The Apostles of Linnaeus

Between 1746 and 1792, seventeen students of Carl Linnaeus set out across the globe to collect plant and animal samples for his new taxonomy. Seven of these apostles died on the trip, and one would betray Linnaeus.

John Hamilton Mortimer (1740-1779). Previously attributed to Johann Zoffany (1733-1810); a plaque on reverse of frame gives the date 1771. / Public domain

Carl Linnaeus pioneered the scientific naming of plants and animals, the binomial nomenclature (two name system) that is now a core part of modern biology. Life from around the world is classified according to this system. When Linnaeus began work, of course, most of the world’s plants and animals had no name in his new system for the simple fact that they were unknown to early modern Europe. To make his work truly universal he needed biological samples from everywhere, but Linnaeus himself had never travelled beyond Europe.

In fact, he never would. Instead, seventeen of Linnaeus’ best students set off on voyages around the world to collect samples for him. Linnaeus called them his apostles. Their explorations would ensure the expansion and popularisation of his classification system – but it came at a high price.

The first apostle, Christopher Tärnström, joined a trading ship bound for China in 1746. He carried a list of Asian plants and animals to bring back to Linnaeus. Tärnström died of a tropical fever off the coast of Vietnam that same year. His wife was understandably furious with Linnaeus, who then instituted a rule that every subsequent apostle had to be unmarried.

It was probably just as well: only a few of the next sixteen apostles got back to Sweden and actually got samples to Linnaeus. Kalm spent 2 and a half years in North America. Torén travelled to India and China, returned with many specimens, but died very soon after getting back to Sweden. Thunberg travelled to Japan – difficult because at the time it was still closed to outsiders – but managed to get some samples and bring them back. Linnaeus sent Osbeck to China especially to get a tea plant; he returned with specimens but no tea. Martin had a short expedition to Svalbard in northern Norway, but only returned with a few lichens and mosses. Rothman got further afield, to Tunisia and Libya, but likewise didn’t return with much except his life. These were the lucky ones.

Hasselquist ventured to the Eastern Mediterranean but died overseas in serious debt. His collection of specimens was essentially ransomed back to Linnaeus. Löfling sent many specimens back from Spain and Venezuela, but never returned from South America. Adler died in Java after sending back only a few samples; Berlin got to Guinea and then died. Forsskål got as far as Yemen before he was felled by malaria. Falk became addicted to opium in Russia and committed suicide.

Solander and Sparrman travelled on the first and second voyages (respectively) of James Cook, they collected many samples from Africa, South America, Australia, and New Zealand but as far as I can tell never sent samples back to Linnaeus. Afzelius, the last apostle, travelled to Sierra Leone and back, but by that time Linnaeus was long dead.

The worst apostle, though, was Daniel Rolander. He gathered many important samples from Suriname, but once he got back to Sweden he refused to share them with Linnaeus. Apparently Linnaeus was so angry at this betrayal that he broke into his collection and stole one.

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