His career and legacy

Did you know Linnaeus was a professor, scientist AND doctor? He had an impressive career which still affects the way we work today.

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.

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 the first of his many of his scientific papers and books.

Carl Linnaeus

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. A charismatic teacher, he surrounded himself with students, the most gifted of whom he sent on voyages of exploration. His 'apostles', as he called them, crossed the continents in order to bring back new plants and animals, which Linnaeus would name according to his new binomial system of nomenclature. Some of them died en route.

In 1747, Linnaeus was appointed chief royal physician and he was knighted in 1758, taking the name Carl von Linné (which is why we are called the Linnean Society, not the Linnaean Society!).

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.


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.

Linnaeus' most famous scientific name is probably the name he gave humans, Homo sapiens. Homo is the genus that includes modern humans and closely-related species like Homo neanderthalensis (Neanderthals). Linnaeus did two things that changed our understanding of humans:

  • He decided man was an animal like any other, and put Homo sapiens in the animal kingdom, alongside other animals. This paved the way for Darwin's theory of evolution a century later.
  • Because he considered man as simply another animal, he subdivided humans into four different "varieties", based on skin colour and geographic origin: "white" Europeans, "red" Americans, "tawny" Asians and "black" Africans. Linnaeus initially believed that these varieties arose from different climatic conditions. Thus he also distinguished an "alpine" variety (Homo alpinus), including the Sámi in the North, and the Swiss living high up in the Alps. But especially with the twelfth edition of Systema naturae (1766), he proposed more hierarchical views based on differences in innate moral and intellectual capacities, thus contributing to the birth of scientific racism.

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.