Linnaeus | Carl | 1707-1778 | Swedish taxonomist

Biographical Information

Occupation, Sphere of Activity

Carl Linnaeus was born in Sädra Råshult, Småland, Sweden, on 23 May 1707. He showed an early interest in botany in the garden of his father's parsonage, and developed it as a schoolboy in Växjä under Johan Rothman, who taught him the prevailing plant-classification system of Joseph Pitton de Tournefort (1656-1708). He undertook medical training in 1727 at the Universities of Lund and Uppsala, but spent all the energy he could in plant study. His special interest was the novel notion of one of Tournefort's pupils that plants had gender: this he thought could be a sensible basis for their overall classification. He developed the idea among the botanists of Leyden, pausing first to take an MD in the University of Harderwijk. These botanists received his key taxonomical works rapturously, the Systema naturae (1735) and the Fundamenta botanica (1736). By the 1740's he was back home, married, and writing furiously. After doctoring a short while for the navy, and having set up a Swedish Academy of Science, he arranged a seat at the University of Uppsala, where he renovated the university's gardens and began teaching hugely popular courses in plant biology. His scholarly output was prodigious and influential. Between 1751 and 1753 he published, besides other things, an expansion of his Fundamenta, the Philosophia botanica, and a practical catalogue of plant life, the monumental Species plantarum, which tabulated some 8,000 Linnaean names. He toiled to expand the latter for the rest of his career, even as he penned other monographs and continued to update his Systema naturae. All the while, he served as court physician, inventoried economically useful plant life for Parliament, and critiqued noblemen's gardens, who finally ennobled the parson's son to Carl 'von Linné' for his doughty service. He retired exhausted and suffering strokes in 1774, and died in Uppsala on 10 January 1778.

This compulsive organizer, who imagined that he was replicating on paper God's order in nature, gave eighteenth-century botanists overwhelmed by the new stream of foreign plants the enduring principal of sexuality as basis for classification. Artificial as he conceded this was, he never found a methodus naturalis to replace it. Linnaeus also worked out fixed rules for the lower systematic categories of genera and species, with each species distinguished from the others by a 12-word differentia specifica of standard morphological terms. As well, he devised the binomial nomenclature, one for the genus and one for the species, that we still use to keep all this precision manageable. Presciently, he hinted occasionally at a pre-Darwinian model of diversity through evolution. Linnaeus was less convincing as an animal taxonomist, but he was also less enthusiastic. He was the first at least to identify the whale as a mammal. His arrangement of the mineral kingdom had very little influence, but he did describe competently a number of fossils, correctly placing trilobites among the arthropods. He put his hand to disease classification too. In medicine he figures with Francois Boissier de Sauvages, with whom he maintained a lively correspondence, as a co-founder of systematic nosology.


Johan Rothman (fl. 1716), local doctor and teacher in Linnaeus's school days in Växjä. Kilian Stobaeus (fl. 1727), physician on the medical faculty at Lund University. Olof Celsius (1670-1756), amateur botanist and dean of Uppsala Cathedral, uncle of Anders Celsius, of centigrade fame. Olof Rudbeck, Jr. (fl. 1727), elderly friend of Olof Celsius and senior faculty member in Uppsala University. Johannes Burman (1706-?), professor of botany and director of the Amsterdam Botanic Garden. Albert Seba (c1665-?), Amsterdam apothecary and collector of plants. Herman Boerhaave (1668-1738), medical and chemical lecturer at University of Leyden, secondarily a supervisor of the university's botany programme; his special interest was systematizing medical tuition. Johan Gronovius the Younger (1690-1762), Leyden physician and botanist. George Clifford (1685-1760), wealthy Anglo-Dutch merchant, owner of the famous herbarium near Haarlem. Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753), London physician, scientist, and collector. Johann Jacob Dillenius (1687-1747), Sherardian Professor of Botany in Oxford, famous for his knowledge of mosses. Francois Boissier de Sauvages (1706-1767), nosologist and medical semiologist.

Students in Uppsala who became famous in their own right included the Scandinavians Peter Ascanius and J.C. Fabricius, the entomologist; the Germans Johann Beckmann, Paul D. Giseke, and J.C.D. Schreber; the Russian Barons Demidoff; and his only American, Adam Kuhn, who became professor in Philadelphia.

Linnaeus, whose clergyman father, Nils Ingemarsson Linnaeus (1674-1733), had been an avid amateur botanist, collaborated from 1759 with his own son, Carl von Linnaeus the younger (1741-1783), whose career as a botanist was not especially luminous finally.

Other Significant Information

Notable publications:

Praeludia sponsaliorum plantarum, ( 1730)

Hortus uplandicus, (1730)

Systema naturae , (1735)

Fundamenta botanica, ( 1736)

Biblioteca botanica , (1736)

Hortus Cliffortianus , (1737)

Flora lapponica , (1737)

Critica botanica , (1737)

Genera plantarum , (1737)

Classes plantarum , (1738)

Olandska och gothländska resa , ( 1745)

Flora suecica , (1745)

Fauna suecica , (1746)

Västgäta resa , (1747)

Amoenitates academicae , (1749ff)

Skånska resa , ( 1751)

Philosophia botanica , (1751)

Species plantarum , (1753)

Honours, Qualifications and Appointments

By his death, Linnaeus was a member of practically every relevant learned society worldwide.

1739: Co-founder and first President, Swedish Academy of Science, Stockholm

1741: Appointed professor, practical medicine, University of Uppsala

1742: Appointed to Chair of botany, Uppsala, Sweden

1747: Appointed court physician

1753: Created Knight of the Polar Star

1761 (antedated 1757): Elevated to the nobility as von Linné


List of sources for the biographical information:

Backlund, Anders, Carl Linnaeus - Carl von Linné', (, Department of Systematic Botany, Uppsala University, 1998)

Blunt, Wilfrid, The Compleat Naturalist: a life of Linnaeus, (London, Collins, 1971)

Broberg, Gunnar, Linnaeus. Progress and Prospects in Linnaean Research, (

Gillespie, CC, ed, Dictionary of Scientific Biography, (New York, Scribner's, 1970-1990), s.v. "Linnaeus" by Sten Lindroth

Gourlie, Norah, The Prince of Botanists, (London, Witherby, 1953)