If you’ve visited London as a tourist and walked from Piccadilly Circus to Hyde Park, you’ve probably come across the famous luxury grocery store Fortnum & Mason, and its pretty displays of chocolate truffles, champagne and exotic fruits:
Now, look across the street and you will spot a massive 18th-century building, Burlington House, which is home to the Royal Academy of Arts, as well as five “Courtyard Societies”. The Linnean Society, occupying the West Wing of the building, is one of them, and I had the great pleasure to visit their biological & historical collections last week.
Founded in 1788 by Sir James Edward Smith to promote the science of natural history, the Linnean Society has long been a forum to exchange ideas on taxonomy, evolution or biodiversity. For example, it was at one of its meetings that Darwin‘s famous theory of evolution was presented in July 1858!
Many of you will know the name of Linné, the Swedish botanist and zoologist who introduced the taxonomic system still used today, or binomial nomenclature. Before Linné, plant or animal names would often be written as complex latin phrases, like on this vetch specimen from 1700:
So “Vicia segetum cum siliquis plurimis hirsutis” – “vetch found in cultivated fields with many hairy fruits” – becomes Vicia hirsuta with Linné. Life is so much simpler thanks to him…!
Following the death of Carl Linné’s son in 1783, Sir James Edward Smith purchased the Linnés collection of books, specimens and manuscripts, which were later acquired by the Linnean Society where they are still conserved today. Linné’s heritage lives on in the building: the meeting room holds a portrait over the president’s chair; and if you look closely, you’ll see that the large oak desk has sculptures of Linné’s favorite flower -named after him- the Twin Flower (Linnaea borealis):
Linné’s collections are conserved in a bomb-proof room under the Society, and here’s a little preview. There are books written by Linné like the very famous ‘Species Plantarum’ or ‘Systema Naturae’, but also books written by other European naturalists that he collected as a personal interest (the oldest one dates back to 1488!). At the bottom of the picture, you can see all his herbarium specimens:
The guide showed us ‘Systema Naturae‘, Linné’s attempt of natural classification. Here is for example the Plant Kingdom “Regnum Vegetabile”. His classification is a sexual one, so plants are divided into 24 classes according to their stamen number and position : Monandria for 1, Diandria for 2 etc… Class 24 is for “flowerless” plants such as ferns and mosses.
We got a glimpse of his collections too : butterflies, which were given greek names such as Papilio aeneas or P. helena and the most bizarre fishes, pressed between paper sheets (instead of being put into alcohol as in many other collections).
But the Linnean Society not only holds Linné’s collections. The great Library is home to thousands of books on all sorts of science topics, from mineralogy to molluscs, biotechnology to ethnobotany.
Another famous naturalist Sir Alfred Russel Wallace lurks in the Society’s walls. Here is a palm specimen (Bactris maraja) that he collected in South America, and a drawing of Murumuru palm (Astrocaryum murumuru):
Overall, it was a very enjoyable tour – clearly not something you can see everyday. I hope they are going to do more, for all the people who missed it!
But if you don’t have the chance to come to London and see Linné’s treasures, don’t worry, many of Linné’s specimens and correspondence have been digitized and you can have a look here : Linnean Collections