Story 67: The Botanist

The teachers at the school of Carl von Linné (or Carl Linnaeus) were in agreement that they were disappointed in his performance and advised his father, who was a priest, not to expect his son to advance much in his studies, for they found him neither intelligent nor talented. They thought that it would be better for his father to find a manual job suitable for his son and let him pursue that instead.

However, despite all their troubles and setbacks, von Linné’s parents sent him to university to study medicine. Lacking in financial means, they paid only a small portion of the fees for his studies. Were it not for the compassion and aid of a benefactor, whom von Linné had become acquainted with on the University campus, poverty would have had the upper hand on him.

Contrary to his parents’ wishes, von Linné was not interested in the field in which he was studying. Rather, he was interested in the field of botany. He had been interested in plants since his childhood, inheriting this aptitude from his father. His father’s garden was overflowing with beautiful plants. Since his childhood his mother used to give him a flower as a way to calm him down whenever he was upset or crying.

During his studies at Medical School, he came across a work written by a French botanist. He set his heart on the contemplation of the mysteries of plants. In those days, one of the questions which drew the attention of the scholars of botany was the correct method of classification of plants and vegetables. Von Linné succeeded in innovating a particular method, using binomial nomenclature, as the basis of classification of the plants, which was well received.

The work which he had published on the subject provided him with the opportunity to apply for a position at the University in this field. He displayed his talent at the same university where he was engaged in studies. However, he was unable to obtain the position due to the envy of some of his contemporaries.

Von Linné became intoxicated with his success. It was the first time in his life that he had tasted the pleasure of success and therefore did not give any importance to failing to attain the University position. He organized a scientific mission and prepared for a long journey in order to carry out a study of nature. Among the necessities for his journey, he had taken a suitcase, a few undergarments, a magnifying glass, and a few papers. He then set out on foot, all alone.

He covered a distance of seven thousand kilometers. Facing extraordinary difficulties, he returned with a great quantity of knowledge and data for analysis. In 1735, three years after that event, he moved to Hamburg. He had found that in Sweden, his home country, he had not managed to obtain steady work.

On visiting one of the museums in Hamburg, he was shown one of their treasures by the director. It was supposedly a snake with seven heads. The heads were not only similar to that of a snake, but they bore resemblance to that of a weasel too. However, von Linné soon discovered that it was a fake and made his observation public. The local mayor became enraged with the visitor and ordered his expulsion.

Von Linné continued on his journey. On the way, he completed his thesis on medicine and managed to publish his own work in the city Leiden under the title ‘System of Nature’. This work earned him good standing.

A rich citizen in Amsterdam asked him to oversee his exquisite and unparalleled gardens. By accepting this position, he succeeded in becoming financially stable and getting the opportunity to rest that he needed. Owing to his beneficent supporter, von Linné was able to visit France and devote himself to the collection of different species of plants in the forests of Meudon.

In the end, he became homesick and yearned for his motherland. He returned to Sweden, but this time, his home country came to appreciate his true value and gave the man, who had been once been dismissed by his school supervisors as unqualified, the acclaim which his genius, perseverance and iron will deserved.1

  • 1. The History of Science by P. Rousseau, p. 382 and 383.