Lives of Eminent Zoologists, from Aristotle to Linnus

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At an early stage of his progress he had studied several botanical works which are now little known, such as those of Manson, Tilland, Palmberg, Bromellius, and Rudbeck. But the benevolent Rothmann showed him that the guides whom he had followed were unworthy of confidence, and advised him to begin by examining the flower, as recommended by Tournefort, giving him at the same time Valentini's figures of plants. He accordingly[Pg 197] copied these engravings, and commenced a rigorous examination of flowers and fruits. Towards the end of his twentieth year, he attempted to arrange in systematic order the various species growing in the neighbourhood of Wexio and Stenbrohult, many of which he found it difficult to determine, owing to the imperfect manner in which they had been described. Down to this period he had not distinguished himself in any other way than as a young man who was supposed to be foolishly addicted to the study of natural objects, while he ought to have been engaged in more important pursuits; although he says he had always been among the first in mathematics and natural philosophy.

On leaving the gymnasium at Wexio, the rector, Nicolas Krok, gave him a certificate expressed in the following terms:—"Students may be compared to the trees of a nursery. Often among the young plants are found some which, notwithstanding the care that has been bestowed upon them, resemble wild shoots; but, if transplanted at a later period, they change their nature, and sometimes bear delicious fruit. With this hope only I send this young man to the university, where another climate may perhaps prove favourable to his progress." This testimonial, however, he did not find it necessary to show; for he was introduced to the rector by one of his old teachers, Gabriel Hoek, whom he fortunately met at Lund.

Professor Humærus, who was his relative, had promised to support him at this university; but, on arriving, Linnæus was informed that the last duty had just been paid to his remains. He became a pupil of Kilian Stobæus, professor of medicine[Pg 198] and botany, whose notice he soon attracted by his diligence and attention, and who, learning his indigent condition, received him into his family. Here he found a small collection of natural objects, which he studied with great delight. At the same time he began to form an herbarium for himself; to add to which he made excursions into the neighbouring districts.

On one of these expeditions he was, or imagined himself to have been, stung by a venomous worm, said to be not uncommon in some parts of Sweden. However this may be, he was seized with a violent disorder, which threatened the extinction of life, more especially as he had removed far into the country, where medical assistance could not be readily procured. This accident, instead of diminishing his zeal, tended to increase his desire of becoming more acquainted with the lower orders of animals. In a work which he subsequently published, this singular worm, the existence of which, however, is still doubtful, is thus described by him:—"It occurs in the extensive turfy marshes of Bothnia, in the northern parts of Sweden. Falling from the atmosphere, frequently upon the bodies of men and animals, it instantly penetrates them with the most intense pain, so as to produce death from agony within a quarter of an hour. I myself was smitten by it at Lund, in 1728. I have not seen the animal unless in a dried state. It seems in its properties to be allied to the chaotic animals. By what means it rises into the air, whence it falls during the interval between the summer and winter solstice, no one has explained."

Stobæus's library was well stored with works on[Pg 199] botany, which Linnæus procured secretly from a young man who also lodged in the house, and in perusing which he often spent a great part of the night. His patron was informed of his vigils, and as he was of a merry, convivial disposition, suspected him of sitting up for the purpose of amusing himself with the servants. He resolved, therefore, to watch his proceedings, and, if his suspicions proved just, to reprimand him for his unbecoming conduct. But on entering Linnæus's room unexpectedly, what was his surprise to find him intrenched among the tomes of Cæsalpinus, Bauhin, Tournefort, and other eminent botanists! The result of this visit, as might have been expected, was free permission to make use of the library, and an increased attachment to the student. The same benevolent person embraced every opportunity of aiding him in his pursuits; gave him lessons on petrifactions and molluscous animals; taught him various branches of medicine; admitted him to his table; sent him occasionally to visit his patients; and went so far as to talk of making him his heir.

In 1728, after he had recovered from the effects of the severe malady with which he had been attacked, he visited his parents. His mother was extremely grieved at seeing him occupy his whole time in collecting plants and glueing them upon paper, as she plainly perceived that there was now no hope of his ever becoming a preacher. Dr Rothmann, who frequently saw him, pointed out the superior advantages which students possessed at Upsal, where there were "the learned Roberg, the great Rudbeck," a splendid library, and a fine botanic garden. He also named many poor students[Pg 200] who had received assistance from the government, and had become able practitioners. The young naturalist readily believed the representations of one who had taken so much interest in him, and resolved to follow his advice. At setting out, his father gave him a sum of money equivalent to about £8 sterling; informing him at the same time that he could do no more for him.

With this slender provision Charles proceeded to the University of Upsal, where, although he had no reason to expect a kind reception, he hoped at least to obtain more ample means of scientific research. The professors, however, were not such as they had been represented, nor did any of them show the smallest attention to the poor student. Before he had been a year there his pecuniary resources failed; so that he was in a manner cast upon the charity of his companions, among whom he was glad to accept an occasional meal, and even a worn-out article of clothing. The old shoes which they gave him, he was often obliged to mend with pasteboard and birch-bark before he could render them tolerably efficient. He now found reason to sigh for the comfortable home which he had left at Lund; but to it he could not return, for as he had quitted his benefactor Stobæus abruptly, and without so much as apprizing him of his intentions, he justly dreaded his displeasure. Aware that he could not obtain aid from his father, destitute of friends, and even of the hope of procuring a livelihood by the exertion of his talents, he was reduced to the extremity of indigence: yet he despaired not; nature had at all times charms to support his spirits; he struggled with his fate and conquered. On an important[Pg 201] occasion which occurred many years after, he publicly returned thanks to Providence for having supported him amid these privations:—"I thank thee, Almighty God," said he, "that in the course of my life, amidst the heavy pressure of poverty, and in all my other trials, thou hast been always present to me with thine omnipotent aid."

At this period, Olaus Celsius, first professor of divinity, whom Linnæus afterwards, in a letter to Haller, describes as the only botanist in Sweden, returned from Stockholm, where he had been on official business, and happening to visit the college-garden, met a young man, who attracted his notice by the accurate knowledge of plants which he displayed. On inquiring after him, and receiving a satisfactory account of his character and conduct, he gave him an apartment in his house, and supplied him with every thing of which he stood in need. Thus was he on many occasions obliged, if not to solicit, at least to accept pecuniary assistance. He, however, repaid in some measure the kindness of the venerable Celsius, by assisting him in preparing his Hierobotanicon, in which the vegetable productions mentioned in Scripture are described. To enable him to perform his task, he was allowed the free use of a library rich in botanical works.

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