Who was Linnaeus?

So just who was Carl Linnaeus? Find out who inspired Linnaeus to learn about the natural world and how he changed the way we see it. Learn about classification and why it is still important today.

Early Life

Carl Linnaeus

Carl Linnaeus is famous for his work in Taxonomy, the science of identifying, naming and classifying organisms (plants, animals, bacteria, fungi, etc.). He was born in 1707, the eldest of five children, in a place called Råshult, in Sweden. His father, called Nils, was a minister and keen gardener. He would often take his young son Carl into the garden with him and teach him about botany (the study of plants). By the age of five, Carl had his own garden, which gave him a great thirst for learning about plants and how they work.

Nils taught Carl that every plant had a name. At the time, plant names (which were in Latin, and still are to this day) were very long and descriptive, and difficult to remember. Nevertheless, Carl dedicated himself to learning as many as he could. In fact, at school he was often more interested in memorising plant names than in his school lessons. Due to his interest in plants and science, Carl was encouraged by his tutor, Johan Stensson Rothman (1684–1763), to study medicine.

In 1728, after spending a year studying medicine at the University of Lund, Carl Linnaeus transferred to Uppsala University, in the hope that the course would be better. He studied the use of plants, minerals and animals in medicine. It was here that he came to the attention of Olof Celsius (1670–1756) a theologian (professor of religious study) and naturalist (studying natural history). Celsius, who was uncle to Anders Celsius (the inventor of the Celsius thermometer), found Linnaeus studying in the university botanic garden—and was very surprised to find that the young man knew the names of all the surrounding plants. Linnaeus had very little money and Celsius offered him a place to live while at university and allowed him to use his library. During this time, Linnaeus wrote an essay on the classification of plants based on their sexual parts and one professor, Olof Rudbeck (1660-1740), was so impressed that he asked Linnaeus to become a lecturer in botany.

Travels and Career

From 1732 to 1735, Linnaeus travelled throughout Sweden, particularly in Lapland and northwest Sweden, in order to record and collect information on the country’s natural resources. Linnaeus used his new binomial system of nomenclature to describe the plants and animals he found on his travels. He encouraged his students to use this system as well. Linnaeus, who continued to lecture at Uppsala between field studies, was still a student until finally in 1735 he travelled to the University of Harderwijk in Holland where he very quickly took his medical degree. He spent most of the next three years in Holland with some travelling to Germany, France and England. He was the supervisor of the wealthy banker George Clifford’s zoo and gardens while he was in Holland and it was also during this time that Linnaeus was able to publish many of his scientific papers and books.

Linnaeus returned to Sweden where first, he practiced medicine in Stockholm. Then, after marrying Sara Lisa Moraea, he became a professor of botany at Uppsala University in 1741. Linnaeus was both popular and influential as a professor and scientist; it was due to his influence that the Royal Navy sent naturalists on all their voyages, including Charles Darwin. In 1747, Linnaeus was appointed chief royal physician and he was knighted in 1758, taking the name Carl von Linné. Linnaeus suffered from illness towards the end of his career and just a few years after retiring, died on 10 January, 1778.

Not only is Linnaeus considered the “Father of Taxonomy”, he was also a pioneer in the study of ecology. He was one of the first to describe relationships between living things and their environments.

Why is Taxonomy important?

How do we make sense of biodiversity? The answer is classification. By grouping living things into defined hierarchies and giving them individual names we create order which allows us more easily to study the seemingly chaotic world of nature. Carl Linnaeus is most famous for creating a system of naming plants and animals—a system we still use today. This system is known as the binomial system, whereby each species of plant and animal is given a genus name followed by a specific name (species), with both names being in Latin. For example, we are Homo sapiens. Homo is the genus that includes modern humans and closely-related species like Homo neanderthalensis (Neanderthals). Linnaeus named over 12,000 species of plants and animals, although some have had to be renamed because we know more about them now. Linnaeus published many books using his new system of classification and his two most famous books, Species plantarum (1st edition, 1753) and Systema naturae (10th edition, 1758), are still used by scientists as the basis for naming plants and animals.