6th June 2014: Late night Linnaeus

Published on 6th June 2014

Isabelle Charmantier (whose audio slide show on Linnaean writing technologies can be found here and is well worth a watch/listen) has come across these wonderful mauscripts in her work here at the Linn. As she explains....

Carl Linnaeus’s lifelong ambition was to publish a catalogue of all the world’s known plants. This catalogue would be named Species plantarum, and although it features in Linnaeus’s list of publications (as ‘mainly unfinished’) in letters as early as 1733, it was not published until 1753. The process of writing was long and arduous. The Linnaean collections comprise two drafts of the work. The first one, begun sometime in 1746 and abandoned in 1748, contains around 500 genera. The second one is a witness to Linnaeus’s incredible efficiency and capacity for work: begun in June 1751, Linnaeus completed it within a year, and is in effect the draft of the printed version of Species plantarum.

catalogue of all the world’s known plants

Linnaeus’s letters to his friends and colleagues reveal the hard work, pain and doubts that went with composing the work. On 5 September 1746, he wrote to apologise to his dear friend Abraham Bäck for not seeing him often, but that he was ‘working hard at Species plantarum from morning until night’. By 1748, his letters express his doubt at his ability to finish the monumental work: in a letter to French botanist François Boissier de La Croix de Sauvages written in July 1758, he despaired of ever finishing the work, threatening to throw it in the fire. By October 1749, he was writing to Bäck that he was having second thoughts about it, and that he had abandoned it for the moment. The first draft of the Species plantarum is a witness to Linnaeus’s hard work. On a few pages are splatters of candle wax from Linnaeus working late into the night.

few pages are splatters of candle wax

Species plantarum is now established as the starting point for the nomenclature of most plants – a success that would have delighted Linnaeus. It is worth reflecting on the labour, the doubts, and the frustration that Linnaeus experienced as he was writing it. They are all encapsulated in a few drops of wax on a page.

Species plantarum