Carl Linnaeus Essay

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Carl Linnaeus , naturalist and taxonomist, was born May 13, 1707, at Rasult, near Stenbrohult, Smaland, Sweden. He was educated at Vaxjo school and the universities of Lund and Uppsala. In 1732 he travelled to Lappland to study its little known natural history and economy. Linnaeus left Sweden for the Netherlands in April 1735, graduating with an M.D. from the University of Harderwijk that year. He then moved to Leiden where he published his Systema naturae (1735), which classified the three kingdoms of nature (plants, animals, minerals) and outlined the sexual system for the classification of plants. He became physician and garden superintendent to George Clifford, a wealthy Englishman living in the Netherlands.

Linnaeus visited England in 1736, where he persuaded leading naturalists to adopt his systems for classifying plants and naming all living organisms. His systems were developed at a time when European travellers were bringing back unprecedented numbers of plants and animals from previously unknown lands. It was extremely important that his methods were adopted by naturalists from imperial countries such as Britain and the Netherlands, especially when those naturalists were, like Sir Joseph Banks, actively involved in voyages of discovery. Linnaeus’s pupils also helped to spread his ideas, which came to be almost universally accepted.

Linnaeus’s main contributions are the sexual system for the classification of plants, and the design of his classification scheme, which is hierarchical and uses binomial nomenclature. The sexual system, described in successive editions of Systema naturae and Fundamenta botanica (1736) and Classes plantarum (1738), uses the number and arrangements of the sexual organs of stamens (male) and pistils (female) to group plants into 24 classes. The classification produced some anomalies and later classifications generally follow John Ray’s practice of using morphological evidence from all parts of the plant and all stages of plant development, later attempting to infer evolutionary relationships from this evidence.

What survives from Linnaeus’s sexual classification is its hierarchical nature (species are grouped into genera, genera into orders, orders into classes, and classes into kingdoms) and his use of binomial nomenclature in which the two elements of genus and species name form short names, much more convenient for quick reference than the discursive and mutable labels suggested by his contemporaries. Linnaeus was not the first to use binomial forms, but his consistency, precision, and rigor promoted the general acceptance of the practice.

Returning to the Netherlands in 1736, Linnaeus published further important botanical works before returning to Sweden in 1738, largely in order to marry (in 1739) his Swedish fiancee. He turned to medicine to make a living, but continued his scientific work, being a founder member and first president of Kungliga Vetenskapsakademien (the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences) in 1739.

In 1741 Linnaeus became professor of botany at Uppsala University, reviving the botanical garden there. He was an inspiring teacher, drawing pupils from all over the world. Similarly he was honored by scientific societies worldwide. Linnaeus undertook several journeys in Sweden at the behest of the government, searching for plants that might be economically useful.

In 1758 Linnaeus bought an estate at Hammarby, near Uppsala. He was ennobled, taking the name Carl von Linne in 1762. His health deteriorated and he died on January 10, 1778, in Uppsala and was buried at Uppsala Cathedral. When his son Carl died, his family sold most of Linnaeus’s botanical collections to a British naturalist who brought them to what became the Linnean Society of London. Most of the rest of the collections remain in Uppsala. In 1905 Linnaeus’s Species plantarum (1753) was accepted as the starting point for modern botanical nomenclature and the 10th edition (vol. 1) of Linnaeus’s Systema naturae (1758) is the starting point for modern zoological nomenclature. About 12,000 internationally agreed-upon names have “L” appended to them to indicate that they originate in a description published by Linnaeus.


  1. Gina Douglas, “Carl Linnaeus,” in C.G. Matthew and Brian Harrison, eds., Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004);
  2. Tore Frangsmyr, ed., Linnaeus, the Man and His Work (University of California Press, 1994);
  3. William T. Stearn and Gavin Bridson, Carl Linnaeus, 1701-78: A Bicentenary Guide to the Career and Achievements of Linnaeus and the Collections of the Linnean Society (Linnean Society, 1978).

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