Monday, May 23, 2011

Celebrating the Father of Taxonomy

Carolus Linnaeus was born on this day in 1707.
When I was in High School  I took Latin as my foreign language class because I knew I was going to go into natural science and figured since one uses Latin for naming everything, it would be the best choice.  However,  after declining verbs and translating Julius Caesar and Beowulf from the original Latin I was not as convinced of my idea being useful in the future, especially since you can’t speak Latin – it’s a dead language. 
I was at the time planning to be a geologist and archeologist and thought I would make the grand discovery and need to be able to name it.  Although I have done some archeology, my career path took me into museums rather than field work so as a result I never used the Latin nearly as much as I thought I would.  I recall much more the making of chocolate chip cookies for my Latin instructor Martin Poluse on the Ides of March.  I concurrently took Botany at that same High School from Dave Fowler and as a result learned the Linnaean naming style for plants.  Since most plant names are also Latin I have somehow continued to use my small skill from both those classes even though at the time I never thought I would end up as a specialist in herbs.

Carolus Linnaeus (1707 – 1778) was a Swedish botanist; he developed the binomial system for naming plants and defining plant relationships. His system for naming, ranking, and classifying organisms is still in wide use today (with many changes). His ideas on classification have influenced generations of biologists during and after his own lifetime.
In 1735, he published the first edition of his classification of living things, the Systema Naturae, which at the time was a mere brochure.  During the following decades, he met or corresponded with Europe's great botanists, and continued to develop his classification scheme. Returning to Sweden in 1738, he practiced medicine (specializing in the treatment of syphilis) and lectured in Stockholm before being awarded a professorship at Uppsala in 1741. At Uppsala, he restored the University's botanical garden (arranging the plants according to his system of classification), made three more expeditions to various parts of Sweden, and inspired a generation of students. He was instrumental in arranging to have his students sent out on trade and exploration voyages to all parts of the world: nineteen of Linnaeus's students went out on these voyages of discovery. Perhaps his most famous student, Daniel Solander, was the naturalist on Captain James Cook's first round-the-world voyage, and brought back the first plant collections from Australia and the South Pacific to Europe. Anders Sparrman, another of Linnaeus's students, was a botanist on Cook's second voyage. Another student, Pehr Kalm, traveled in the northeastern American colonies for three years studying American plants. Yet another, Carl Peter Thunberg, was the first Western naturalist to visit Japan in over a century; he not only studied the flora of Japan, but taught Western medicine to Japanese practitioners.
Linnaeus continued to revise his Systema Naturae, which grew from a slim pamphlet to a multivolume work, as his concepts were modified and as more and more plant and animal specimens were sent to him from every corner of the globe.  Many of his hopes of naturalizing plants from other regions to Sweden were never realized.  He died in 1778. His son, also named Carl, died 5 years later.  The remaining family sold Linnaeus's library, manuscripts, and natural history collections to the English natural historian Sir James Edward Smith, who founded the Linnaean Society of London to take care of them.
I find it interesting that he was a botanist who worked as a doctor to pay the rent.  His naming system has been altered many times, but the way in which one looks at a plant, identifying leaf shapes and stem styles and flower construction, is still used today to determine family relationships for plants which can help in breeding and cultivating them.  Who knew an instructor who made me like translation and another teacher’s obsession with understanding plant classification would end up as something I still use.  At the time I just liked school. Thanks Guys!
Marcy Lautanen-Raleigh

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