“Do good by stealth, and blush to find it fame.”*

*from Alexander Pope’s “Essay on Man” (1733-34)

Image: Robert Berks’s sculpture of Linnaeus, Chicago Botanical Garden.

Bill Bryson, in A Short History of Nearly Everything (2003) Chapter Twenty-Three:

“…The world was desperate for a workable system of classification. Fortunately there was a man in Sweden who stood ready to provide it.

His name was Carl Linne (later changed, with permission, to the more aristocratic Von Linne), but he is remembered now by the Latinised form Carolus Linnaeus. He was born in 1707 in the village of Rashult in southern Sweden, the son of a poor but ambitious Lutheran curate…

…In the early 1730s, still in his twenties, he began to produce catalogues of the world’s plant and animal species, using a system of his own devising, and gradually his fame grew.

Rarely has a man been more comfortable with his own greatness. He spent much of his leisure time penning long and flattering portraits of himself, declaring that there had never “been a greater botanist or zoologist”, and that his system of classification was “the greatest achievement in the realm of science “. Modestly, he suggested that his gravestone should bear the inscription Princeps Botanicorum, “Prince of Botanists”. It was never wise to question his generous self-assessments. Those who did so were apt to find they had weeds named after them.

…many people thought him strange. But his system of classification was irresistible. Before Linnaeus, plants were given names that were expansively descriptive. The common ground cherry was called Physalis amno ramosissime ramis angulosis glabris foliis dentoserratis. Linnaeus lopped it back to Physalis angulata, which name it still uses…To make these excisions useful and agreeable to all required much more than simply being decisive. It required an instinct – a genius, in fact – for spotting the salient qualities of a species.

…Taxonomy – which is to say the science of classification – has never looked back.

…Taxonomy is described sometimes as a science and sometimes as an art, but really it’s a battleground…”

“…Joseph Banks was England’s greatest botanist and the Endeavour voyage – that is, the one on which Captain Cook charted the 1769 transit of Venus and claimed Australia for the crown, among rather a lot else – was the greatest botanical expedition in history. Banks paid £10,000, about £600,000 in today’s money, to take himself and a party of nine others – a naturalist, a secretary, three artists and four servants – on the three-year adventure around the world. Goodness knows what the bluff Captain Cook made of such a velvety and pampered assemblage, but he seems to have liked Banks well enough and could not but admire his talents in botany – a feeling shared by posterity.

Never before or since has a botanical party enjoyed greater triumphs. Partly it was because the voyage took in so many new or little-known places – Tierra Del Fuego, Tahiti, New Zealand, Australia, New Guinea – but mostly it was because Banks was such an astute and inventive collector. Even when unable to go ashore at Rio de Janeiro because of a quarantine, he sifted through a bale of fodder sent for the ship’s livestock and made new discoveries. Nothing, it seems, escaped his notice. Altogether he brought back thirty thousand plant specimens, including fourteen hundred not seen before – enough to increase by about a quarter the number of known plants in the world.”

From Wikipedia:

“Banks was born in Argyll Street, Soho, the son of William Banks, a rich Lincolnshire country squire and member of the House of Commons, and his wife Sarah, daughter of William Bate. He was baptized at St James’s Church, Piccadilly, on 20 February 1743, Old Style.

He died on 19 June 1820 in Spring Grove House, Isleworth, London, and was buried at St Leonard’s Church, Heston. Lady Banks survived him, but they had no children.”

From the website of Find a Grave:

“In his will he stipulated that he be buried without ceremony and that no monument be raised to his memory. Nevertheless a memorial to Banks was unveiled in Lincoln Cathedral in 2001.”

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