The Young Carl Linnaeus Chooses to Study Medicine

Home and Garden in Råshult

Linnaeus’ father was a clergyman. His father and mother’s express wish was for their son Carl to study theology. But that did not happen. “No plant grows without seeds and roots,” says Linnaeus in a memorial speech in 1765. One seed was to blossom into an interest in botany. It was planted by his parent’s engagement in the garden they established outside their home in Råshult. Their interest made an early impression on Carl. He was allowed to plant a garden of his own, was instructed about various plants, and was also taken at an early age out into the plant world of the hay-fields.

Linnaeus’ Råshult: The house where Carl Linnaeus spent his childhood and the garden that probably sparked his interest in botany.
Photo: Bengt Meyerson

Some chemical constituents of plants are important as drugs. This kind of knowledge is also part of modern research into new forms and uses of medicines. The field is called pharmacognosy and phytotherapy. Is there a connection between the young Linnaeus’ botanical interest and his later decision to become a physician? There must have been some strong motive to offset his parents’ wishes regarding his choice of career.

Schooldays in Växjö

In 1716 Carl Linnaeus, who was born in 1707, was enrolled in Växjö School. He is said to have had a limited interest in schooling. What meant a great deal to his development was the headmaster of Växjö School, Daniel Lannerus. He had a great interest in botany. Carl got to accompany Lannerus on excursions, and Lannerus realized the boy’s aptitude and interest in natural science. He related this to his friend, a senior master and provincial physician named Rothman. Dr. Rothman was also impressed with Carl’s interest in and knowledge of botany. There is reason to believe that Carl’s thoughts about a medical career were sparked by his contact with Dr. Rothman.

Linnaeus bust in the park in Växjö.
Photo: Bengt Meyerson

After a while Carl started upper-secondary school. Theology dominated the curriculum. The prime purpose of upper-secondary school was to foster good clergymen. As mentioned, Carl’s parents, especially his mother, wanted him to become a priest. However, Carl had decided that he wanted to study botany and medicine. The two teachers mentioned above, Lannerus and Rothman, supported his scientific ambitions.

In September 1726 Carl’s father went to Växjö to see how his dear son was doing. His dreams of his son joining the clergy were permanently dashed. Every teacher he asked declared that his son’s knowledge of the subjects needed for a career in the clergy was poor. They averred, obviously much to the dismay of the father, that Carl was much better suited for a career as a craftsman, in carpentry or tailoring, for example. In this disappointed and depressed mood, Carl’s father came to see Dr. Rothman. Rothman stated that the boy was indeed a poor student of theology and was ill suited for clerical studies, but that he would make an excellent physician. Rothman offered to board Carl in his own home, teach him physiology, and otherwise take him under his wing. And this is what happened. The mother took it badly, blaming it all on the family garden. She forbad her younger son Samuel ever to have anything to do with botany. Samuel became a clergyman.

“What you enjoy doing, you will do well”

His mother was concerned that Carl ”had changed his religion.” His father was more tolerant and began to give in to his son’s interests. Carl himself was convinced: “wanted to be medicus and botanicus and nothing else.” On one occasion, it is told, when the family had company, Carl heard his father say: “… yes, it’s always the case – what you enjoy doing, you will do well!”Carl asked his father later “if it is true what dear Father said when our company was here?” His father asked him cheerfully what it was that he had said. Carl repeated what his father had uttered. His father responded that it was indeed true, “… as long as this enjoyment involves something good,” he added, to be on the safe side. Carl answered: “Then, dear Father, never ask me to become a priest, because I have no inclination to be one.” His father replied, “You know that your parents have limited means and that the studies you wish to pursue are very costly.” But Carl would not give up. “If my Father’s words are true, as he says, then God will provide. If I succeed to the extent of my enjoyment, I shall not want for opportunities.” His father answered with tears in his eyes and in distress: “May God help you prosper! I would not force you to do what you do not enjoy.” So the decision had been made. On August 14, 1727, Carl was off to Lund to study medicine.

It is probable that Carl did not have any real aversion to a clerical career or to any religious beliefs but simply had an early aptitude for down-to-earth things and an intense curiosity about natural science.

How is a fervent interest created?

An important issue is how a lifelong interest is created by special circumstances in the home environment. It is self-evident that the attitudes and stimulation of the parents are important. But charismatic and skilled teachers probably also play a role.

This line of thinking leads us to another great natural scientist, Charles Darwin. He, too, had a burning interest in nature early in life: collecting animals, stones, snails, making observations, and brooding about connections. Darwin’s father was a physician. Despite this, he regarded his son’s interest in nature with some contempt. “You care for nothing but shooting, dogs, and rat-catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family,” he is said to have uttered. Darwin’s mother was deeply religious. Like Linnaeus, Darwin encountered a school system whose main goal was to train the students in Latin in preparation for theological studies. This did not appeal to Darwin, whose interest in outdoor life and nature had grown. When Darwin was 16 his father decided that Charles would go with his brother Erasmus to Edinburgh to study medicine. Unfortunately Darwin had teachers there who were largely just as indescribably boring as those he had had in school. His father ultimately realized how hopeless the prospects were that his son would become a physician. His only hope now was for studies that could lead to a career as a clergyman, but Darwin had not studied much theology. He was relatively successful in a number of subjects in philosophy, mathematics, and physics. Where did this interest in science come from? As was the case with Linnaeus, Darwin’s early interest in researching and collecting was reinforced by encounters with personalities in science. One such person was the professor of botany J.S. Henslow of the University of Cambridge. There were also influences from literature, such as Alexander von Humboldt’s travelogue from South America and John Herschel’s book A Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy.

These two great scientists, Linnaeus and Darwin, have something interesting in common in their paths from childhood, school, and university and their devotion to science: the experience of nature in childhood, the conflict about following in their fathers’ footsteps, and encounters with teachers and personalities in their schooling. What is striking is their own initiative and powerful motivation. They approached teachers and accompany them on excursions or in their professional work. There were no set curricula involved. The university catalogue took up a number of public lectures – that’s all. If you wanted to gain more knowledge, you had to ferret out literature, often in private libraries. It was clearly of great importance to establish a social network and to demonstrate your interest, your ambition, and your talent to this network.

Last modified: 2022-02-16