanical demonstrations that were given in the Botanic Garden at Uppsala each spring.  He proved enormously popular amongst students – no doubt due to his huge enthusiasm for his subject – with his demonstrations attracting 300 to 400 attendees instead of the usual 70 or 80.

His students also took part in his regular field trips, which were typically attended by more than a hundred people of various nationalities.  These were festive occasions, with banners waving, a bugle sounding when a rare plant was found, students decorating their caps with plants, and kettle drums accompanying them on their march back to town.

In 1741, he took up a medical professorship at Uppsala University.  His lectures were often crowded and attracted students from many countries. Twenty-three of Linnaeus’ students went on to become professors themselves.  No doubt this was extremely important in terms of promulgating his classification system and his views on other subjects.

In one of his autobiographies, he wrote “Linnaeus now had fame, the work for which he had been born, enough money (partly through marriage), a beloved wife, handsome children and an honoured name.”

Linnaeus the Doctor

Linnaeus initially had difficulty establishing his medical practice in Stockholm[16], but after many weeks without a single patient, he began visiting taverns and coffee-houses in search of clients.  He was eventually able to build a medical practice amongst the young men of the town, treating them for sexually transmitted diseases and other ailments.  He wrote: “…several young men approached me complaining of chest trouble, which, they said, prevented them from drinking at table; I gave them some medicine, and soon they were drinking like heroes.”

In 1747, he was appointed as physician to the royal family, an honour which delighted him.

Founder of Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences

Linnaeus believed that science-based administration was important in assuring his country’s welfare.  In 1739 he was one of the founders of the Royal Swedish Academy of  Sciences in Stockholm. He also promoted the creation of chairs in economics at Swedish universities.

Fiercely patriotic, part of Linnaeus’ drive to find new plant species was to boost the Swedish economy (in a poor state during his time) through agriculture.  He believed that he would be able to grow tropical plants in Sweden and thus decrease their dependence on imports – though, needless to say, this met with limited success.  He was the first person successfully to grow bananas in Europe.[8]

Linnaeus the Rector

In 1750, he became rector of Uppsala University, a position he held until 1772.  No doubt he made changes in the way things were run, having been censured by the previous rector for his botanical excursions, which were seen as distracting students from their work.

Apostles – the New Zealand Connection

Linnaeus dispatched students all over the world (including South Africa, China, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Russia, Siberia, and the Americas) in search of new plant species, referring to these men as his “apostles”.  International travel was a hazardous activity in those days and five of these apostles lost their lives in pursuit of new plants.  The fact that his students were prepared to risk their lives in this way demonstrates the dedication they had to Linnaeus and his mission.

The New Zealand connection with Linnaeus comes through one of his more famous apostles, Daniel Solander

Daniel Solander

.  Solander accompanied Joseph Banks (himself an admirer of Linnaeus) on James Cook’s first circumnavigation on the Endeavour.  This journey marked the establishment of a tradition of British Royal Navy ships carrying a botanist on their explorations, to collect and describe biological specimens – a tradition that would later be continued by people such as Charles Darwin.

Solander had originally gone to Uppsala University to study law, but became so interested in Linnaeus’ work that he redirected his studies to the biological sciences.  After several years of assisting Linnaeus, Linnaeus asked Solander to travel to England to promote his classification system.  Solander was successful in this task and was later appointed to the British museum, where he rearranged the natural history collection.  Linnaeus had hoped Solander would marry his daughter and become his successor, but Solander decided to settle in England.  In his later years, Linnaeus often complained about Solander’s ingratitude.

Some of Linnaeus’ apostles are remembered in the names of plants: the genus Ternstroemia for Christopher Tärnström, who died of a fever on an expedition to what is now Vietnam; Loeflingia hispanica for Pehr Löfling, who died in Guiana.

Linnaeus Today

Taxonomists and natural scientists still study Linnaeus’ works.  There are statues and memorials to him throughout the world.  The Linnaean Society of London, founded in 1788 by James Edward Smith[10], is the world’s oldest active biological society.  The society acts as the guardian of Linnaeus’ botanical, zoological and library collections and has an ongoing role in documenting the world’s flora and fauna.  The Society promotes the study of all biological sciences and encourages scientific exchange through its journals, meetings and website.  It has 2,000 Fellows, from a range of nations and backgrounds – both professional scientists and amateur naturalists. Its meetings are open to the public.

In Sweden, Linnaeus is still a national hero.    The delicate flower named after him (Linnaea borealis) was embroidered on to the collars of the uniforms of members of the medical profession and he is often known by Swedish children as the Flower King or the Prince of Flowers. The mythology that has grown around Linnaeus includes tales that his cradle was decorated with flowers and that he was given flowers as toys to play with or to calm him when he was a child.

Grave of Carl von Linné specially decorated fo...

Sten Lindroth, a former professor at Uppsala University, described the personality cult that grew around him: “We know of no other example where a great scientist has become part of a whole people’s national consciousness, a patriotic symbol.”[11]

The Swedish Linnaeus Society (Svenska Linnésällskapet) was established in 1917.  It has re-released some of Linnaeus’ publications and publishes its own yearbook.  It also runs the Linnaeus Museum in a house where Linnaeus once lived, and is involved in the digital publication of Linnaeus’ correspondence.

In 2007, Sweden celebrated the three hundredth anniversary of his birth with a week-long festival featuring  eighteenth century music, the premiere of the film Mr Flower Power, a tulip festival, music, dance performances, a memorial ceremony in Uppsala Cathedral and a conferment of doctoral degrees at Uppsala University.  Special guests included Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko of Japan, and the King and Queen of Sweden. [12]

Family Life

Linnaeus was the son of a Lutheran minister and a devoutly religious mother, both of whom expected their son to enter the church.  Linnaeus’ father kept a large garden and encouraged his son’s interest in botany.  After entering the Gymnasium, it became clear his real interest lay in the natural world and his parents were eventually persuaded to let him study medicine (closely linked to botany at that time).  He came to believe he had a divine mandate to name plants and animals, and wrote, of himself, “God himself has led him with His own almighty hand”.

His family was not wealthy and Linnaeus struggled financially his whole life, relying at times on the support of mentors and patrons.

He married Sara Lisa Moraea in 1739.  They had seven children, but only five survived to adulthood.  Linnaeus took his role as a father seriously and prepared for his son[14] (also called Carl Linnaeus) a book called Nemesis Divina[15], filled with moralising stories and cautionary tales.  The book carried the idea that one’s suffering was brought upon oneself – divine punishment for wrongdoing.  He did not encourage his daughters to undertake formal learning, however.


As one might expect, Linnaeus was an organised man: his student, Johann Fabricius, wrote “…his greatest quality was his power of ordered reasoning and logical thought; whatever he said or did was orderly and systematic.”  Linnaeus would not have been able to introduce his classification system worldwide without his methodical, organised approach.

Linnaeus was one of the great empirical observers – carefully noting and describing what he saw.  He managed to work out many things that had previously been unknown, for example that the reason reindeer hooves moving over snow made a noise like castanets, was because they were hollow.

He was not known for his modesty, but his assessment of his abilities was generally accurate.  For example, he wrote that he was “the person who has brought science to its present completeness”.

Like many great people, he had his faults, including  self-glorification and egocentricity.  Linnaeus reviewed his own works and declared them masterpieces.  The self-praise in his autobiographical notes was effusive.  In one autobiography, he wrote of himself: “God has been with him, wherever he has gone, and has eradicated all his enemies for him and made him a great name, as great as those of the greatest men on earth …. Nobody has been a greater botanist or zoologist”.

He was sometimes guilty of exaggeration, for example publishing an account of one of his journeys that included a fictitious journey to a location he had never visited.  As he relied on such publications for income at the time, he may have felt he needed to do this to make it more marketable.  And at times, he neglected to acknowledge the  contribution of others. Georg Dionysius Ehret, a great artist of natural history, prepared a tabella (poster) illustrating  Linnaeus’ classification system.  When Linnaeus included this in one of his own publications, he failed to acknowledge its source.  Ehret wrote later:

“When he was a beginner [Linnaeus] appropriated everything for himself which he heard of, to make himself famous.”

Yet, despite his enormous self-belief, Linnaeus suffered occasional bouts of despondency[17].  In his later years, his past triumphs, honours and titles no longer seemed to make him happy.  Referring to the Linnaea plant, Linnaeus wrote that it was “low, insignificant, forgotten, flowering for a short time; it is named after Linnaeus, who resembles it.”  He could also be oversensitive to criticism.  Lindroth wrote: “…an unfriendly glance from an important patron and he could not sleep for weeks”.

He was not above making mistakes.  Some of Linnaeus’ medical discoveries were later proven false.  For example, he published a dissertation on how ergotism (a wheat disease caused by a fungus) was caused by seeds of the turnip-radish being mixed in with the grain.

Linnaeus was a supporter of the Enlightenment and in many instances, was alert to the superstitions and forgeries of the day (such a seven-headed “hydra” he immediately denounced as a fake on a visit to Hamburg).  However, he still advised his students that a puppy would become a dwarf if its back was rubbed with aquavit and he firmly believed the folklore of the day that swallows overwintered at the bottom of lakes.

Linnaeus’ Legacy

There is no doubt that Linnaeus was a great influence in the field of science, transforming the way we classify plants and animals.  Taxonomists still follow Linnaeus’ basic system.  No scientific name of an organism is valid unless it was made by Linnaeus or afterwards.  Human beings are still classified among the primates.  Some of his larger groupings of animals (such as Mammalia, for mammals, and Pisces, for fish) are still in use today.  He laid the groundwork for evolutionary thinkers like Charles Darwin.

Linnaeus was a tireless worker – to the point of endangering his health.  His passion and drive for what he saw as a divine mission, sustained him through financial and other hardships.  He was immensely influential of others – including his contemporaries and the “apostles” he despatched throughout the world to continue his work.

But this extraordinary man was a complex character, and not without his faults.  He was prone to exaggeration and obstinacy.  Self-doubt mingled the conviction that he was right.  Nowadays, he might be thought of as a classic narcissist: someone with an inflated sense of self-importance, a desperate need for admiration and over-sensitivity to criticism.

But it seems unlikely he could have achieved as much as he did without those very flaws.  Without an extreme self-belief, he may never have thought it possible to embark on the enormous task of classifying “all Creation”, and we may not have the understanding of the natural world we have today.

Timeline of Linnaeus’ Life

1707        Born in Råshult, in the province of Småland in Sweden

1727        Studies medicine at Lund University

1728        Transfers to Uppsala University

1730        Works as a Demonstrator at the Botanic Garden in Uppsala where his demonstrations prove extremely popular.  Employed to teach Rudbeck’s children.

1732    Leads a scientific expedition to Lapland

1734    Leads an expedition to Roros near the Norwegian border

1735    Graduates as a doctor of medicine at Harderwijk University in Holland.  Publishes the first edition of Systema naturae.

1738    Establishes a medical practice in Stockholm, treating young men for syphilis.

1739    Is one of the founders and the first President of the Royal Academy of Science in Stockholm. Marries Sara Lisa Moraea.

1741    Appointed as professor of medicine at Uppsala University.   Undertakes a scientific expedition to the islands of Öland and Gotland.

1746    Leads a scientific expedition to Västergötland.

1749    Leads a scientific expedition to Skåne

1750    Appointed as Rector of Uppsala University

1753    Publishes Species Plantarum.

1757    Appointed as physician to the Swedish royal family.

1758    Publishes the 10th edition of Systema Naturae.

1762    Official confirmation by the Swedish Parliament of an earlier royal decision to grant him a knighthood.  Thereafter known as Carl von Linné.

1778    Dies in Uppsala.


Carolus Linnaeus in Laponian costume; replica ...

Image via Wikipedia


Blunt, Wilfrid The Compleat Naturalist: A Life of Linnaeus (2001)

Fara, Patricia. Sex, Botany, and Empire: The Story of Carl Linnaeus and Joseph Banks (Revolutions in Science) (2004)

Frangsmyr, Tore;  Sten Lindroth and Gunnar Eriksson Linnaeus: The Man and His Work (1983)

Huxley, Robert The Great Naturalists (2007)

Online Sources:

 Encyclopaedia Britannica online

 University of California Museum of Palaeontology

 Linnaean Society of London

 Linné Online (Uppsala University)





[1]These are Linnaeus’ own words, that he was fond of repeating.

[2] His views also reached Japan and America

[3] Many new categories have been added since Linnaeus, such as superfamilies, sub-genera and varieties.  Also, modern taxonomy focuses on evolutionary relationships of common descent, rather than superficial similarities.

[4] For example he wrote:

The actual petals of a flower contribute nothing to generation, serving only as the bridal bed which the great Creator has so gloriously prepared, adorned with such precious bedcurtains and perfumed with so many sweet scents in order that the bridegroom and bride may therein celebrate their nuptials with the greater solemnity.  When the bed has thus been made ready, then is the time for the bridegroom to embrace his beloved bride and surrender himself to her…

[5] The Pope of the day forbade the introduction of Linnaeus’s works to the Vatican and it was not until 1774 that a botanics professor was appointed to lecture on Linnaeus’ work in Rome.

[6] He proposed five categories within Homo sapiens: Africanus, Americanus, Asiaticus, Europeanus, and Monstrosus, each race having certain characteristics. He was, perhaps unsurprisingly, biased towards Europeans, seeing them as muscular, swift, clever and inventive.

[7] These days, the kingdoms have been replaced with three domains: Bacteria, Archaea and Eukarya, the latter including fungi, plants and animals.

[8] He speculated that the fruit in the mythological Garden of Eden was, in fact, a banana, and named it Musa paradisiaca.

[9] He suffered a great deal of financial hardship in early adulthood and gave lectures both to survive and to pay for his own studies.

[10] Smith bought Linnaeus’ library, manuscripts and collections from Linnaeus’ widow.

[11] Linnaeus the Man and his work, edited by Tore Frangsmyr, 1983

[12] Source: ‘The Local – Sweden’s News in English’

[13] though not apparently, for his daughters, whom he discouraged from formal learning

[14] discovered after his death

[15]Biographer William Blunt suggests this may have been influenced by his family.  Linnaeus’ father was  from Småland, a southernprovince ofSweden.  Smålanders were reportedly known inSweden for their energy and tenacity, with a saying: “Put a Smålander on a rock and he will feed himself; give him a goat and he will grow rich”.

[16] His prospective father-in-law insisted Linnaeus have a steady income before he could marry his daughter.

[17] In 1758, in a letter to his friend Bäck, he wrote: “I am the child of misfortune.  Had I a rope and English courage, I would long since have hanged myself.  I fear that my wife is again pregnant.  I am old and grey and worn out, and my house is already full of children; who is to feed them?”


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