Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778)

by Bill Oehlke

Linnaeus, often called the father of Taxonomy, described and named many plants and animals and is credited with naming four Catocala species: fraxini, pacta, sponsa, and nupta. The latter three names, incorporating a marriage theme, initiated a trend for the Catocala that continued for close to one hundred years.

His ideas about classifying organisms continue to influence modern day biologists, except that today's systematists try to discover and use evolutionary relationships of taxa as the basis of classification. Linnaeus' early works stressed reproductive structures, especially of plants.

Born on May 23, 1707, in southern Sweden, Linnaeus disappointed his father, a Lutheran pastor, by showing no interest or aptitude for a priesthood "calling". He did share his father's great interest in gardening, however, and was fascinated by the common names of plants in use in his day.

In his late teens, Linnaeus chose to enter the medical profession, first entering the University of Lund in 1727 and then transferring to the University of Uppsala where he spent much time collecting and studying plants in order to prepare and prescribe plant-derived remedies -- an important skill for medical practitioners at the time.

Linnaeus organized several botanical expeditions, one to Lapland in 1731, another to central Sweden. He was constantly in search of new plants for medicinal purposes and also as potential food sources for people in Sweden.

Linnaeus finished his medical degree at the University of Harderwijk in the Netherlands in 1735. Further studies were engaged at the University of Leiden. His first edition of Systema Naturae, a classification of living things, also appeared in 1735.

Linnaeus was in regular contact with Europe's great botanists, and continued refining and expanding his classification categories. As an instructor, he arranged to have nineteen of his students sent out on trade and exploration voyages to all parts of the world. Some of them never returned, meeting untimely deaths.

Work continued on his Systema Naturae, as he received plant and animal specimens from every corner of the globe. The book and his collection increased in scope and size many times.

Linnaeus firmly believed that God had created the world and that a study of nature would reveal the Divine Order of God's creation.

It is quite interesting that his early plant taxonomy was based solely on the number and arrangement of the reproductive organs; a plant's class was determined by its stamens (male organs), and its order by its pistils (female organs) and he chose Cryptogamia, to include "plants with a hidden marriage."

As previously mentioned, three of the first four Catocala species that he described, all from Europe, were given species names associated with marriage: pacta, sponsa, and nupta.

Within a few years of his death in 1778, Linnaeus's library, manuscripts, and natural history collections were sold to the English natural historian Sir James Edward Smith, who founded the Linnean Society of London to take care of them. Smith also named several Catocala species (North American), continuing the marriage theme initiated by Linnaeus: vidua, consors, neogama.

John Ray's practice of using morphological evidence from all parts of the organism, in all stages of its development, led to vast improvements in the Linnean system. Linnaeus' grouping of genera into higher and higher taxa, based on shared similarities, resulted in groupings into orders, orders into classes, and classes into kingdoms.

Linnaeus also simplified naming, which previously had included long descriptive terminology, by designating a single Latin name to indicate the genus, and a single name for the species. This use of two names make up what is commonly refered to as binomial nomenclature and is the standard system used today.

Since Linnaeus was the first to use shortened binomial nomencalture consistently, Latin names previously assigned by other naturalists are not usually considered valid under the rules of nomenclature.

Founded a few years after Linnaeus's death, the Linnaean Society of London is still going strong as an international society for the study of natural history. The Society preserves the bulk of Linnaeus's surviving collections, manuscripts, and library.

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