The inner sanctum of the Linnean Society

On Piccadilly there is a bomb-proof bunker containing one of the most important biological collections in the world, that of the great Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778). Bought by the young English botanist James Edward Smith in 1784, the collection catalysed the creation of the Linnean Society in 1788.

Roughly once a month there are guided tours of the collection, and it is well worth booking a place. The room contains all of Linnaeus’ books and papers, as well as his specimens, and it is a fascinating window on the world of eighteenth-century natural philosophy.

It is the books that grab your attention as you first walk in. Not only are there copies of all the books Linneaus wrote (and they are his own personal copies, with his annotations), but also all those that he read, so to peruse the shelves is to get a glimmer of the early modern and Enlightenment study of plants and animals.

Some of the earliest volumes include Conrad Gessner‘s Historiae animalium (1551-8). He was a Swiss physician who wrote extensively on the natural world, based largely on his own observations. Historiae animalium contains some lovely drawings too. Unfortunately he died of the plague in 1565.

Picture of Gessner's Historia animalium

A younger contemporary of Gessner was the German Adam Lonicer, a mathematician and physician, after whom the honeysuckles are named (Lonicera). His Kräuter-Buch is in the Linnaean collection.

Worls of Adam Lonicer

Then, of course, there are works by the British naturalist John Ray, from Essex, whose works on classification were a major source for Linnaeus. He also travelled extensively around Europe in the 1660s collecting a large number of specimens. Here are some of his books snuggling up against those of the philosophe Réaumur:

Picture of works of Ray and Réaumur

Joseph de Tournefort also wrote extensively and was a much-read botanist in the eighteenth century, so it is no surprise to find his works in Linnaeus’ library. He collected in the Mediterranean region, and was professor of botany at the Jardin du Roi (now the Jardin des Plantes) in Paris. His work on the plants of the Paris area is here filed between those of two Dutchmen: the microscopist Jan Swammerdam, and surgeon Nicolaes Tulp:

Picture of books by Swammerdam, Tournefort, Tulp

Linnaeus himself wrote extensively throughout his life, and one of most important works is the Systema naturae, which he worked on over many decades. The first edition from 1735 is a huge format book comprising only twelve pages, but clearly outlines the classification of all groups, including us.

Picture of the first edition of Systema naturae

At this stage, some mythic creatures are included too (“Paradoxa”), though only for the sake of completeness, and many of the groupings are not quite how we divide them up today.

Detail from the first edition of Systema naturae

Detail from the first edition of Systema naturae

Nevertheless, by the time the tenth edition appeared in 1758 the work had grown enormously and classified over 12000 species. His personal copy is bound with interleaved blank sheets for his working notes (in Latin, of course). Digitised versions of these are all available online (see image 186 for a closer look).

The tenth edition of Systema naturae

Linnaeus’ personal copy of the tenth edition of Systema naturae with his own annotations

Then there are the specimens. In the space of a short tour we only saw a few, the most notable of which include the Type specimen of the John Dory (Zeus faber), which showed how Linnaeus preserved his fish samples like his plants, ie flattened.

The Type specimen of the John Dory (Zeus faber)

But the plants are a major part of the collection, each group filed away separately.

Picture of the Linnean herbarium

And here is the Twinflower, Linnaeus’ favourite plant, which is named after him: Linnaea borealis. Many of his portraits show him holding the flower. (Have a closer look online.)

Twinflower (Linnea borealis)

In addition to all these goodies, the Linnean collection also contains a few curiosities:

Picture of a piece of rubber

And up in the library there are some articles that weren’t owned by Linnaeus, notably Darwin’s vasculum, which he used for collecting plants for most of his life. It looks rather more effective than a plastic bag.

Picture of Darwin's vasculum

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