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.


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.


Touring the Middle East: More Travelers

4 Astragalus psoraloides

Astragalus psoraloides collected in Armenia by Joseph Pitton de Tournefort. Herbarium, Musée National d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris.

In the last post, I mentioned that the botanist John Ray had edited a translation into English of Leonhard Rauwolf’s journal of his trip to the Near East in 1573-1574.  Ray’s 1693 work includes excerpts from the writings of other travelers to the area, some of whom focused on plants, while others were more interested in antiquities and geography.  This mélange was the brainchild of Hans Sloane, who collected manuscripts as well as plants, and a lot more.  The excerpts bear mention here because they include some interesting sources such as parts of Pierre Belon’s book on his trip in 1547.   I discussed Belon in an earlier post, and I’ll quote him here to give the flavor of his prose:  “The most remarkable Herbs I took notice of, were Papyrus Nilotica (a sort of Cyperus out of whose threads, or filaments, the ancients made their paper.) The Colocasia, or great Egyptian Arum, whose root they boil with most of their meats:  The Sugar-cane, or Reed, by the fuel whereof thy melt their Metals, wood being scarce in Egypt” (p. 410).

In Ray’s book, there are also descriptions of plants written by George Wheeler (also Wheler) who went to Greece and Asia Minor.  It is essentially a list of places he visited and the plants he found there.  He shared his information with Ray, and the plants are included in another of Ray’s works.  This is noted at the end of the entry, as a friendly reminder from the editor that his other work might be useful to a reader seeking more botanical information.  Ray does this at the end of several of the entries.  Wheeler’s 1682 book, under the name Wheler, is available electronically through the Royal Collection Trust.  It is illustrated with images not only of plants, but of animals, antiquities, and ancient ruins.  In addition, Wheler collected plant specimens which he gave to Oxford University, where they are preserved.

In his book on a later traveler to the Near East, John Sibthorp, Stephen Harris (2007) of Oxford University classifies early European travelers to the area into three groups.  First were those with medical interests and diplomats, Pierre Belon, Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, and Leonhard Rauwolf, whom I’ve mentioned in earlier posts (1,2,3), fit into these categories.  The second group included those who wanted a more extensive “Grand Tour,” not limited to France, Germany, and Italy.  And third were men on “official” expeditions, sponsored by governments and with published results.  Harris sees Sibthorp’s two trips east as falling into all three categories, since he was interested in tracing the plants describe by Dioscorides in his first-century herbal, had the money to make a tour as grand as he desired, and led his own expedition.  This enterprise included the artist Ferdinand Bauer who created the exquisite drawings for the massive Flora Graeca.  Sibthorp’s died shortly after he returned from his second voyage east, and the flora was left unpublished for years.  It is a testimony to his work and that of Bauer and of James Edward Smith who did a massive editing job since Sibthorp’s notes lacked order at the time he died.  Both his specimens and the flora are available online.

As far as Harris’s third category of “official” expeditions, he notes that there were two before Sibthorp’s travels in the 1790s.  First there was Joseph Pitton de Tournefort’s trip in 1700-1702, sponsored by the French King, Louis XIV.  Tournefort too traveled with an artist, Claude Aubriet, who also created excellent illustrations for this work.  The other was led by Carsten Niebuhr in 1761 under the patronage of the Danish King.  The botanist on this expedition was Peter Forsskål, a former student of Carl Linnaeus.  Unfortunately, Forsskål didn’t survive the journey, though much of the information he collected was published after his death.  The early deaths of Sibthrop and Forsskål suggest that travel at that time could be physically brutal; deserts were very hot and very cold places, and mountain terrain was difficult to navigate.

Fortunately for botanical science, these travelers left documents in texts and specimens that are available to us today.  I’ve already cited Sibthorp’s materials.  Forsskål’s specimens are at the University of Copenhagen and Tournefort’s at the Musée Nationale d’Histoire Naturale in Paris and their books are available through the Biodiversity Heritage Library.  Obviously, Forsskål was using Linnaean taxonomy in his work, while Tournefort’s analysis was not only pre-Linnaean because of when it was written, but also because he had a different taxonomic philosophy.  Tournefort was one of the most important exponents of a natural system for classifying plants.  His work in the Near East was only a small portion of his contributions to botany which included his teaching many of the botanical notables of his time, including Hans Sloane, who has been mentioned here many times, and William Sherard, a British botanist and diplomat who served as British Council at Smyrna in Turkey for several years and whose herbarium is now at Oxford University.  As with so many of the people whose names occur in these blog posts, these are linked in a complex network of interactions, that makes this history all the more intriguing.


Harris, S. (2007). The Magnificent Flora Graeca: How the Mediterranean Came to the English Garden. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.