The Linnaean Apostles: Daniel Solander

3 Solandra tridentata LINN 332a.2

Solandra tridentata (LINN 332.2) from the herbarium of the Linnean Society, London

In the last post I discussed one of Carl Linnaeus’s students, Peter Forsskål, who never returned from his expedition to the Near East.  Daniel Solander (1733-1782) traveled farther and also lived to study the fruits of his exploration.  He was born in Lapland and, not surprisingly, studied in Uppsala where he was considered Linnaeus’s favorite pupil.  When British botanists asked Linnaeus to send someone to England to boost the use of Linnaean taxonomy, Solander was chosen.  He left in 1760 and never again lived in Sweden.  At first, he spent time reorganizing the herbaria of wealthy patrons such as the Duchess of Portland and Peter Collinson, who was one of those who had encouraged Linnaeus to send an “apostle” to England.  He was influential in British botanical circles as a member of the Royal Society, a trustee of the newly formed British Museum, and a patron of the American nurseryman John Bartram.  Solander sent specimens from Collinson and others on to Linnaeus.  When the British Museum was looking for someone to care for the herbarium of Hans Sloane, the donor of the museum’s founding collection, Collinson asked Lord Bute, then Prime Minister, to suggest Solander to the King as the ideal choice (Rose, 2018).  This is a fascinating, though tiny, piece of history because all of the individuals involved were interested enough in plants that the care of a plant collection would be discussed at the highest government levels.

Solander began working at the museum in 1763 and set about giving the plants in the herbarium Linnaean names without disrupting the physical order of its 265 bound volumes.  This was a compromise that would allow those not familiar with the new system to still find plants in the collection using Sloane’s system, which was essentially an annotated copy of John Ray’s Historia Plantarum in which Sloane or his botanical curator had written the volume and folio numbers for each species, noting new species when necessary.  Solander began with the first volumes of the herbarium, those containing the collections Sloane had made while he served as physician to the Duke of Albemarle on the island of Jamaica in 1687-1688.  Among the 800 species were hundreds of new ones that Sloane described in his two volume Natural History of Jamaica (1702-1727).  Solander wrote the names on labels that he added to Sloane’s sheets, but retained the older labels, an approach that not been taken by many earlier botanists though later became the norm.

While at the museum, Solander began to receive visits from a young botanical enthusiast, Joseph Banks, heir to a large fortune who had attended but not graduated from the University of Oxford.  He supplied Solander with an unmarked copy of the Sloane Jamaica volumes to annotate.  This was a good way to keep track of the Jamaican species.  When Solander moved on to the rest of the collection, he used slips of paper to record the new names and crossreferenced them with the volume and folio numbers.  He also annotated a copy of Linnaeus’s Species Plantarum.  In this way, the collection was “modernized” without being rearranged.  This went on until 1768, when Solander took on a very different kind of challenge.

Banks had convinced the British Admiralty to make him part of the round-the-world expedition to be led by James Cook on the Endeavor.  It’s major aim, and the publicized one, was to observe the transit of Venus across the sun, which would take place on June 3, 1769.  However, Cook was also instructed to visit Australia, acquiring as much navigational and geographic information for future use in possible colonization (O’Brian, 1993).  Banks, at his own expense, put together a team to study natural history.  It included Solander, Herman Spöring of Finland as secretary, two artists, and two servants.  Banks paid to outfit the ship for his group as well as for scientific instruments and other supplies for preserving specimens and even for growing plants.  There is obviously a lot to this story, but for now I will stick to Solander and plants.

Apparently Banks and Solander made a good team.  They developed a system for dealing with the huge amount of material they collected, in all, about 30,000 plant specimens.  They would return to base each day, give the artist Sydney Parkinson the fresh material to sketch and make color notes, while they, with Spöring’s help, wrote up their notes.  The plants were pressed, though at times, as when they reached Australia, their system couldn’t keep up with collecting.  Plants weren’t drying fast enough, so the pair laid them out on deck on sails during the day.  Needless to say, this massive collection proved daunting to tackle for publication.  Banks and Solander worked on it for years, with engravings made of about 800 species from the Parkinson drawings.  The artist hadn’t survived the voyage, but he did produce 900 complete watercolors and as well as hundreds of sketches.  Unfortunately, Solander died in 1782 before the project was completed, and Banks seems to have given up first-hand work on botany after his death.  Instead, Banks became more involved in projects to promote botanical exploration as well as agriculture.  The Banks’ Florilegium wasn’t published until the 1980s in 34 massive volumes.  Solander did not publish much but he was obviously essential to the Endeavour mission, and perhaps even more importantly, to making the Sloane Herbarium a continuingly useful botanical resource.

References

O’Brian, P. (1993). Joseph Banks: A Life. Boston, MA: Godine.

Rose, E. D. (2018). Specimens, slips and systems: Daniel Solander and the classification of nature at the world’s first public museum, 1753–1768. The British Journal for the History of Science, 5 (2), 1–33.

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The Linnaean Apostles: Peter Forsskål

2 Forskohlea sp Linn

Forskohlea sp. (LINN 605.1) from the herbarium of the Linnean Society, London

I should note before introducing the second of the students of Carl Linnaeus whom he sent out to gather exotic plants for him, that I am only going to deal with four of them in this series of posts, though there were about 20 by one count and 17 are listed in a booklet available online, The Apostles.  I chose these men because they are the ones I’ve most often encountered in my reading about botanical explorations, and they seemed particularly intriguing, as in the case of this post’s subject, Peter Forsskål (1732-1763).  Like several others in the group, he died on his travels and had interests that stretched well beyond botany.  Born in Finland, he spent much of his childhood near Uppsala and then attended the university there, studying with Linnaeus.  However, his chief interest was in orientalism.  He showed such promise that he was sent to Germany to study with Johann Michaelis, a leading biblical scholar and specialist in Near Eastern languages.  Forsskål again excelled, and his intellectual thirst was so great he continued to study botany as well as entomology and philosophy (Baack, 2013).

There was a liberal political environment at the university that excited Forsskål and inspired him to write a pamphlet called Thoughts on Civil Liberty.  In 1759, he had it published in Swedish and Latin, though only after the Swedish government censors had made some changes to the text.  This essay contributed to a Swedish freedom of the press act in 1766 (Goldberg, 2013).  However, it did not endear Forsskål to the faculty in Uppsala who refused to offer him a faculty position.  Meanwhile, Johann Michaelis urged the Danish king to finance a scholar fluent in Arabic to go to Yemen to study the natural sciences and geography of the Near East.  Scholars from Britain and the Netherlands were investigating this field, and Michaelis wanted to have a direct line to the area.  The King’s advisers were interested in encouraging Danish culture and science, so they even provided extra funds—two years of support for preparations.

Forsskål spent his time studying with Linnaeus on how to describe plants accurately and take notes on geography and climate.  He also continued studying Arabic and biblical history, though as the expedition continued it became more about natural history and less about religious studies.  There were five in the scientific contingent besides Forsskål:  a philologist to study language and custom, a physician, an artist, an assistant, and finally a cartographer and mathematician, Carsten Niebuhr, who was the only one of the six to return alive from the expedition that lasted over six years.  They sailed from Copenhagen in January 1761 and reached Alexandria in September.  Several difficulties kept them in Egypt for almost a year.  Forsskål used his time well once he worked out how to function effectively in the area.  He was attacked and robbed twice while exploring in the desert, so he hired a Bedouin guide who led him to interesting local specimens.  He also grew a beard, took an Arabic name, and dressed in robes.  Eventually he collected 576 species in Egypt; half were new species.  This was the most extensive Egyptian plant collection made in the 18th century.  He also wrote on the fertility of Egyptian soil and the relationship between geography and plant characteristics.  Though I am focusing on plants here (of course), Forsskål also collected insects and shells, sending everything back to Linnaeus.

From Egypt, the group then set out for Yemen, sailing across the Red Sea where Forsskål made extensive observations on marine biology.  In Yemen, he and Niebuhr often explored together, taking multi-day excursions into its biologically and geologically varied regions:  coastal plain and marshes, desert, and highlands.  Local officials and inhabitants were helpful.  In six months he managed to collect 693 different plant species, more than half new to science.  He also took extensive notes on plant habitats and distributions.  It’s obvious that Niebuhr as a cartographer would have had input here, and it’s easy to envision their conversations as they traveled.  Unfortunately, Forsskål only managed to complete six months of collections in Yemen before he died there of malaria in July 1763.  Niebuhr, surviving Yemen, went on with the expedition to India.  He eventually returned to Denmark in 1768 and arranged for the publications of Forsskål’s Flora Aegyptiaco-Arabica in 1775, even using his own funds to see the project through to completion.

Needless to say, Linnaeus made good use of the materials Forsskål sent him; these were particularly important because they included the Arabic names for the plants.  Paired with the specimens, these provide information that is still valuable on what was growing in the area.  Forsskål did collect duplicates, but the bulk of his collection, over 1300 sheets, is held in the herbarium of the Natural History Museum in Copenhagen where it is considered the institution’s greatest treasure.  Forsskål was only 31 when he died, but he made a significant contribution to science and also to human rights with his essay on civil liberty.

References

Baack, L. J. (2013). A naturalist of the Northern Enlightenment: Peter Forsskål after 250 years. Archives of Natural History, 40(1), 1–19.

Goldberg, D. (2013). Peter Forsskal: Goettingen prodigy and author of one of the least known jewels of Enlightenment literature. Goettingen Academy of Sciences.

The Linnaean Apostles: Pehr Kalm

1 Kalmia angustifolia 560.2

Kalmia angustifolia (LINN 560.2) from the herbarium of the Linnean Society, London

In the last series of posts (1,2,3,4), I discussed Carl Linnaeus’s time in the Netherlands where he was able to broaden his knowledge of plants and solidify his ideas on taxonomy.  When he returned to Sweden, he stayed put for the rest of his life, never leaving his native land again.  However while in Holland, England, and France, his exposure to plant collections from all over the world—living and preserved—made him realize that what was available in Sweden was indeed limited.  He tackled this problem in two ways.  First by maintaining a large correspondence with a broad range of botanists and collectors throughout the world, and secondly helping to engineer collecting trips by some of his students and proteges.  He himself called them “apostles,” but in most cases they were less involved in proselytizing his taxonomic system and more committed to collecting new species to augment his massive work, Species Plantarum, his attempt to name and describe all known plants.

One of the first travelers for Linnaeus was Pehr Kalm (1716-1779), who studied at the University of Uppsala in the early days of Linnaeus’s professorship there.  They were both interested in useful plants that would strengthen Swedish agriculture, and Kalm studied economics with an eye toward this issue.  Canada seemed a particularly attractive area in which to search for new species, because it was at a similar latitude to Sweden.  In addition, Linnaeus was interested in obtaining more plants and information from two men in the British colonies, with whom he had already been in communication, John Bartram and Cadwallader Colden.  He and other professors managed to finance Kalm’s trip.  While spending several months in London waiting for transport, he visited Peter Collinson, a merchant and botanical enthusiast who had met Linnaeus several years earlier during the latter’s London visit (Blunt, 1971).  Kalm also went to the farm of another gentleman botanist, William Ellis, author of The Practical Farmer (1732). They discussed how weeds such as bracken could be useful within the economics of farming.  No trip to London for a botanist would be complete without a visit to Chelsea Physic Garden, and in his journals Kalm also noted plants in the fields and meadows he encountered on his walks.

Kalm finally reached Philadelphia in September 1748 with a letter of introduction from Linnaeus to Benjamin Franklin, who in turn connected him with John Bartram, a Philadelphia farmer and nurseryman.  Bartram had been sending seeds, specimens, and plants for several years to Peter Collinson from whom Linnaeus had received some Bartram material.  But of course Linnaeus wanted more, and Kalm was able to dispatch specimens and seeds.  He stayed with Bartram for a couple of days, examining his living collection and herbarium, and remained in the Philadelphia area until the following spring.  Most of his time was spent in and around a Swedish colony in Racoon, New Jersey.  The Swedish government had established it in the 1630s, and though it was taken over by the British after 20 years, residents in the area maintained Swedish traditions, yet today the town no longer exists.

In spring 1749, Kalm explored further north, visiting Cadwallader Colden in his home north of New York City.  Colden was interested in botany, had corresponded with Linnaeus, and welcomed Kalm’s visit.  While there, Kalm also met Colden’s daughter Jane, another plant enthusiast.  Robbins (1969) speculates that it might have been Kalm who encouraged her to begin work on her flora of the region, which she eventually produced with 300 of her own drawings.  From there, Kalm ventured farther north eventually reaching Montreal and then went on to Quebec.  In November he returned to Philadelphia by way of Albany and Saratoga.  On this trip he gathered watermelon, walnut, pumpkin, cotton, and early-ripening maize seeds which could possibly grow in Sweden (Juel & Harshberger, 1929).  Because he was thinking in terms of agriculture he was also interested in meteorology, kept weather records on his trip, and asked Bartram to also take readings in Philadelphia.

During the winter of 1749-50, Kalm married Anna Sadin, a Philadelphia widow.  In the spring he set out again traveling through western Pennsylvania and north to Niagara Falls, providing the first detailed account of the area and visiting the Iroquois who lived there.  This meant more specimen and seed collecting, and he packed up his materials back in Philadelphia in fall 1750.  He and his wife sailed to England in February, 1751 and arrived in Sweden in May.  He quickly distributed seeds for cultivation, and of course, visited Linnaeus who was thrilled with Kalm’s specimens.  In his 1753 Species Plantarum, Linnaeus describes 700 North American species, including 60 new ones that were collected by Kalm.  These included a species of Kalmia, a beautiful Ericaceae that its namesake had found in New Jersey. 

Kalm appeared to have made three collections of North American plants, one for Linnaeus which is now part of the collection at the Linnean Society, London, one for himself that was destroyed in a fire, and one given to Queen Lovisa Ulrika of Sweden for her support of his travels.  The latter specimens are now in the herbarium of the Museum of Evolution at the University of Uppsala (Lundqvist & Moberg, 1993).  Kalm spent the rest of his life teaching in Åbo, Finland.  In 1752 he published a journal of his travels which was translated into English, and also wrote several articles on agriculture for the Swedish Academy.  Unfortunately, none of the plants he grew from North American seeds were ever used in Swedish farming, and even the mulberry trees he tended as the first step in developing a Swedish silk industry eventually died.  His most lasting fame is in Kalmia and that is wonderful in itself.

References

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

Juel, H. O., & Harshberger, J. W. (1929). New light on the collection of North American plants made by Peter Kalm. Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, 81, 297-303.

Lundqvist, S., & Moberg, R. (1993). The Pehr Kalm Herbarium in UPS, a Collection of North American Plants. Uppsala, Sweden: Uppsala University.

Robbins, P. I. (2009). Jane Colden: America’s First Woman Botanist. Fleischmanns, NY: Purple Mountain Press.

Linnaeus Beyond the Netherlands

4 Chelsea Garden

Chelsea Botanical Garden, London

This is the last of a series of posts about Carl Linnaeus’s three-year stay in the Netherlands and how it shaped his future career.  While there he had two opportunities to travel to other parts of Europe and meet leading botanists of the day.  It was while living on the estate of George Clifford at Hartekamp and working on cataloging his collection (see last post), that Linnaeus took time off for a month in England to look into what he had heard to be a vibrant botanical community there.  Clifford agreed to this hiatus and even financed it, with the stipulation that Linnaeus return with new plants for his estate.

Not surprisingly, Linnaeus first visited Hans Sloane, then an aged icon among collectors, who opened his herbarium to the Swede.  Jan Frederik Gronovius had already sent Sloane a copy of Linnaeus’s Systema Naturae, and Herman Boerhaave wrote a letter of introduction in which he put Linnaeus on a par with Sloane, describing them as “a pair of men whose equal is hardly to be found in all the world” (quoted in Blunt, 1971, p. 110).  Sloane didn’t quite see things that way and didn’t pay that much attention to Linnaeus who later described Sloane’s herbarium as disorganized.  His first meeting with Philip Miller, the head of the Chelsea Physic Garden, was also less than a success, but eventually Miller gave Linnaeus a good selection of plants to take back to Clifford, as well as herbarium specimens that William Houston had collected in Central America.

In London, Linnaeus met another key member of the botanical confederacy, Peter Collinson, who had already begun a long-term correspondence with John Bartram, the Philadelphia naturalist and nurseryman.  Over a 30-year period, Bartram sent a large array of specimens, seeds, and cuttings to Collinson, who in turn distributed them to a number of the leading gardeners of the day who were anxious to have the latest finds from North America.  Collinson got along well with Linnaeus, and they continued to correspond over the years, with Linnaeus examining some Bartram specimens that thus became types for Linnaean species.  Linnaeus must have met up with Georg Ehret in London, since the artist wrote that he had given him plates to finish Clifford’s catalogue.  In addition, John Martyn, a professor of botany at Cambridge and a London physician, was impressed enough with Linnaeus that their meeting led to a regular correspondence.

Linnaeus also managed time for a trip to Oxford where Johann Jacob Dillenius was professor of botany.  As with several other Linnaean first meetings, this one did not go well because Dillenius had read some of Linnaeus’s early publications, and he felt they threw botany into confusion.  After a few frosty meetings, they finally reconciled when Linnaeus showed Dillenius that he was wrong about his description of the genus BlitumThen Dillenius finally appreciated the depth of Linnaeus’s knowledge, and they had a lively conversation and continued to correspond afterwards.  Obviously Linnaeus’s time in England was very fruitful and provided him with several important contacts who would continue writing to him with information for years to come.

When Linnaeus left Hartekamp in fall of 1937 after finishing the catalogue that would become Hortus Cliffortianus, he went back to Leiden and spent the winter there, working with Adriaan van Royen in the botanic garden, classifying plants according to his sexual system (Rutgers, 2008).  In the spring, he started out for his return to Sweden by going in the opposite direction, to Paris, to visit the famous Jardin des Rois where he met the de Jussieu brothers.  Antoine was older, a professor of botany at the Jardin and a physician; he was a busy man.  He had one meeting with Linnaeus and introduced him to Bernard who then served as his guide.  Bernard de Jussieu showed him the herbarium, and they went through Joseph de Pitton Tournefort’s specimens, a broad collection that included plants from his voyages to the Middle East as well as to the Caribbean area.

Linnaeus also worked in the Jardin’s botanical library, where there were many books of which he had been unaware.  He prepared a ‘wish list’ and later procured a number of these titles.  At the Jardin, he met two of the most accomplished botanical artists of the day, the elderly Claude Aubriet, who had worked with Tournefort, and his pupil Françoise Madeleine Basseporte.  Aubriet showed Linnaeus the large collection of paintings of plants in the Jardin done over the years, so again, as with the time he spent with Georg Ehret, Linnaeus developed a taste of what the best botanical art looked like.  Paris allowed him to deepen still further his knowledge of botany in terms of specimens, living plants, books, and art.  All these were to figure in his future work, and he left for Sweden having made the best possible use of his three years away from home.  Those who read the first post in this series might remember that Linnaeus’s journey had in part been urged upon him by his future father-in-law who agreed to his daughter’s engagement only with the proviso that there be a three-year hiatus in their relationship.  Having fulfilled the agreement, Linnaeus was still an ardent suitor, and when he got back to Sweden, plans for the wedding proceeded.

References

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

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

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.

Linnaeus in the Netherlands

 

1 Systema Naturae

Title page of Carl Linnaeus’s Systema Naturae (1735), courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

There is a great deal of talk about the European Union these days, and the advantages of open travel among nations.  Freedom of movement is a wonderful concept in any age, and it’s one experienced by Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) when he was in his late 20s.  Having completed his education in Uppsala, Sweden and having become engaged to a woman whom he very much desired, he set out for three years of study and travel.  This wasn’t entirely his own idea.  His future father-in-law was not thrilled with his daughter’s beloved, a physician with few financial resources, so he would only bless the match by having Carl agree to a three-year hiatus.  Linnaeus might not have been a man of means, but he was a man who had already learned a great deal about botany and had developed original ideas about how plant diversity should be organized.  He also had some experience of travel having spent a few months exploring Lapland, the northern reaches of Scandinavia.  So in 1735 he took his manuscripts, packed his bags, and headed to the Netherlands, traveling through Germany on the way.  His experiences in Holland and elsewhere in Europe did a great deal to form his ideas and shape his career.  This series of posts will look at some of those influences (Blunt, 1971).

It seems that Linnaeus did not make a good first impression on many people.  There are a number of stories about men who were put off by his self-possessed manner, and then, as they realized what a good mind lurked behind the bravado, became good friends with him.  This was the case with Johannes Burman, a professor of botany and director of the Amsterdam botanic garden.  Burman, who was the same age as Linnaeus, had been at the garden for several years working on the Flora of Ceylon, using primarily the herbarium of Paul Hermann, who had collected there in the 1670s.  After this brief meeting where Burman was unimpressed by Linnaeus, it would probably have been difficult for either of them to predict that they would be lifelong friends.  At this time Linnaeus also visited Albertus Seba who had amassed a large cabinet of curiosities including materials he collected on trips to the East and West Indies.  During these years the Netherlands was an important naval power with far-flung mercantile interests, so along with trade goods—like spices and silks, exotic plants, animals, and artifacts also poured into Dutch ports.  Even though Seba had sold his original massive collection, he was able to build another and showed some of it to Linnaeus on two visits to his home.  He later asked Linnaeus to assist him in preparing a book he was writing on his holdings, but by then the Swede had made other connections (Rutgers, 2008).

Linnaeus next spent two weeks in Harderwijk, the site of a university where for a week’s residency he qualified as a doctor, submitting a thesis he had written in Sweden.  Then he went to Leiden and showed his manuscript of Systema Naturae to the Dutch botanist Jan Frederik Gronovius, who was so impressed with the work that he arranged for its immediate publication as a thin volume of 14 pages that set out the rudiments of Linnaeus’s taxonomic system.  Gronovius also gave him a letter of introduction to Herman Boerhaave, who had retired as head of the Leiden Botanic Garden.  As with Burman, their relation did not begin smoothly, but eventually Boerhaave appreciated Linnaeus’s intelligence and energy.  However, none of these meetings landed him a position where he could earn enough money to allow him to remain in the Netherlands.  He told them that he would have to return home.  That’s when Boerhaave offered to fund a trip to Cape Town, South Africa which was then under Dutch control and was proving to be a botanically rich area.  Linnaeus, however, after his Lapland expedition, did not much relish a long journey with many probable hardships; Sweden was a safer and easier option.

There are more twists to this story.  On his way home, Linnaeus stopped in Amsterdam and again visited Burman, this time with a letter of introduction from Boerhaave.  Burman paid more attention to his visitor, especially after Linnaeus was able to identify a rare plant Burman showed him.  The latter offered to pay Linnaeus for helping to prepare the Flora of Ceylon, and also convinced him that he should definitely call on George Clifford, a wealthy merchant and horticulturalist who lived near Haarlem.  Clifford and Linnaeus got on well because Linnaeus identified many of his hosts’ Indian plants and was sorely tempted by Clifford’s offer to live and work on his estate, with access to his garden and herbarium.  But Linnaeus was committed to Burman.  In the end, Burman and Linnaeus visited Clifford, and Burman agreed to free Linnaeus if Clifford would give him a very desirable book displayed in his library: the second volume of Hans Sloane’s Natural History of Jamaica.  Clifford and Linnaeus were both very fortunate, with the gardener/financier getting an expert to bring order to his collection of specimens, properly name his plants—those in the herbarium and those in the garden—and help in producing a catalogue to make public his botanical treasures.  Linnaeus, on the other hand, was freed of economic worries, had a very comfortable place to live, and great resources to work with, including a first-class library.  What happens then will be the subject of a later post.

References

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

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

Natural History in 17th-Century Britain: Nehemiah Grew

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Transverse section through plum branch, from The Anatomy of Plants, Biodiversity Heritage Library

When I think of Nehemiah Grew (1641-1712), an image of a cross section through a stem appears in my mind’s eye (see above).  I remember Grew as the creator of magnified images of plant tissue that have a rather inorganic feel to them in their rigid rows of cells.  He was doing microscopic studies at about the same time as Robert Hooke, whose illustrations of plant cells are less regular, and somehow have a more organic feel.  They were both attempting to communicate the new world they were exploring and trying to make sense of it.  In an article to commemorate the tercentenary of Grew’s birth, the plant morphologist Agnes Arber (1941) noted that Grew held a mechanistic view of the universe and saw the microscope as a way to clear up mysteries of life by observing its constituents.  Because of this viewpoint he also developed mathematical descriptions and was concerned with how to communicate the scale of objects seen under the microscope.  This is a reminder that at the time there were no adequate standards of measurement for the microscopic world.  So Grew used comparison to give his reader some idea of the size of what he was seeing, for example, that something was one-fifth the size of the cheese mite or the width of a marsh mallow seed.

Another major contributor to the beginnings of plant anatomy was the Italian Marcello Malpighi who like Grew was a physician, though Grew practiced medicine while Malpighi taught in a medical school and also did a great deal of research on animal anatomy.  In fact, he began studying plants because he found animal tissue so complex and wanted to see if the “simpler” structures of plants could give him clues.  Grew and Malpighi are usually mentioned together because in some ways, their work is similar.  They labored independently without any knowledge of the other’s research until Grew produced a paper for the Royal Society of London (RS) shortly before Malpighi sent a manuscript read at an RS meeting.  After that they followed and cited each other work.

The consensus is that they achieved similar results.  Alan Morton  (1981) claims that Malpighi saw more clearly than Grew in some details, but Grew’s culminating The Anatomy of Plants is the fuller and clearer work, with a more integrated view of plant structure.  Agnes Arber (1942) also wrote a comparison of their contributions and contends that Grew may be better known because he wrote in English, while Malpighi published in Latin.  Arber notes:  “His Latin, though lively, is not very correct, and its interpretation is often by no means easy” (p. 15).  But she considers Malpighi’s illustrations, made from his drawings, as excellent.  Some of Grew’s illustrations are noteworthy because, while Malpighi made attempts at depicting microscopic structures in three dimensions, Grew did it more successfully.

Since this set of posts is on British botanists, I’ll end by noting some of Grew’s most important findings, though in many cases, Malpighi also produced similar results.  Grew described the main anatomical differences between roots and stem.  This required a great deal of work examining a variety of different species.  The same was true of deciphering the vascular network in these structures.  Grew admits that he got the idea for the spiral form of vessels from Malpighi, but he came up with the name “parenchyma” for the material packed around the vessels.  While he depicted a great deal of order in plant tissue as orderly, he did not really conceive of cells as the basic unit of plant structure, though Robert Hooke had already coined the term for the structures he saw in cork cambium.  Grew was able to differentiate between the scattered vascular bundles in monocots and the more ordered structures in dicots; he identified the medullary rays in dicot stems as well.  Grew compared the cell walls to woven fibers and more generally compared a plant’s inner structure to a textile fabric.  Arber (1913) quotes a long passage where he describes plant tissue as fine lace with an intricate and delicate texture.  At one point he writes:  “One who walks with the meanest Stick, holds a Piece of Nature’s Handicraft, which far surpasses the most elaborate Needle-Work in the World” (p. 54).

Grew also went into detail on the structure of flowers.  Though he accepted the idea of sexual reproduction in plants, he wasn’t able to work out the process.  He presented much information on seed structure in a variety of species and carefully observed seed development, coining the term radicle for the embryonic root.  He also did simple experiments on the movement of sap, but his major work was anatomical.  For a century and a half after Grew and Malpighi there was little further development in the field.  It may be that it had to wait for the creation of better microscopes, or for further work in plant physiology.  Or perhaps some of the lack of interest in the field may have been due to those images that so intrigue me.  They presented such a well-developed, finished view of plant structure, that others might have considered the job of working out plant architecture to be complete.  After all, plants were simpler than animals, how much more was there to know?

References

Arber, A. (1913). Nehemiah Grew (1641-1712). In F. W. Oliver (Ed.), Makers of British Botany (pp. 42–64). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Arber, A. (1941). Tercentenary of Nehemiah Grew (1641-1712). Nature, 147(3734), 630–632.

Arber, A. (1942). Nehemiah Grew (1641-1712) and Marcello Malpighi (1628-1694): An essay in comparison. Isis, 34, 7–16.

Morton, A. G. (1981). History of Botanical Science. New York, NY: Academic Press.

Natural History in 17th-Century Britain: John Evelyn

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Plate from Sylva of collecting birch tree sap, Biodiversity Heritage Library

While John Ray, the subject of the first post in this series, is an important figure in the history of botany, this post’s subject would be considered more a horticulturalist than a botanist and is best remembered for Sylva, his book on trees and how to grow them.  However, John Evelyn (1620-1706) published a number of other books, including several translations.  After studying at Oxford, he trained in the law, but the disruption of the English Civil War led him to spend several years on the Continent, visiting botanical gardens in Paris, Leiden and Padua, where he purchased a herbarium.  Twenty years later, he showed his own to his friend, the diarist Samuel Pepys, who had never seen one before and was taken with the way a plant’s characteristics were so clearly preserved.

While in Europe Evelyn also toured private gardens to broaden his understanding of horticultural design.  This need for information led him to translate two French works, The French Gard’ner by Nicolas de Bonnefons (1658) and later, Jean-Baptiste de La Quintinie’s The Compleat Gardner (1699)  Translation was a way to not only disseminate ideas, but to understand them better.  As was common, Evelyn added commentary and in the case of the latter work, also other writing by Quintinie not in his original book.  Publishing at the time was looser than today in that authors used the opportunity to pack as much into a book as possible and were less concerned about cohesiveness.  Evelyn also translated books from the French on other subjects including painting and architecture.

Evelyn returned to England with the restoration of the monarchy and the convening of a new parliament in 1661.  He was also relieved that the Church of England, of which he was a devote member, was again legitimized.  Evelyn became involved in several government projects at the behest of the king.  In addition, the spirit of renewal led to plans for the creation of the Royal Society of London (RS) for the advancement of science based on the writings of Francis Bacon.  They aimed to promote empirical studies, the collection of information on a subject thorough enough to allow for analysis and firmly based conclusions, in other words, inductive reasoning.  Evelyn was engaged in the organization of the society and delivered a paper on forest trees at an October 1662 meeting.  This became the first formal publication of the society, Sylva, or A Discourse of Forest-trees.  He presented descriptions of a number of species, but since the society was interested in practical outcomes from science, he also argued for restoration of forests in Britain where they had been drastically retracting over the centuries.  If the country was to remain economically viable and become a world power then its navy and its industry required timber.

As part of his involvement in the RS, Evelyn was a member of the “Georgical” Committee, named after Virgil’s horticultural text, the Georgics.  This group worked for the improvement of English agriculture, horticulture, and landscape.  At the same time, Evelyn was improving his own garden on property he leased from his father-in-law.  This involved extensive reworking of the garden’s organization with the planting of allées of trees.  He was also interested in the kitchen garden and was particularly taken with salads, even writing a book on the subject.  He also wrote a book on fruit trees (1706) and another on what seems a 21st-century topic:  the use of plants to deal with air pollution.  Called Fumifugium, it dealt with among other topics fragrant plants whose scents would compete with the stench of the city.

With all this endeavors, Evelyn never completed his largest project, an encyclopedia of British gardening, Elysium Britannicum.  By the late 1650s, he already had an outline for the work and sent it to several friends for their comments.  All urged him to continue with it, but it was a huge undertaking.  He wanted to cover every aspect of the subject from garden design, to how to manage its development and maintenance.  Evelyn was a member of the upper class so he focused on large-scale gardens, not those surrounding a cottage.  In the 17th century, the interest in plants that had emerged in the previous century developed into an industry, with professional gardeners and nurserymen providing services to wealthy landowners.  Evelyn took this into account, but he was still a hands-on gardener interested in the growth habits of individual species as well as larger issues.  He even planned a chapter on why and how to create a herbarium as a reference for what was growing in the garden.

In John Evelyn: A Life of Domesticity, John Dixon Hunt (2017) explores several possible reasons for why Evelyn never finished the project.  All that remains are manuscripts of the original outline as well as parts of the first of three projected sections.  Not surprisingly, Hunt sees the size of the project as so massive it discouraged Evelyn who was occupied with family issues as well as his work with the government and the RS.  Though he was a man of means, he would have needed financial as well as technical support in completing the manuscript and producing the illustrations.  Hunt also conjectures that Evelyn felt a sense of guilt about his preoccupation with gardens which seemed such a worldly pursuit for a man whose religious beliefs led him to focus on the otherworldly.  Despite this failure, Evelyn remains a symbol of love of gardening, and especially love of trees.

References

Bonnefons, N. de & Evelyn, J. (1658). The French Gardiner. London, UK: John Crooke.

Evelyn, J. (1706). Pomona. London, UK: Scot, Chiswell, Sawbridge and Tooke.

Hunt, J. D. (2017). John Evelyn: A Life of Domesticity. London: Reaktion.

La Quintinie, J. de, & Evelyn, J. (1699). The Compleat Gard’ner. London: M. Gillyflower.

Natural History in 17th-Century Britain: Francis Willughby and Martin Lister

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Plate from Historiae Conchyliorum, Biodiversity Heritage Library

In this series of posts, I’m looking at the lives of a number of British naturalists active during the early years of the Royal Society of London (RS), of which they were all members.  This week’s post deals with two men who are not known for their work in botany, so why would I even give them a second thought?  Like most naturalists of the time, they did not restrict themselves to a single group of organisms.  Particularly in their early years, they delved into the plant world and spent time with John Ray, the subject of the last post.  Also, Francis Willughby (1635-1672) and Martin Lister (1639-1712) are both subjects of new books on their areas of expertise:  Willughby in ornithology (Birkhead, 2018) and Lister in conchology (Roos, 2018).

Ray and Willughby worked closely together for a number of years.  They met at Cambridge University where Ray tutored Willughby and became good friends who often went on collecting trips together, several through Britain that lasted for weeks or months.  Eventually, they toured Europe for a year and half, visiting the Low Countries, Italy, and France, often accompanied by one or two other naturalists.  While I focused on Ray’s interest in plants in my post, he shared some of Willughby’s passion for insects, birds, and fish.

Willughby had the money to collect art depicting interesting species, including entire albums, that are still housed at his family’s estate.  Also there is one of the two specimen cabinets he ordered while in Europe, and it contains some of his collection of bird eggs as well as drawers of seeds.  In the most personal passage in his book, Tim Birkhead describes his thrill in sifting through this treasure chest and finding notations in Willughby’s handwriting.  Ray and Willughby themselves worked their way through Ulisse Aldrovandi’s massive natural history collection in Bologna, attempting to identify some of the new species they had encountered on their travels.  Eventually the two went on to Montpellier and collected plants in the area.  Some of these specimens are in Ray’s herbarium, now part of the Sloane Herbarium at the Natural History Museum, London.

The two continued to collaborate after they returned to England in 1666.  Willughby was supporting Ray after Ray lost his position at Cambridge because he refused to take an oath of loyalty to the king.  This arrangement lasted until Willughby’s death in 1672.  Before then, they worked on Willughby’s interests in insects, birds, and fishes with an eye toward publications on all three, though none had been completed before he died.  What made it difficult for Ray to complete them is that the family would not give him access to Willughby’s specimens or his notes.  Ray had to rely on what he had written about the collections.  The fish book was farthest along and was published first, while the insects needed the most research and came out last.  But the most original work, with the most first-hand information, was in ornithology.

In his biography of Willughby, Birkhead makes the argument that the importance of the Willughby/Ray publication on birds was due much more to Willughby’s contribution.  He takes a stand against that of Charles Raven (1950) in his Ray biography where he considers Willughby the junior partner, and Ray the genius of the project.  To this day, Willughby’s descendants fume about what they see as the injustice of this viewpoint, and Birkhead makes a good case for their opinion, despite the fact that little remains of Willughby’s notebooks and manuscripts.

While Ray was in Montpellier, he also collected with Martin Lister, who was spending three years there as a student.  It’s not surprising that fellow countrymen, particularly with shared interests, would gravitate toward each other.  However, they had to leave France in 1666 by order of the French king, in anticipation of a war between France and Britain.  Once back in England, Ray spent three months botanizing with Lister and the apothecary Peter Dent.  Lister was particularly interested in grasses, insects, and spiders, but eventually became enthralled with mollusks and focused on conchology, the study of their shells.  He wrote a three-part natural history of spiders, terrestrial and river mollusks that was illustrated by William Lodge.  However, when he set out to create a more comprehensive work on mollusks, Lodge was not particularly interested, so Lister decided to teach his two oldest daughters, Susanna then eleven years old and Anna aged nine to draw.  Eventually they even learned to engrave.

One of the reasons I’ve decided to include Lister here is because some of his experiences in studying mollusks are similar to those of botanists.  A number of the latter also used the talents of family members, usually females, in creating illustrations.  From the notes and drawings left by the Listers, it’s clear that in their case, the sisters made very careful observations, sometimes using a microscope, to work out mollusk anatomy; their drawings weren’t limited to shells.  In the last edition of Historiae Conchyliorum of 1692, there were 1067 plates.  In addition, Susanna created illustrations for papers by other authors in the RS’s Philosophical Transactions.  Roos’s book does a good job of presenting the work of her and her sister as integral to the success and value of her father’s opus.

References

Birkhead, T. (2018). The Wonderful Mr. Willughby. London, UK: Bloomsbury.

Raven, C. E. (1950). John Ray Naturalist: His Life and Work. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Roos, A. M. (2019). Martin Lister and His Remarkable Daughters: THE Art of Science in the Seventeenth Century. Oxford, UK: Bodleian Library.

Natural History in 17th-Century Britain: John Ray

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Title page of John Ray’s Historia Plantarum, from the Biodiversity Heritage Library

I’ve written a number of posts about 16th-century naturalists who opened the field of early modern botany, especially about Luca Ghini, an early advocate for the herbarium, and those who worked with him (1,2,3,4).  In this series, I want move on to the 17th century and discuss a circle of naturalists working in Britain.  They knew each other, as least causally, in part because they were all members of the Royal Society of London (RS), which was founded in 1660.  This was in the latter days of a turbulent time in Britain when kings had been killed, Oliver Cromwell took over the government, and finally the monarchy was restored by bringing Charles II to the throne.  Part of this political turmoil was religious as well, with Catholics and different Protestant factions at odds with each other—and with the government.

But what does this have to do with plants?  Well, quite a bit, because many of those interested in natural history were products of Cambridge and Oxford Universities, which were then religious institutions devoted primarily to training clergy.  They were affected by the political upheavals, especially when Cromwell.  When King Charles II reached the throne, those working at the universities was asked to sign a loyalty oath to the Church.  John Ray (1627-1705), a naturalist who had been teaching at Oxford for 13 years, refused and lost his job.  He responded by not only leaving the university but the country and spent the next three years traveling in Europe, most of the time with Francis Willughby  and Philip Skippon, both of whom he had tutored.

Ray and Willughby had already made several collecting trips to areas in Britain, and Ray had published a Flora of Cambridgeshire (1660), the first of its kind for the British Isles and one that served as a model of such books.  This came to my attention recently when I read Tim Dee’s (2015) Four Fields, one of which is in Cambridge where he lives.  Dee writes of Ray’s work:  “I can think of nothing more thrilling, nothing that our species has done better, than this benign capture and permanent vivifying of a season, a pathway and a field edge, and its simpling, or its lovable mapping of what might be in front of us” (p. 236).  In other words, Ray makes the nature of Cambridge come alive.  Early his book, Dee himself writes that as a child he was enchanted by the world of books and found that books about the living world made that world more vivid and real.

Ray’s interests, like those of most naturalists of his time, extended well beyond plants.  With Willughby, he investigated birds, insects, and fish, publishing the results of their work after Willughby’s early death.  There will be more on Willughby in the next post.  For now I want to stick with Ray’s major work, his massive three-volume Historia Plantarum (1686-1704).  Agnes Arber (1943) suggests that its size, as well as its Latin text, led to its lack of popularity, but it’s nonetheless an important resource.  Ray is credited with one of the best pre-Linnaean classification schemes.  He built on the much earlier work of Andrea Cesalpino and still divided plants into trees, shrubs and herbs, but he also differentiated between monocots and dicots, and between angiosperms and gymnosperms.  These were not totally new discoveries, and much of the terminology came from the writings of Joachim Jung.  But Ray’s genius was in gathering all this information together and presenting it in a clear, organized way.  His work is considered one of the forerunners of Antoine Laurent de Jussieu’s natural system of classification.

Alexander Wragge-Morley (2010) argues that Ray’s descriptions were a form of picturing, they “enjoyed the same epistemic status as graphic representations, because they provoked images—and knowledge—of the same sort.  An image revealed immediately, a verbal description, more slowly” (p. 174).  Ray himself wrote that images can enhance the intelligibility of text, but can’t replace it because there is information about a species that can’t be conveyed in an engraving.  This was an opinion Ray shared with others like Robert Hooke and Nehemiah Grew, both of whom did use illustrations in their publications.  One reason Ray didn’t was their cost, but he also seemed to gravitate toward words.  He didn’t think much of herbaria, though there is one in the Sloane Herbarium at the Natural History Museum, London containing plants he collected on his European tour.  He doesn’t seem to have kept specimens relating to his Historia, though he did examine plants in a number of herbaria including those of Hans Sloane, Leonard Plukenet, and James Petiver.

Ray wrote a number of other works, including some I’ll mention in the next post on Francis Willughby.  He also produced a collection of translations of travel writings by authors who had toured parts of the Middle East.  The major portion was a translation by a German writer into English of Leonhard Rauwolf’s travelogue, noting the many plants he encountered along the way (see earlier post).  Ray also wrote a theological tract.  Throughout his life he remained religiously fervent, like many of his day, and saw the study of nature as a way to learn more about the creator.

References

Arber, A. R. (1943). A seventeenth-century naturalist: John Ray. Isis, 34, 319–324

Dee, T. (2015). Four Fields. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint.

Ray, J. (1660, 1975). Ray’s Flora of Cambridgeshire. Hitchin, UK: Wheldon and Wesley.

Wragge‐Morley, A. (2010). The work of verbal picturing for John Ray and some of his contemporaries. Intellectual History Review, 20(1), 165–179.