Linnaeus in the Netherlands: Mentors

2 Claytonia virginica

Specimen of Claytonia viriginia collected by John Clayton, courtesy of the Natural History Museum, London.

In the last post, I outlined the early days of Linnaeus’s three years of travel (1735-1738) and mentioned his early meetings with Herman Boerhaave, a physician and retired director of the Leiden botanic garden, and Jan Frederik Gronovius, a botanist with a large herbarium.  Linnaeus was much younger than them, and he learned a great deal from both, especially because they allowed him to study their specimen collections.  So they deserve more attention in this series of posts on Linnaeus’s travel experiences (Blunt, 1971).

For many years, Herman Boerhaave taught medicine at the University of Leiden and elevated the institution’s stature.  He then headed the university’s botanical garden and worked to increase its holdings of exotic plants.  He was aided in this by his contacts with the Dutch East India Company ( VOC), one of the leaders at the time in trading with Asia.  Following company instructions, surgeons and captains on VOC ships brought back cuttings, seeds, and specimens of plants they encountered on their travels.  Boerhaave was able to add many of these to his garden and herbarium, four volumes of which are now in the Sloane Herbarium at the Natural History Museum, London.  In addition, he published descriptions of new species and built on the work of botanists such as John Ray and Joseph de Pitton Tournefort in attempting to develop a natural classification system (Rutgers, 2008).  It is no wonder that with this background Boerhaave appreciated what Linnaeus was attempting to do with his Systema Naturae, which he had already sketched out by the time he went to Leiden.

Jan Gronovius was a student of Boerhaave’s.  He was an avid specimen collector and kept up a wide correspondence with naturalists in Europe and beyond.  It was through this network that he obtained John Clayton’s specimens from Virginia (see figure above).  Clayton became interested in botany and plant collecting after meeting Mark Catesby on his second trip to the American Southeast collecting for what became the impressive The Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama IslandsAfter Catesby returned to England, Clayton shipped him specimens, which Catesby then passed on to Gronovius.  Eventually Clayton sent specimens and letters directly to Gronovius.

At this time, “sending a letter” across the Atlantic could mean waiting months to a year or more for a response, if indeed a response ever came.  Also at that time there was great interest in North American plants and not only because of their novelty.  Since the climate there was temperate as was that of Europe, species were more likely to acclimatize well and could be introduced into gardens.  Wealthy landowners were clamoring for the latest novelties, and botanists wanted to be the first to describe new species.  This helps to explain why Gronovius published a book, Flora Virginica, based on Clayton’s manuscript and specimens without letting him know about it ahead of time and gaining his permission.  This sounds rather dubious, but he did credit Clayton with finding the plants and sending him information on them along with the specimens.  Also, later observers have noted that because Gronovius was so well connected, his publication likely made Clayton’s work more broadly known than if Clayton himself had written on them.  As a case in point, Gronovius allowed Linnaeus to study the Clayton specimens, and so they became type specimens for a number of the North American plants Linnaeus described in Species Plantarum.  Linnaeus spent the winter of 1737-1738 with Gronovius right before returning to Sweden.  They worked on Clayton’s 1737 shipment of plants, to which they gave Linnaean names, a very early use of his system.

Gronovius was also in touch with another American botanist, John Bartram in Philadelphia.  They were originally connected by Bartram’s patron in England, Peter Collinson, another adept networker.  Bartram sent material to Gronovius, who again allowed Linnaeus to examine it.  This was later than with the Clayton material; Linnaeus by then had his long-term academic position in Uppsala and the two sent packages of specimens back and forth between them.  Eventually Gronovius and Bartram corresponded directly, as did Gronovius and Cadwallader Colden, a New York naturalist whose daughter Jane Colden was also involved in botany and produced an illustrated manuscript on New World plants (Colden, 1963).

One last name that should be mentioned as a Linnaean mentor is someone of his own age whom he had worked with while studying at the university in Uppsala.  There they planned to develop a system to organize all living things.  They divided up different groups between them.  For example, Linnaeus opted for most of the plants, and Peter Artedi selected fish and the Brassicaceae as among his favorites.  Finishing their studies, they went their separate ways, then met by chance in Amsterdam and took up where they left off.  Unfortunately, Artedi soon drowned in one of the city’s canals.  Linnaeus saw to the publication of Artedi’s manuscript on fish, and the approaches they developed to classification greatly influenced Linnaeus’s future work.  This is one of those cases where it’s interesting to speculate on what they would have achieved if they had been able to work together for years.

While the three individuals discussed here were important to Linnaeus’s career, it could be argued that the most important individual of his Netherlands sojourn was George Clifford with whom Linnaeus lived and worked for over two years.  Clifford will be the subject of the next post.

References

Blunt, W. (1971). The Compleat Naturalist: A Life of Linnaeus. New York, NY: Viking.

Colden, J., Rickett, H. W., & Hall, E. C. (1963). Botanic Manuscript of Jane Colden, 1724-1766. New York: Garden Club of Orange and Dutchess Counties.

Rutgers, J. (2008). Linnaeus in the Netherlands. TijdSchrift Voor Skandinavistiek, 29, 103–116.

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