The Linnaean Apostles: Carl Thunberg

4 Thunbergia capensis LINN 815.1

Thunbergia capensis (LINN 815.1) from the herbarium of the Linnean Society, London

This is the last in a series of posts (1, 2, 3) on those who studied with Carl Linnaeus and then became his “apostles,” spreading his taxonomic system and traveling the globe searching for new species for him to identify.  The subject here is Carl Peter Thunberg (1743-1828) whose explorations took place so late in Linnaeus’s life that most of his collection did not reach Sweden until after the latter’s death in 1778.  Thunberg eventually became professor of botany at the University of Uppsala, a chair that had been passed on to Carl Linnaeus the Younger who died five years after his father.  Thunberg held the position for 44 years during which he used his professor’s taxonomic system to name and describe the many plants discovered on his travels.

Attending the University of Uppsala, Thunberg studied with Linnaeus, who recognized his student’s abilities and arranged a grant for him to study in the Netherlands and France.  In Holland Thunberg met the botanist Johannes Burman, a friend of Linnaeus from the latter’s time in that country (see earlier post).  Burman and his son Nicolas, also a botanist and a student of Linnaeus, were so impressed with Thunberg that they encouraged him to seek employment as a physician with the Dutch East India Company.   In the meantime, Thunberg went on to Paris where he spent a year studying with Bernard Jussieu, a noted plant taxonomist and teacher.  This gave him an opportunity to examine the extensive collections in the Paris herbarium, something that Linnaeus had done years before.  When Thunberg returned to the Netherlands, he was offered the position of surgeon at the Dutch outpost in Japan.  Since the Japanese had a strict agreement that only the Dutch would be allowed there, Thunberg had to learn the language before arriving.  He did this while staying in the Dutch colony in Cape Town, South Africa for almost three years.

This was a wonderful opportunity for Thunberg to investigate the rich Cape flora.  Linnaeus was thrilled with this, since his interest in South African flora dated back to his time in the Netherlands, where he studied Paul Hermann’s herbarium, the first organized collection from the area.  Thunberg found traveling companions for his explorations including Anders Sparrman another Linnaean apostle who had already collected in China and then traveled with James Cook on his second circumnavigation of the globe.  Thunberg was wary of Sparrman usurping his collections, so he felt more comfortable traveling on brief trips with the British botanist Francis Masson, who was collecting for the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.  Thunberg also made three longer collecting tours that lasted for months and covered 5,000 km.  He took extensive notes, not only on plants but on local customs and information on the Hottentot language (Fraser & Fraser, 2011).

After mastering Dutch, Thunberg sailed for Japan.  He stayed at Deshima, an island in Nagasaki constructed as a Dutch port where the Dutch were held during their stays in Japan.  While biding his time in Deshima, Thunberg would go through the fodder brought in for animals to find interesting seeds to plant.  Access to the rest of the country was forbidden, except for a yearly journey to the capital at Edo to pay homage to the emperor.  This trip took a couple of months and involved a large entourage paid for by the Dutch, but with only a few Dutch allowed to participate, including the colony’s surgeon, Thunberg.  He tried to do as much collecting as possible, relying on Japanese he had befriended to find plants for him.  One thing that disappointed him was that he found few roadside weeds such as he would have seen in Europe because the Japanese worked diligently to eradicate all weeds (Vande Walle & Kasaya, 2001).

Thunberg definitely made the most of his time in Japan, and the Japanese who had an interest in natural history learned from him.   He remained in Japan for about 18 months and then traveled to Batavia in what is now Indonesia collecting there for six months and in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) before returning to the Cape.  After landing in Holland, he spent two months in England.  He managed to visit another Linnaean student, Daniel Solander, who was working at the British Museum (see last post), and study the collections Solander and Joseph Banks had made in Asia.  Thunberg finally returned to Sweden in 1779.  He had been appointed lecturer in botany at the University of Uppsala, a position he held until Linnaeus’s son died in 1783, then the master’s chair finally belonged to Thunberg.  In 1784 he produced his Flora Japonica, and at the turn of the century, published a series of illustrations on plants described in the flora.  He described his African plants many years later in Flora Capensis of 1807.  Both his floras were long in use, not replaced by new publications for decades.  Thunberg’s herbarium, including the Japanese collection, is preserved in the Museum of Evolution at the University of Uppsala.  Its value is indicated by the fact that it is kept in fire-proof vault along with other treasures of the collection, among them the herbarium of Joachim Burser.  The latter is important because it was used by Caspar Bauhin in creating his Pinax Theatri Botanici, one of the early and great compendia of known plants.  Linnaeus referenced the collection as a guide to the plants that Bauhin had used in writing his descriptions.  So even though Linnaeus’s own herbarium is not in Uppsala, but in the Linnaean Society of London, there are still extraordinary botanical treasures at his university.


Fraser, M., & Fraser, L. (2011). The Smallest Kingdom: Plants and Plant Collectors at the Cape of Good Hope. Richmond, UK: Kew Publishing.

Vande Walle, W. F., & Kasaya, K. (Eds.). (2001). Dodonæus in Japan: Translation and the Scientific Mind in the Tokugawa Leuven: Leuven University Press.