Lives of Eminent Zoologists, from Aristotle to Linnus

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Linnæus and Haller, notwithstanding the frequent disputes that took place between them, continued upon the whole on friendly terms, and wrote to each other occasionally, until 1749. The last letter from the Swiss naturalist is dated Berne, April 10, 1766. The correspondence, which is full of interest, more especially with respect to botany, is given by Sir J. E. Smith, from whose "Selection" the above translations have been copied.

"It is to be lamented," says he, "that Haller published so many confidential letters, unjustly reflecting, here and there, on Linnæus; and that he betrays, in his prefaces and notes, so much petulance towards this old and distinguished friend. He pretends, indeed, to have excluded from all the letters he published every thing personal or confidential. But there are few more disgraceful chronicles of ill humour than this collection of letters[Pg 334] of various persons to Haller. He leaves chasms, truly, in many places, which, like Madame Dacier's asterisks, is 'hanging out lights;' for they serve to aggravate the force of what remains. Above all, he is censurable for printing letters from this very son of his, after his death, reflecting severely on persons who had, as the young man says, shown him the greatest favour at Paris; and abusing the Academy of Sciences, which had just elected him into its body as a corresponding member."

Linnæus, in one of his letters to Haller, says, "There is nobody in England who understands or thinks about genera except Dillenius." We may therefore mention, as next in order among his correspondents, this celebrated professor of botany. Born at Darmstadt in 1685, and educated as a physician at Giessen, he was brought to England by Sherard in 1721; and, when the latter, who had been English consul at Smyrna, founded his botanical professorship at Oxford, he appointed him to it.

Dillenius was a plain blunt man, and used great freedom of speech in writing to Linnæus. Thus, in one of his letters, he says,—"I feel as much displeased with your Critica Botanica as I am pleased with your Lapland Flora, especially as you have, without my deserving such a compliment or knowing of your intention, dedicated the book to me. You must have known my dislike to all ceremonies and compliments. I hope that you have burthened but few copies with this dedication,—perhaps only the copy which you have sent me. If there be more, I beg of you to strip them of this vain parade, or I shall take it much amiss. At[Pg 335] least I cannot offer you my thanks for what you have done, though I gratefully acknowledge the favour of the copies you have sent me of the Critica as well as the Flora. We all know the nomenclature of botany to be an Augean stable, which C. Hoffmann, and even Gesner, were not able to cleanse. The task requires much reading, and extensive as well as various erudition; nor is it to be given up to hasty or careless hands. You rush upon it, and overturn every thing. I do not object to Greek words, especially in compound names; but I think the names of the ancients ought not rashly and promiscuously to be transferred to our new genera, or those of the New World. The day may possibly come when the plants of Theophrastus and Dioscorides may be ascertained; and, till this happens, we had better leave their names as we find them. That desirable end might even now be attained, if any one would visit the countries of these old botanists, and make a sufficient stay there; for the inhabitants of those regions are very retentive of names and customs, and know plants at this moment by their ancient appellations, very little altered, as any person who reads Belonius may perceive. I remember your being told, by the late Mr G. Gherard, that the modern Greeks give the name of amanita ([Greek: amanita]) to the eatable field-mushroom; and yet, in Critica Botanica, p. 50, you suppose that word to be French. Who will ever believe the Thya of Theophrastus to be our arbor vitæ? Why do you give the name of cactus to the tuna? Do you believe the tuna, or melocactus (pardon the word), and the arbor vitæ, were known to Theophrastus? An attentive reader of the description[Pg 336] he gives of his sida, will probably agree with me that it belongs to our nymphæa, and indeed to the white-flowered kind. You, without any reason, give that name to the malvinda; and so in various other instances concerning ancient names; in which I do not, like Burmann, blame you for introducing new names, but for the bad application of old ones. If there were, in these cases, any resemblance between your plants and those of the ancients, you might be excused; but there is not. Why do you, p. 68, derive the word medica from the virtues of the plant, when Pliny, book xviii. chap. 16, declares it to have been brought from Media, &c.?

"I fear I have angered you by saying, as you observe in your last, so much against your system of arrangement. Nevertheless, I could say a great deal more, and should be able to prove to you that you separate and tear asunder several genera nearly related to each other. But this is not my aim, as I value your friendship too much."

In another letter, dated May 16, 1737, he writes as follows:—"I must say a word concerning stamens and styles, as being unfit to found a system of arrangement upon; not only because they vary as much as flowers and seed-vessels, but because they are hardly to be discerned, except by yourself, and such lynx-eyed people;[K] and in my judgment, every scheme of classification offers violence to nature. Notwithstanding all this, I applaud and congratulate you, in the highest degree, for having[Pg 337] brought your premature birth to such perfection. You have accomplished great things, and, that you may go on and prosper still more, let me exhort you to examine more and more species. I do not doubt that you yourself will one day overthrow your own system. You see, my dearest Linnæus, how plainly I speak my sentiments, depending on your candour to receive them favourably."

One of the most respectable of his English correspondents was Peter Collinson, with whom he became acquainted when he visited London in 1736. He belonged to the Society of Friends, possessed a most amiable disposition, evinced the strictest probity and the purest benevolence, was blessed with a genuine and ardent love of nature, enjoyed a long life of active virtue, and died in the glorious hope of a happiness unappreciable. The gentle though rather romantic character of the quaker shines forth in all his letters, but in none more than in the last he wrote, which is as follows:—

"Ridgeway-house, on Mill-hill, ten miles north of London,—
March 16, 1767.

"I am here retired to a delightful little villa, to contemplate and admire, with my dear Linnæus, the unalterable laws of vegetation. How ravishing to see the swelling buds disclose the tender leaves! By the public newspapers we were told that with you in Sweden the winter was very severe, the Sound being frozen over. I have no conception of the power of that cold which could fetter the rolling ocean in icy chains. The cold was what we call severe, but not so sharp as in the year 1740. It lasted about a month, to the 21st of January, and[Pg 338] then the thaw began and continued. February the 1st and 2d were soft, warm, sunny days, as in April, and so continued, mild and warm, with southerly winds, all the month. This brought on the spring flowers. Feb. 8th, the Helleborus niger made a fine show; the Galanthus and winter aconite by the 15th covered the garden with beauty, among some crocuses and violets, and Primula veris, &c. How delightful to see the order of nature! Oh, how obedient the vegetable tribes are to their great Lawgiver! He has given this race of flowers a constitution and fibres to resist the cold. They bloom in frost and snow, like the good men of Sweden. These flowers have some time made their exit; and now, March 7th, a tenderer tribe succeeds. Such, my dear friend, is the order of nature. Now the garden is covered with more than twenty different species of crocuses, produced from sowing seeds, and the Iris Persica, Cyclamen vernale, and polyanthos. The 16th March, plenty of Hyacinthus cæruleus and albus in the open borders, with anemones; and now my favourites, the great tribe of narcissuses, show all over the garden and fields. We have two species wild in the woods that now begin to flower. Next, the Tulipa præcox is near flowering; and so Flora decks the garden with endless variety, ever charming.

"The progress of our spring, to the middle of March, I persuade myself will be acceptable to my dear baron. Now I come to thank him for his most acceptable letter of the 8th of October last. I am extremely obliged for your kind intentions to send me the work of works, your Systema Naturæ. I hope it will please God to bless my eyes with the[Pg 339] sight of it. I feel the distress you must be under with the fire. I am glad, next to your own and family's safety, that you saved your papers and books. By this time I hope all is settled and in order; so pray now, at your leisure, employ some expert pupil to search into the origin of the nectarine; who are the first authors that mention how and when it was first introduced into the European gardens. It is strange and marvellous, that a peach should naturally produce or bear nectarines, a fruit so different, as well in its exterior coat as flavour, from a peach; and yet this nectarine will produce a nectarine from the stone, and not a peach. This remarkable instance is from a tree of a nectarine raised from a stone in my own garden, which last autumn had several dozen of fruit on it, finely ripened. For more particulars I refer to my last letter. Pray tell me who Perses was, what countryman, and who is the author that relates his introducing peaches into the European gardens?

"That bats as well as flies lie as dead all winter is true; but they do not change elements, and go and live all that time under water. Swallows cannot do it without a provision and contrivance for that end, which it becomes your great abilities to find out; for it is not sufficient to assert, but to demonstrate the internal apparatus God Almighty has wonderfully contrived for a flying animal, bred on the land and in the air, to go voluntarily under water, and live there for so many months. Besides, we are not informed which species lives under water, as there are four species. You, my dear friend, have raised my admiration, and that of all my curious acquaintance; for we never heard before that[Pg 340] mushrooms were of an animal nature, and that their eggs are hatched in water. We must suspend gratifying our curiosity until this phenomenon is more particularly explained to us here. Dr Solander is also a stranger to it. Very probably some account has been published in the Swedish tongue; if that is sent to Solander, then we shall be made acquainted with the discovery.

"I herewith send you a print of the Andrachne, which flowered, for the first time I presume in Europe, in Dr Fothergill's garden in May last year. It was raised from seed from Aleppo, sent to him by Dr Russell in the year 1756. Yon see its manner of flowering is very different from the arbutus. I have a large tree raised from the same seed, that stands abroad in the garden, but never blossomed. It is now beginning to shed its bark, as Belon or Belonius well describes; which is a peculiar difference from the Arbutus, and nearly agrees with the Platanus.

"I am, my dear friend, with my sincere wishes for your health and preservation, your affectionate friend,

"P. Collinson,

"Now entered into my 73d year, in perfect health and strength in body and mind. God Almighty be praised and adored for the multitude of his mercies!—March 16th, 1767."

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