Sweden kicks off Linnaeus festivities

"God created, but Linnaeus organised": those are the words of Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus himself, the celebrated scientist who developed the modern classification of nature and who was born 300 years ago.

To celebrate the tricentenary of Linnaeus’ birth on May 23, 1707, festivities, exhibits, conferences and floral events will be organised in Sweden and around the world this week.

In his groundbreaking book Systema Naturae, published in 1735, Linnaeus, also known as Carl von Linné, the name he was given after he was knighted by the Swedish king in 1757, classified the animal, plant and mineral worlds, defining each species by a double name in Latin.

Under this binomial nomenclature, the first name referred to the genus and the second a specific “shorthand” name. It was Linnaeus who coined the term Homo sapiens, a species that he classified among primates.

“He named 8,000 different flora and around 4,000 to 5,000 animals … most of the vegetable kingdom around us,” Carl-Olof Jacobson, a retired zoology professor at Sweden’s Uppsala University and chairman of the Swedish Linnaeus Society, told AFP.

Born in Råshult in southern Sweden as the son of a pastor, Carl Linnaeus was fascinated by plants and flowers from an early age. He went on to study medicine at Lund University and then Uppsala University, where he became a professor.

He received his medical degree in the Netherlands, where he lived for three years.

According to Jacobson, Linnaeus was a “revolutionary professor” who regularly took his students on excursions – he called them “herbations” – to study nature.

At Uppsala University, the classrooms “were always packed when Linnaeus was teaching a class, attended not only by medical students but anyone who was studying at the university and even people who weren’t studying!” he said.

Many of Linnaeus’ students, which he called his “apostles,” crossed the seven seas and braved terrible illnesses, which sometimes claimed their lives, to conduct research. They travelled to South Africa, China, Japan, Australia, Russia, Siberia, and North and South America among other destinations.

Linnaeus, a father of seven who became the physician to the Swedish royal family in 1757, was not only engrossed in medicine, botany, zoology and geology.

He was also interested in the Swedish economy, and in 1739 he and a group of other scientists founded the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in order to promote research to help the country’s industries.

Ethnography also interested him, and he observed and described Swedish customs and traditions with a particular emphasis on folk dances.

Linnaeus was also a man ahead of his time with his particular interest in ecology, Jacobson said.

“He believed that man had a responsibility to the world we live in, that man was part of it and not superior to it,” he noted.

While most of Linnaeus’ research was conducted in Sweden, his work was spread throughout the world, in part thanks to his correspondence with hundreds of other international researchers.

In Sweden, the tricentenary celebrations of his birth have been going on since the start of 2007 and will culminate this week.

Japanese Emperor Akihito, a marine biologist who is a fan of Linnaeus, will attend special ceremonies on May 23 in Uppsala, with other events during the week attended by former UN secretary general Kofi Annan, British documentary filmmaker David Attenborough and primatologist Jane Goodall.

Festivities will be held to mark the anniversary in Japan, where flora and fauna were categorised by one of Linnaeus’ students, in Britain, where most of Linnaeus’ collection is now located, and in the Netherlands where he lived.

Other events will take place in Russia, Italy and China, according to Mats Bergquist, one of the organisers of the tricentenary.