In the long history of plant science, no name is more famous than that of Linnaeus and no book is more highly regarded than his “Species Plantarum,” published in 1753.
Who was Linnaeus? To what does he owe his fame? And why is the mention of his book on the species of plants worthy of notice?
Carl Linne (Linnaeus is the Latin form of the name) was born in 1707, the son of a country parson in south Sweden, and a love of flowers seems to have been instinctive with him. They were his first toys: when he was a noisy baby, he would at once become quiet if a flower were put into his hand. As a child of four, he went to a picnic with his father, who told the guests the names of various flowers they saw, and thereafter it was the lad’s great pleasure to learn more and more plant names. He little thought, we might be sure, that he was thus laying a foundation for his life’s work.
At school he was an average student, though especially good in Latin, the only language other than Swedish that he ever knew. But Latin was sufficient, as in those days it was the lingua f ranca of learned men in all countries. Plants were still his main interest, to the disappointment of his parents who had intended him for the church, and when he went on to the University of Uppsala it was to study medicine and botany, which then went hand in hand. Except for the little money his parents could give him, he had to work his way, and a hard way it was until eased by scholarships and the kindness of professors who gave board and room to so promising a young man.
When only 25, Linnaeus was selected by the Academy of Sciences to survey Lapland, the bleak northern area of Sweden and Norway. There he traveled over 4,000 miles in conditions of hardship but with much success, including the discovery of more than 100 new plants. Next he went to Holland, where he took his M.D., stayed three years and produced 14 books, then visited England and France, set up in Stockholm as a physician, married, and finally settled down in1741 to his long career as professor of botany in Uppsala.
Students came to him from many lands, for he was a great teacher and as unusual as he was inspiring. To have been a pupil of Linnaeus was in itself enough to secure an appointment, and some of these pupils went on to fame.
As the busy years passed, Linnaeus became more renowned and honors came to him. He was created a Knight of the Polar Star in 1753 and was admitted to the House of Nobles in 1761, adding the honorific “von” to his name. He paid little attention to this, however, and signed Carl Linne as often as Carl von Linne. In 1775, being in poor health, he resigned and lingered in the gradual decline of his faculties until his death in 1778.
In circumstances which the Swedish people have never ceased to deplore, the collections of Linnaeus, including his herbarium, manuscripts, correspondence, stuffed animals and birds, shells, insects, and minerals, were purchased from his family by a young English naturalist, J. E. Smith, and taken to London. There, with a few exceptions, they are to this day preserved as priceless treasures.
It is computed that Linnaeus wrote altogether 180 books, large and small, one of the latest being the “Species Plantarum,” which he first planned in 1733 and eventually compiled with immense labor between 1746 and 1753.
In systematic botany “Species Plantarum” is regarded as an epoch-making work, since it has been universally agreed upon as the starting-point for the Latin binomial, or two-word, names of plants. These are recognized in all countries, and so enable positive identification of a plant species anywhere, regardless of innumerable vernacular names.
It is not claimed that Linnaeus invented binomial names, or that he thought they would suffice without the additional phrase that went with plant names in the older books. Theophrastus, the father of botany used binomials even in the 4th century B.C., but it was Linnaeus who systematized them and made them into a workable code of nomenclature, distinguishing for the first time between species and varieties, and making the species the unit of classification.
What Linnaeus did, then, was to bring order into the diffuse and chaotic mass of knowledge about plants by providing a means of classification and a system which, though imperfect as he well knew, permitted a plant to be labeled very simply but so effectively that it could not be confused with any other. His genius was for order, his passion for classification, so that he classified everything, even the botanists whose books he used.
Linnaeous and his “Species Plantarum” by Francis C. Coulter