Carl Linnaeus can inspire Indian taxonomy!
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Although Carl Linnaeus passed way in 1778, the life and methods of this Prince of
Botanists continues to inspire taxonomy. A visit to Uppsala Hammarby in Sweden, is an
eye opener regarding his life and science. Linnaeus surrounded himself with “curios and
curious” students. Though he seldom travelled abroad, he profusely networked with his
peers which helped him to test and experiment his philosophies and also expand his
understanding of the natural world. His Uppsala manor is still adorned with illustrations
which continues to surprise botanists and naturalists alike. He and his family lived in the
Hammarby with dead fishes and live monkeys. He planted and studied many plants in
his Hammarby garden and grove. His Herbationes Upsalienses is probably one of the
first recorded examples of “citizen science” through which he not only inspired many
young talents to pursue it as a career but also advance taxonomy. “Citizen science” can
help Indian taxonomy to open up and trigger this image rich discipline.
Keywords: Carl Linnaeus, Uppsala Hammarby, Museum in altis, Linnaen Museum,
Carl Linnaeus: The life
For most botanists and naturalists, Linnaeus does not need any formal introduction, But
his life and legacy does. Carl Linnaeus (born Monday, 23
May, 1707, in Rashult, in the
province Smaland in southern Sweden) learned his first lessons in botany from his father,
Nicolaus Ingemarsson (Michael, 2008). At eight, Linnaeus was a “popular” botanist of
the neighbourhood. After his elementary education, he went to Lund University in 1727
and from there to the University of Uppsala in 1728. Linn’s botanical capabilities
influenced the Royal (Swedish) Academy of Sciences which supported his historic
Lapland expeditions. It was during this journey (Michael, 2008), Linnaeus collected his
“signature flower”, the dainty twinflower, Linnaea borealis L. (F Caprifoliaceae).
Between 1735 and 1738, he also traveled abroad to Netherlands (took his doctoral degree
from Harderwyk), Denmark, Germany, England and France. In 1735, while in the
Netherlands, Linnaeus published the 1
edition of his Systema Naturae which had only
eleven pages (the 13th edition, published in 1770 had 3000 pages)! It was in the first
edition that Linn presented a new classification system for the three kingdoms viz.
animal, plant and the kingdom of rocks and minerals. After returning from his only
overseas visits ever, Linnaeus married Sara Elisabeth (Lisa) Moraea on 26
(Goerke 1966; Michael, 2008). Finally, before his death on 10
January, 1778, he
authored many historical manuscripts that are now part of botanical lore.
Carl Linnaeus obviously had an obsession with order (Michael, 2008). It is widely
believed that he tried classifying everything around him, plants, animals, minerals,
diseases, and even colleagues! Linnaeus also had a failed experience with his single lens
Cuff microscope (Nyman and Nilsson, 2009). For Linnaeus, microorganisms remained a
blind spot (Ford, 2009).
The binominal nomenclature is commonly regarded the greatest achievement of Carl
Linnaeus (Michael, 2008) which he brought forth in Species Plantarum (1753). However,
there are views that Linnaeus neither invented two-word names nor did he establish them
in a single step (Stearn 1959; Heller 1964). Naming species by referring to a more
general concept and adding one word as a specific descriptor was in use since the ancient
times (Michael, 2008). He argues that what Linnaeus actually did was to elaborate a
universal nomenclatural method that was soon accepted by most of his contemporaries.
With his sexual system, Linnaeus, however established a high degree of aperspectival
objectivity in morphology (Vogt, 2008) that unfortunately has been lost subsequently.
Carl Linnaeus also produced many classifications (Fauna Svecica in 1746, Species
Plantarum in 1753, and again in 1758, the tenth edition of Systema Naturae (Animalia)
with 4376 species listed) which contributed extensively to the progress of biological
systematics. The methodology he elaborated through his classifications also became
equally famous (Jahn and Schmitt, 2001).
There is also evidence to believe that Linnaeus also actively networked with the
contemporary experts. Information needed for his writings are sourced through these
linkages. In 1760, he himself had listed around seventy-one correspondents, from Russia
and Turkey in the East to America in the West. It was in Latin that Linnaeus
corresponded with the foreign scholars. Incidentally, a source of knowledge of British
Indian plants for Linnaeus was Van Rheede’s Hortus Malabaricus (Nordenstam, 2009).
Linnaeus included 258 Malayalam names of plants from this book in his Species
Plantarum (Mohan Ram, 2003). He adopted many Malayalam plant names to coin
binomials directly or after Latinizing them. Some examples include Elettaria
cardamomum (L.) Maton (the lesser cardamom) and Areca catechu L. (the betel nut). The
works of Kaempfer, and C. Commelin, Merian, Plumier, Petiver, Sloane, and Rumpfis,
also provided iconotypes for many 1753 Linnaean binomials (Stearn, 1998). At the time
of his death in 1778, Linnaeus was in correspondence with more than 200 Swedes and
around 400 other nationals. Several of these letters are today accessible on the internet
(please see http://linnaeus.c18.net/Letters/index.php). Linnaeus also maintained
professional affiliations. He was a fellow of the Royal Society of London (1753) and was
a member in the academy of St. Petersburg (1755). He also was one of the only eight
foreign members of the French Academy (1762). He was the President of Royal Swedish
Academy of Sciences several times and was also the Secretary to the Uppsala Scientific
Society (1744). He was also an adviser to the Swedish royal family.
In 1741 Linnaeus was appointed professor of Medicine at the University of Uppsala
(Michael, 2008). Uppsala is around 70 km north of Stockholm, which can be reached by
a train in about 50 minutes. In late 1758, at the age of 51, Linnaeus eventually purchased
two estates adjacent to Uppsala, namely Hammarby and Sävja. The estate at Hammarby,
located at four kilometers southeast of Uppsala, has one main building and two wings. He
built the main building, laid out the garden, the grove and planted the Siberian Crab
Apple (Malus baccata (L.) Borkh.) tree.
The main Uppsala Hammarby building is a two storey wooden house whose floorboards
of the first floor and all the walls are made of heavy wooden planks. Most of the rooms of
the manor have a fire place to fight the winter chillness. The rooms on the ground floor
houses a modest collection of Sara Lisa and Linn’s personal articles. The attire worn by
Linnaeus while he obtained his doctors’ degree in Holland is in display there. Also in
display are some chinaware, probably gifted to him by some of his travelling apostles. In
Linn's private lecture hall at his Uppsala Hammarby, a replica of Linn’s lectern along
with a few wooden benches is retained to create his classroom ambiance.
Through a wooden winding stairway, one can reach the upper floor and step on to the
study room of Linnaeus. The wall is wall-papered with beautiful and clear illustrations
and descriptions of various plant species, which even now looks amazing. These
illustrations are probably from Plumier´s Plantarum Aamericanarum, a botanical treatise
on West Indies (Nordenstam, 2009). The drawings perhaps also reflects Linnaeus’s eye
for the details of the specimens he collected or was brought to his attention. It is also said
that the plates from which the wallpaper was made were actually the proofs for books
that had been sent to Linnaeus for classification and naming. The Swedish botanist Karin
Martinsson has studied the engravings closely and determined that they are, in fact, taken
from a number of botanical works. It is said that he loved his magnificent wallpaper and
proudly showed it to all of his visiting guests.
The walls also had portraits of his daughters. There was also a drawing of whale, a few
monkeys and a picture of the “coat of arms” of Linnaeus. This room leads to another
small room, perhaps, his bedroom, which unfortunately is kept out of bounds. Through
the dim lights, I saw the walls, which too displayed another valuable set of illustrations.
One reason why Linnaeus bought Hammarby was his desire to have his own personal
collection away from the official trappings. While he lived here, Linnaeus had planted at
least one hundred species around the Hammarby manor (Manktelow and Kenneth, 2004).
In the front of the main building at Hammarby, there is still a healthy collection of
different plant species. Among the plants introduced by Linnaeus to Hammarby were
Wild Tulip (Tulipa sylvestris L.) Hazelwort (Asarum europaeum L.), Pride of Ohio
(Dodecatheon media Greene), Crosswort (Cruciata laevipes Opiz), Barrenwort
(Epimedium alpinum L.) and Russian Belladonna (Scopolia carniolica Jacq.). The
subsequent generations or representatives of some of the species planted by Linnaeus are
still there. The most famous plant in this collection, which is planted by the Hammarby
doorstep itself, is Linaria vulgaris L. (formerly Peloria). This plant had caught the
imagination of Linnaeus who noticed that it had a differently built flower. This
arrangement was contrary to his concept that genera and species had universally arisen
through an act of original creation and remained unchanged since then (Gustafsson,
1979). So he called it “Peloria”, monster. Iris variegate L., Leibnitzia anandria (L.)
Turcz., Jovibarba globifera (L.) J.Parn. (hen-and-chickens houseleek) and Alcea rosea L
(Stockros or Common Hollyhock) are still there in the front yard of Uppsala Hammarby.
Linnaeus was as much a working physician, agriculturalist and land surveyor as he was a
taxonomist (Reid, 2009). This seemed to be very true.
Outside the Hammarby house, there is a small grove where Linnaeus used to sit and
smoke his pipe. Among many plants here, the dog’s mercury (Mercurialis perennis L.),
the plant pictured on the Swedish hundred kronor currency note is an interesting species.
As a student, it was through this plant that Linnaeus gave a new dimension to the sex life
Keep alive in your own day the grove I have planted, and if any trees be lost, plant others
in their place-thus requested Linnaeus to Sara Lisa. This inscription is displayed in the
grove. The grove now has a number of large trees like Ash (Fraxinus excelsior L.) Maple
(Acer platanoides L.) and Elm (Ulmus glabra Huds.). In the dense undergrowth, one can
notice an aromatic plant called sweet cicely (Myrrhis odorata Scop.) which was
originally planted by Linnaeus.
Two hundred meters across the grove stands the personal museum (Museum in altis) built
and maintained by Linnaeus himself on May 21, 1769. His intention was to keep his
valuable collections out of the reach of fire. Linnaeus was very much afraid of fire
destroying his collections. The great Uppsala fire of 1702 in which his professor, Olof
Rudbeck the Elder saw much of his life’s work go up in smoke was always in his
memory. Later in 1766, a fire in Uppsala destroyed a third of the town. These infernos
prompted Linn to be very cautious with his collections. A small granite building with a
conical roof, the Museum in altis now houses only a very few articles. Inside there was a
herbarium and insect cabinets, his “plugghasten” (lectern) and a few wooden benches.
The most interesting exhibit in the Museum in altis was a model of a large fish which
hung from the ceiling.
There is also a huge boulder placed strategically atop a slope in the Hammarby estate. It
was a large Runes stone. It was a practice among scholars of that era to have texts carved
in runes. The runic alphabets are a set of related alphabets using letters known as runes to
write various Germanic languages in the 1
century AD before the adoption of the
Latin alphabet. In the runes stone at Hammarby was an inscription: Sir Carl Linnaeus
purchased Hammarby in 1758
A different teaching style
During summer, Linnaeus received and taught many students in the Uppsala Hammarby.
As a teacher, he invented novel ways to inspire his students to look at and understand
nature. In his classrooms, he always presented living materials to his students. His study
tours around Uppsala, called as Herbationes Upsalienses, set a new example of teaching.
Linnaeus usually walked all the way from Uppsala University to Hammarby with around
150 students in tow. In these trips, the professor and the students examined the flora
together. It is said that they collected not just plants but also animals and rocks.
Occasionally they would stop to rest and the students with the most unusual collections
will be lucky to be seated close to Linnaeus. God created, but Linnaeus organized, yes,
but this would not have been fully possible without his Uppsala Hammarby (Gopakumar,
The professor and his collections are no more
In the morning of January 10, 1778, Linnaeus died at his home in Uppsala and was buried
on January 22, in Uppsala Cathedral. A large elm that had been growing on his
Hammarby was reportedly cut down to make his coffin. He was buried in the tomb he
had bought already in 1745, and it was immediately sealed. It is said that the farmers
from Hammarby and Sävja carried his coffin to his grave in Uppsala Cathedral.
In September 1784 (after Carl von Linné the younger’s death in 1783), Linnaeus’
collections-his herbarium of 14,000 plant specimens, fish (168), his shell (1564) and
insect collections of nearly 3,198 specimens, and his library of 1,600 volumes was
purchased by an Englishman, Mr. James Edward Smith for £1088.5s. In 1788, Smith
founded the Linnaean Society of London, to further spread the Linnaean system. When
he died in 1828, the Linnaean Society raised funds and purchased the collections from
What we can learn?
We can very confidently say that Linnaeus was central to the development of systematics
and taxonomy (Godfray 2007). Current global investigations and mapping of biodiversity
is a continuum of his legacy (Per Sjogren-Gulve et al., 2007). Since Linnaeus, the
estimates of global species diversity have increased almost exponentially. Linnaeus’s
science and methods still remains relevant and decisive for biodiversity conservation. But
ironically, there is still a clear lack of comprehension about how many extant species
exist in nature (Erwin, 1982; Dobson et al, 2008). As many had remarked many times
over, will we ever achieve a secure estimate of extant species before they become extinct?
Despite the urgency to conserve the remaining biological diversity, identifying,
classifying and naming of species continues to proceed at a slow and uneven rate
(Dobson et al, 2008). Nonetheless, a number of never-before capacity building efforts in
taxonomy has also taken place over the last 20 years (Janzen, 1994; Smith and Rogo,
2005). Unfortunately, in India, taxonomy continues to be considered a “lesser science”
and is often cold-shouldered in funding competitions. This is despite our status as
biologically wealthy nation and also our commitment to conserve our remaining diversity
as per many international treatises and obligations.
Linnaeus's Uppsala Hammarby and his methods indicates that the fault is partly with our
approach. In the times of Linnaeus, taxonomy was a fledgling discipline. Like him, the
opportunity for Indian taxonomy lies in harnessing the energy, time and skills of the
innumerable number of para-taxonomists and other amateur naturalists located across our
great country. Taxonomy in India must shed the traditional image and become a more
To survive, and to do so with elan, Indian taxonomy must do what Linnaeus did; create
an “army of naturalists” from all interested in the subject, ignoring their basic trainings.
How much of our understanding of “Floral diagrams and Floral formulae” are actually
getting translated as new discoveries? The Botanical Survey of India and other taxonomy
institutions and departments must encourage scenarios that will help the emergence of
“citizen science” in Indian taxonomy. Let us rope in our para-taxonomists and other
amateur naturalists who can help us in generating raw, new data. What is the current
status of the All India Coordinated Project in Plant Taxonomy and similar initiatives?
What is the possibility of reviewing and re-modelling them and including other
institutions and researchers outside the MOEF-BSI-traditional universities ambit?
Meanwhile, the Indian Association for Angiosperm Taxonomy (IAAT) must develop and
submit a proposal to the government for launching more wider and larger networked
projects focusing on several plant groups. The All India Network Project models of the
Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR) system is a good example to follow.
Probably, we must also admit that we have to alter the ways we currently teach taxonomy
in our colleges and universities. Let us copy the interesting aspects of Linnaeus “open-air
classrooms” and make it more exciting and challenging and foster them as recruitment
grounds of our future taxonomists. It was through these classrooms, Linnaeus developed
his nomenclature concept and other discoveries. It was also in this “open” environment
that his students could train their observational skills and progressed from novices to
naturalists (Hanna, 2010). Let us also do it. Simultaneously, let us also open up our
taxonomic research centers and departments and allow the “citizen scientists” to work
and interact freely with those who know “floral diagrams and formulae” and contribute to
Otherwise, this captivating and image-rich discipline will continue to remain as tax-on-
me in one of top ten species rich nation of the world.
Some of the photographs of my visit to the Linnaean sites can be viewed at
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