Carl Linnaeus was born on May 23, 1707, at Stenbrohult, in the province of Småland in southern Sweden. His father, Nils Ingemarsson Linnaeus, was both an avid gardener and a Lutheran pastor, and Carl showed a deep love of plants and a fascination with their names from a very early age.
Carl disappointed his parents by showing neither aptitude nor desire for the priesthood, but his family was somewhat consoled when Linnaeus entered the University of Lund in 1727 to study medicine.
A year later, he transferred to the University of Uppsala, the most prestigious university in Sweden. However, its medical facilities had been neglected and had fallen into disrepair.
Most of Linaeus’s time at Uppsala was spent collecting and studying plants, his true love. At the time, training in botany was part of the medical curriculum, for every doctor had to prepare and prescribe drugs derived from medicinal plants.
Linnaeus went to the Netherlands in 1735, promptly finished his medical degree at the University of Harderwijk, and then enrolled in the University of Leiden for further studies.
That same year, he published the first edition of his classification of living things, the Systema Naturae. During these years, 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.
He taught botany, zoology (the study of animals), natural history, and other subjects, and he was very popular with his students.
The love of his students and the value of his work ensured his widespread influence and brought him many honors. He was appointed chief royal physician in 1747 and was knighted in 1758; he then took the name Carl von Linné.
He retired in 1776 and died in Uppsala, Sweden, on January 10, 1778. Linnaeus is most widely known for creating systems for naming and classifying plants and animals.
Realizing that new plants were being discovered faster than their relationships could be established, he first came up with a simple classification based upon the number of floral parts of each plant.
This system remained popular into the nineteenth century. Gradually Linnaeus also developed a system of names in which each species of plant and animal had a genus (class or group) name followed by a specific name.
For example, Plantago virginica and Plantago lanceolata were the names of two species of plantain (an herb).