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.

Herbarium Travels: Engelbert Kaempfer

2 Sciadopitys verticillata

Specimen of Sciadopitys verticillata collected by Engelbert Kaempfer. In Sloane Herbarium at the Natural History Museum, London

The last post dealt with Paul Hermann, a German-born physician and plant collector who worked for the Dutch East India Company (VOC) in Asia.  This same description fits Engelbert Kaempfer (1651-1716) as well.  He was born in Westphalia, graduated from the University of Kraków, spent four more years studying in Königsberg, and eventually ended up in Uppsala, Sweden where he was offered a university position.  However, he was more interested in travel and took a position with a Swedish ambassador sent on a mission through Russia to Persia, leaving in 1683 and arriving in Isfahan in 1684.  After staying for a year, the Swedes returned home, while Kaempfer signed on with the VOC, becoming chief surgeon in the Persian Gulf.  This provided him with opportunities to see the region including Muscat and the coastlands of western India, collecting and taking note of the plants and animals he encountered.  By 1689, he was in Batavia (now Jakarta), studying Javanese natural history.   The following year, he was sent to Nagasaki as physician to the Dutch trading post there.

Aside from this port, which was open to Dutch and Chinese ships, Japan was essentially closed to foreigners.  Traders were usually confined to the port, and in fact, to a man-made island called Deshima which isolated them even more.  However, once a year the Dutch traveled to the capital at Edo to have an audience with the Shogun.  Kaempfer made the most of this opportunity and also studied the plants that he encountered in Nagasaki.  He encouraged locals to bring him material from other areas as well.  He also was interested in zoology, mineralogy, and climate, in addition to Japanese history and culture.  But since I only have eyes for plants, I’ll stick to them here.  Perhaps most notably Kaempfer was the first Westerner to describe the ginkgo tree and send specimens and seeds to Europe (Crane, 2013).  Seeds planted at the Leiden Botanical Gardens germinated, and some of those ginkgo trees survive today.  Kaempfer also described camellias and rhododendrons growing wild in mountainous areas.  He was very interested in economic botany and his History of Japan (1728) included a section on the types of plants that were central to Japanese culture.  Tea is one obvious example, but he also described mulberry leaves for feeding silkworms and making paper, the importance of giant radishes in the Japanese diet, and the failure of grapes to ripen.

Kaempfer documented all that he observed in careful notes, in seed collections, and in specimens.  He was able to learn a great deal because he was respectful of the Japanese, and they came to appreciate his medical expertise.  He received much information from interpreters.  He also used botanizing field trips during the pilgrimages to Edo as a way to gain knowledge about other aspects of Japanese life.  Michael Harbsmeier (2018) argues that Kaempfer’s case is an early example of fieldwork, of using local knowledge and working with native peoples to learn about an area.  Kaempfer had done the same thing earlier in Persia, where he befriended not a native, but a long-time resident of Isfahan, a French Capuchin monk named Raphäel de Mans who had been there almost 20 years when Kaempfer arrived.  This suggests that plant collecting involves a great deal more than just pressing plants, that social skills are important and can influence the success of fieldwork.

Kaempfer remained in Japan for two years, then stayed in Java, a Dutch stronghold, for another two, finally returning to Amsterdam in 1695.  He spent the rest of his life in Lemgo, where he had been born, serving as physician to the local count.  In 1712, he published Amoenitatum exoticarum or Exotic Delights, which presented the natural history of Japan as well as material on Persia.  He drew not only on what he had learned about Japanese plants firsthand, but also from such important Japanese natural history texts as its first illustrated encyclopedia Kinmo zui; many of his illustrations are based on those in this work.  When Kaempfer died four years later, his notes and specimens were sold to Hans Sloane, the great British “collector of collectors,” as James Delbourgo (2017) describes him.

In his 1958 catalog of Sloane’s 265-volume herbarium, James Dandy writes that Sloane Herbarium volume 211 of Kaempfer plants is among the most important volumes in the collection, and that probably no other has been consulted and cited so frequently.  Most of the plants are from Japan, but there are a few from Persia and Ceylon as well.  Some of the illustrations in Delights seem to be based on specimens.  There is a second Sloane volume H.S. 213 with Kaempfer plants, but contrary to the first, this one is of little value, having just scraps, often merely leaves and with many duplicates.  While the Paul Hermann specimens described in the last post are in several collections, there is no other known Kaempfer material outside of the Sloane Herbarium.  What makes volume 211 particularly useful is that Sloane also bought the accompanying manuscripts that included original plant drawings with Japanese names and with a list of references to the Delights and other works.  There was also the manuscript of Kaempfer’s history of Japan that Sloane’s German secretary translated into English.  Oddly, the German edition wasn’t published until many years later and was based on a translation from the English version.  As with the case of Hermann, specimens and documents of early plant hunters have long, and often twisting, stories attached to them, making them all the more interesting.


Crane, P. (2013). Ginkgo: The Tree that Time Forgot. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Delbourgo, J. (2017). Collecting the World: The Life and Curiosity of Hans Sloane. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Harbsmeier, M. (2012). Fieldwork avant la lettre. In K. Nielsen, M. Harbsmeier, & C. J. Ries (Eds.), Scientists and Scholars in the Field: Studies in the History of Fieldwork and Expeditions (pp. 29–50). Aarhus, Denmark: Aarhus University Press.

Kaempfer, E. (1728). The History of Japan. London: Woodward and Davis.