Lives of Eminent Zoologists, from Aristotle to Linnus

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A great part of the correspondence which Collinson had with Linnæus bore a reference to the alleged hibernation of swallows, which the latter, following the authority of certain writers, supposed to retire on the approach of winter to the bottom of[Pg 341] lakes and rivers, among reeds and other aquatic plants, where they remain in a torpid state till the beginning of summer. This preposterous idea the Englishman labours to convince his friend ought either to be given up, or established by accurate observation; but, if the great botanist was not too proud to renounce an error, he at least manifested no desire to satisfy his correspondent, nor does it appear that he ever afterwards alluded to the subject in any of his letters.

The other individuals with whom he carried on an epistolary intercourse in England were, Dr Solander, his pupil; Mr Ellis, the first who proved the animal nature of corals and corallines; Mr George Edwards, librarian of the Royal College of Physicians, who produced a work on birds; Mr Pennant, the celebrated author of the British Zoology and other treatises; Mr Catesby, who wrote the Natural History of Carolina; Dr Mitchell, and a few more. Of these Mr Ellis appears to have been his most assiduous correspondent.

Mr Ellis to Linnæus.

"London, December 5, 1766.

"Sir,—I am obliged to you for sending me Dr Garden's account of the Siren. I am sorry I could not get the rest of the things he sent you, before the ship sailed, when I sent you the specimens of plants. I have only got the insects, which are of little value, and the skin of a Siren. The things in spirits are not yet brought on shore; but I hope to get them; and as soon as I have an opportunity, will send them to you. Peter Collinson spent the evening with me, and shewed me a letter you wrote to him[Pg 342] about funguses being alive in the seeds, and swimming about like fish. You mention something of it to me in your last letter. If you have examined the seeds of them yourself, and found them to be little animals, I should believe it. Pray, what time of the year, and what kinds? I suppose they must be taken while growing, and in a vigorous state. I intend to try; I think my glass will discover them, if they have animal life in them. The seeds of the Equisetum palustre appear to be alive by their twisting motion, when viewed through the microscope; but that is not animal life.

"I have just finished a collection of the Corallinæ. I think there are thirty-six species; but I believe some of them will prove varieties. I have most of the copperplates that represent them finished. They are the most difficult to examine of all the zoophytes; their pores are so small, and their manner of growing so singular....

"Pray let me know how your Tea-tree grows. It is very odd that, notwithstanding we have had fifteen ships from China this year, we have not had one Tea-tree brought home alive. I have sent a boy to China, whose dependence is on me, to try to bring over several sorts of seeds in wax. I expect him home next summer.

"The English are much obliged to you for your good wishes. We every day see a superiority in the Swedes over the other European nations. All your people that appear among us are polite, well-bred, and learned; without the vanity of the French, the heaviness of the Dutch, or the impudence of the Germans. This last nation has intruded on us swarms of their miserable, half-starved people, from[Pg 343] the connexion that our royal family have had with them."

The first voyage of Captain Cook, in which he was accompanied by Sir Joseph Banks and Dr Solander, interested Linnæus in a high degree, as he expected from it great accessions to science. On being apprized by Ellis of the return of the expedition in 1771, he thus writes in reply:—

"I received, about an hour ago, my ever valued friend, yours of the 16th of July, nor did I ever receive a more welcome letter, as it conveys the agreeable news of my dear Solander's safe return. Thanks and glory to God, who has protected him through the dangers of such a voyage! If I were not bound fast here by sixty-four years of age, and a worn-out body, I would this very day set out for London, to see this great hero of botany. Moses was not permitted to enter Palestine, but only to view it from a distance; so I conceive an idea in my mind of the acquisitions and treasures of those who have visited every part of the globe."

The following letter, principally on the same subject, is selected as one of the best specimens of Linnæus's epistolary style:—

Linnæus to Mr Ellis.

"Upsal, October 22, 1771.

"My dear Friend,—I have just read in some foreign newspapers, that our friend Solander intends to revisit those new countries, discovered by Mr Banks and himself, in the ensuing spring. This report has affected me so much, as almost entirely to deprive me of sleep. How vain are the hopes of[Pg 344] man! Whilst the whole botanical world, like myself, has been looking for the most transcendent benefits to our science, from the unrivalled exertions of your countrymen, all their matchless and truly astonishing collection, such as has never been seen before, nor may ever be seen again, is to be put aside untouched, to be thrust into some corner, to become perhaps the prey of insects and of destruction.

"I have every day been figuring to myself the occupations of my pupil Solander, now putting his collection in order, having first arranged and numbered his plants in parcels, according to the places where they were gathered, and then written upon each specimen its native country and appropriate number. I then fancied him throwing the whole into classes; putting aside, and naming, such as were already known; ranging others under known genera, with specific differences; and distinguishing by new names and definitions such as formed new genera, with their species. Thus, thought I, the world will be delighted and benefited by all these discoveries; and the foundations of true science will be strengthened, so as to endure through all generations.

"I am under great apprehension, that if this collection should remain untouched till Solander's return, it might share the same lot as Forskal's Arabian specimens at Copenhagen. Thus shall I be only more and more confirmed in my opinion, that the Fates are ever adverse to the greatest undertakings of mankind.

"Solander promised long ago, while detained off the coast of Brazil, in the early part of his voyage, that he would visit me after his return; of which I[Pg 345] have been in expectation. If he had brought some of his specimens with him, I could at once have told him what were new; and we might have turned over books together, and he might have been informed or satisfied upon many subjects, which after my death will not be so easily explained.

"I have no answer from him to the letter I enclosed to you, which I cannot but wonder at. You yourself know how much I have esteemed him, and how strongly I recommended him to you.

"By all that is great and good, I entreat you, who know so well the value of science, to do all that in you lies for the publication of these new acquisitions, that the learned world may not be deprived of them. They will afford a fresh proof, that the English nation promote science more than the French, or any other people whatsoever. At the same time, let me earnestly beg of you to publish, as soon as possible, your own work, explaining those elegant plates of rare zoophytes, &c. which you last sent me. I can no longer restrain my impatience. Allow me to remind you, that 'nothing is so uncertain, nothing so deceitful, as human life; nothing so frail, or surrounded with so many diseases and dangers, as man.'

"Again the plants of Solander and Banks recur to my imagination. When I turn over Feuillée's figures, I meet with more extraordinary things among them than anywhere else. I cannot but presume, therefore, as Peru and Chili are so rich, that in the South Sea Islands as great an abundance of rarities have remained in concealment, from the beginning of the world, to reward the labours of our illustrious voyagers. I see these things now but afar[Pg 346] off. If our travellers should take another trip, I shall have seen them as Moses saw Canaan.

"When I ponder upon the insects they have brought, I am overwhelmed at the reported number of new species. Are there many new genera? Amongst all the insects sent from the Cape, I have met with no new genus; which is remarkable. And yet, except four European ones, they are all new species.

"Pray make use of your interest with Solander, to inform me to what class and order the nutmeg belongs. I shall not take advantage of this information without making honourable mention of my authority.

"When I think of their Mollusca, I conceive the new ones must be very numerous. These animals cannot be investigated after death, as they contract in dying. Without doubt, as there were draughtsmen on board, they would not fail to afford ample materials for drawings.

"Do but consider, my friend, if these treasures are kept back, what may happen to them. They may be devoured by vermin of all kinds. The house where they are lodged may be burnt. Those destined to describe them may die. Even you, the promoter of every scientific undertaking in your country, may be taken from us. All sublunary things are uncertain, nor ought any thing to be trusted to treacherous futurity. I therefore once more beg, nay I earnestly beseech you, to urge the publication of these new discoveries. I confess it to be my most ardent wish to see this done before I die. To whom can I urge my anxious wishes but to you, who are so devoted to me and to science?[Pg 347]

"Remember me to the immortal Banks and Solander.

"P.S.—I can never sufficiently thank you and Mr Gordon for the beautiful and precious trees of Magnolia, both the Gardeniæ, both the Kalmiæ, and the Rhododendrum; all now in excellent health. But the Calycanthus, and a tree of a new genus allied to Hamamelis, I am sorry to say, are no more. They were very sickly when they came, nor did they put forth any new roots. Dionæa died, as might be expected, in the voyage.

"My Lord Baltimore passed a day with me about a year ago, at my country-house. I read over to him whatever he desired. After his departure, he sent me a most elegant vase of silver gilt, certainly worth more than 150 guineas. I never received so splendid a present before. No Frenchman, nor perhaps any other person, was ever so bountiful. The English are, doubtless, the most generous of all men.

"My second Mantissa is at length published. After it was finished, I received from Surinam what I call Hypericum Lasianthus, so similar to your Gordonia that at first I thought them the same. The flower is, in like manner, internally hairy; the stem is shrubby, and the leaves similar. But the stamens are in five sets, separated by five hairy nectaries. On a careful examination, I conclude your Gordonia Lasianthus to be really a different plant, agreeing with that of Plukenet, in having winged seeds, as you rightly describe it. The synonym of Plukenet, therefore, does not belong to my Lasianthus, which, however like it, is truly a species of Hypericum; but that synonym must be referred to your plant."

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