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Entering a New World: The Northern Travels of Carl Linnaeus in 1732

(The following is a post by Taru Spiegel, Reference Specialist, European Division.)

In May of 1732, the young and determined Swedish scientist Carl Linnaeus (1707-78) set off from the old university town of Uppsala on a research expedition to Sápmi, then known as Lapland. This is an area comprising northern Norway, Sweden and Finland, as well as the Kola Peninsula of Russia. The purpose of the journey was to describe the nature of what was then considered a remote wilderness. Observations on this and other trips inspired Linnaeus to establish his famous method for identifying, naming, and classifying plants, animals, and stones by kingdom, class, order, genus, and species (taxonomy). This, and the two-name system of classifying organisms by genus and species, e.g., panthera leo for lions, panthera tigris for tigers (binomial nomenclature), have since enabled scientists to document and compare notes in a systematic manner.

Linnaeus kept a detailed diary of his observations which began as follows:

Having been appointed by the Royal Academy of Sciences to travel through Lapland, for the purpose of investigating the three kingdoms of Nature in that country, I prepared my wearing apparel and other necessaries for the journey as follows. My clothes consisted of … leather breeches; a round wig; a green leather cap, and a pair of half boots.

The leather breeches were chosen for durability because Linnaeus rode on horseback for most of the thousands of miles he covered from May to October on his northern travels in Sweden, Norway, and Finland. To pursue his work, Linnaeus carried with him a microscope and a “spying glass” or telescope, a gauze cap for protection from gnats, paper stitched together for drying plants, a small shotgun, and a measuring stick. The resulting, ground-breaking work from this mission, “Flora Lapponica,” (Plants of Lapland) was published in 1737. Two years before this, the hard-working Linnaeus had already published “Systema Naturæ” (A General System of Nature), detailing his classification system. In his scientific works and with the international scientific community, Linnaeus used Latin, as was the custom, and the latinized version of his name, Carolus Linnæus.

In addition to his observations of nature, Linnaeus spent considerable time with the hospitable Sami people, then known to outsiders as Lapps. He admired their ingenious ways of adapting to the harsh northern conditions, and the manner in which every part of the reindeer was used for food and clothing. Linnaeus himself found the Sami clothing so practical and comfortable that he continued to wear this garb frequently, even after his return to Uppsala. Copies of the Martinus Hoffman painting of Linnaeus in this attire appeared in a number of publications.

Linnaeus in Sami attire. After a 1737 portrait by Martinus Hoffman. The caption reads: “London, Published by Dr. Thornton, June 1.1805. Linnæus in his Lapland dress. From an original Picture in the Possession of Dr. Thornton.” Robert John Thornton (1768-1837) was a physician and dedicated botanist.

In his left hand, Linnaeus holds a Sami shaman drum that was used to foretell the future and provide advice. These drums were becoming a rarity in the 18th century, as many were destroyed by Christian missionaries who viewed them as instruments of witchcraft. The Sami were increasingly drawn into the Swedish church and state orbit from the 16th century onward.

Sami drum. Detail from “Linnaeus in Sami attire.”

From Linnaeus’ belt hang decorated pouches, a lidded horn, and other items. In his right hand Linnaeus holds his favorite northern flower, linnaea borealis (twinflower). The Dutch botanist Jan Frederik Gronovius named the plant after Linnaeus, which is why the slip (on which image?) of paper reads “Linnæa Gronov.”  Gronovius was of great help to Linnaeus when the young Swede visited the Netherlands from 1735 to 1738.

Linnaea borealis. Detail from “Linnaeus in Sami attire.”

The frontispiece to “Flora Lapponica” presents a somewhat imaginative interpretation of Linnaeus in Lapland. In the foreground, Linnaeus holds a Sami drum and seems to exchange glances with an amazingly docile reindeer. Behind Linnaeus is a Sami dwelling, or goahti.  The right-hand corner again features the linnaea borealis. In the background various Sami go about their daily tasks. The work itself is dedicated to “the most celebrated and learned gentleman,” Dr. George Clifford III, a wealthy amateur botanist who employed Linnaeus during the latter’s stay in the Netherlands.

The frontispiece to “Flora Lapponica,” also by Martinus Hoffman, etching by A. van der Laan.

Linnaeus continued to publish assiduously throughout his life. He had also qualified as a physician in the Netherlands, and subsequently began to practice medicine after returning to Sweden. Because of his important research, Linnaeus was named professor at the University of Uppsala. He was also one of the founders, and the first president, of the Royal Academy of Sciences in Stockholm. For a lifetime of remarkable original scientific work, Linnaeus was ennobled in 1761, from which time he became known as Carl von Linné.

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