Linnaeus - The Man (24 May 1707 - 10 January 1778)

by R. J. Ferry

It is one thing for this worker to cite a reference, but quite another thing for the average reader of this journal to be able to dig into that specific reference and search its text in detail.  The reference to Pultney (1805) is a case in point.  The Pulteney volume probably did not see a great many copies originally printed, and with a publication date of over two hundred years ago, few of those remain.  Your editor's is an original copy, and as may be seen (Figs. 1 & 2), the book is in poor condition, with the pages clearly showing wrinkled edges and the discoloration of age.  One handles such a volume with extreme care!  The book's covers are detached and its pages are crisp with age (reading such a book at three and four in the morning brings back memories of Poe's lines about perusing "many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore").  Importantly, however, the book conveys impressions of individuals still quite close to Linnaeus's relatively recent death, and where else might one go to read Linnaeus's personal diary as it was first published in English? 


Fig. 1. Opened volume of Pulteney (1805) showing engraving of Linnaeus.

Fig. 2. Volume of Pulteney (1805) showing title page and condition of pages.

Beginning with page 494, recapping some of Linnaeus's merits, one reads as follows:

"Nature had been eminently liberal in the endowments of his mind.  He was possessed of a lively imagination, corrected by a strong judgement, and guided by the laws of strict system; the most retentive memory; the most unremitting industry; and the greatest perserverance in all his pursuits, as is evident from that continued vigour with which he prosecuted his degign (adopted so early in life) of totally reforming and arranging anew the history of all the productions of nature.  To this science he gave a perfection unknown before; and he had the uncommon felicity of living to see his own method, notwithstanding every discouragement its author at first laboured under, and the opposition it long met with, preferred to all others.  Yet no writer more cautiously avoided that common error, of enveavouring to build his own fame on the ruin of another man's.  He every where acknowledged the several merits of each author's system, and no one appears to have been more sensible of the partial defects of his own.  Those anomalies which had principally been the subjects of criticism, he well knew every artificial arrangement must abound with; and, having laid it down as a firm maxim, that every system must finally rest on its own intrinsic merit, he willingly committed his to the judgement of posterity.  Perhaps there is no circumstance of Linnaeus's life that shows him in a more dignified light, than his conduct toward his opponents.  Disavowing controversy, and justly considering it an unimportant and fruitless sacrifice of time, he never replied to any cavils or invectives, numerous and malignant as they one time were.

Linnaeus had a happy command of language, and no man ever applied it to his purposes more successfully, or gave it more precision of conciseness, It has been objected, as derogatory to his learning in no small degree, that he has introduced a number of terms not warranted by classical authority.  But, granting this, it ought to be recollected that Linnaeus, in the investigation of nature, discovered a multitude of relations entirely unkown to the ancients; if therefore the objection have any force, let it be shown that the terms which he has introduced to express these relations are not fairly and analogically deduced from the Greek and Latin languages, and that they are not well adapted to that technical phraseology which is so usefully substituted for the tedious circumlocutory descriptions of former writers...."

"The ardor of Linnaeus's attachment to the study of nature, from his earliest years, and his uncommon application to the philosophy of the pursuit, gave him a most comprehensive view both of its pleasures and of its usefulness, at the same time that it opened to him a wide field, before but little cultivated, especially in his own country.  Hence he was early led to regret, that natural history had not, by public institution, been more cultivated in universities, in many of which logical disputations and metaphysical theorizing had too long prevailed, to the exclusion of more useful science."

...and , on pages 499 and 500, we read,

"His features were aggreable, and his countenance animated, the eyes, which were brown, being remarkably bright, ardent, and piercing; he speaks of having enjoyed excellent sight.  His hair, in infancy was white as snow, but it became brown when he grew up, and in advanced age hoary: at which period many very large wrinkles appeared on his forehead His teeth were weak, and very early became carious, in consequence of an hereditary tooth-ache to which he was subject in his youth.  - In temper he was quick and irritable, yet easily appeased; he possessed a natural cheerfulness, and even in old age exhibited nothing like torpor or inactivity...."  From the extreme difficulties, of a pecuniary nature, which he experienced in the early part of his life, it is not improbable that he acquired habits of a very strict economy and frugality; but that the love of riches was not a passion with him, is proved by his acknowledged liberality respecting fees from his pupils and by the scanty profits with which he was content from his publications."

The last word of this passage is footnoted by the author as follows:

"He is understood to have never received more than a ducat a sheet for any of his writings, which, from the time of his being settled in Sweden, were purchased by Laurence Salvius, of Stockholm, who for many years made large exportations of books to the Dutch fairs."

In places, the Pulteney volume can be dry reading as it recounts historical details, and its writing style can be awkward for one used to 20th Century books.  However, the author has recorded a voluminous amount of information relative to the life of Linnaeus.  Linnaeus's diary reveals the man's ego, but also his extraordinary attention to detail; a trait vital to his attempt to put order to the botanical chaos he encountered early in life.  Albert Einstein once remarked that one of the cardinal virtues was to have a "holy curiosity."  In this respect Linnaeus was self-driven.  His life was devoted to work, and his work provided a foundation for generations of biologists and botanists. 


© R. J. Ferry.  Originally published in McAllen International Orchid Society (MIOS) Journal 10(7): 4-6. 2009-July.