Isolated on a Japanese island - Carl Peter Thunberg (1743–1828)

Thunbergia alata, black-eyed-Susan vine.
Photo: Stephen Manktelow

Carl Peter Thunberg was one of the last of Linnaeus’ pupils. The beautiful climber Thunbergia in the family Acanthaceae is named after him. It is called black-eyed-Susan vine and is grown as an ornamental.

Thunberg grew up in Jönköping and met Linnaeus when he studied medicine in Uppsala.

During a journey through the Netherlands a couple of Dutch professors suggested that Thunberg should join them on a journey to Japan as their botanist. After Linnaeus’ enthusiastic persuasions he left for Japan. Their first stop was in the Cape area in South Africa where Thunberg stayed for more than three years and collected more than a thousand new species before he continued his journey eastwards.

The Japanese had since the 17th century closed their borders towards the rest of the world as a protest to western influence. When Thunberg arrived he had to live isolated on an island outside Nagasaki together with other foreigners. Very rarely he was allowed to travel to the mainland. Despite this Thunberg managed to collect plants in his own clever way. Among other things he searched through the hay delivered to the cattle on the island.

After nine years Thunberg returned home to Sweden. Linnaeus had died a year before, and Thunberg succeeded Linnaeus’ son as professor in Uppsala. He was a very productive scientist and wrote more publications than any other of Linnaeus’ pupils. He wrote a flora of South Africa and the first Japanese flora, among other things. Thunberg is still very famous in Japan. Japanese botanists usually visit the Herbarium in Uppsala where Thunberg's collection with many of his types is kept.

A Herbarium is a collection of dry pressed plants. You can make your own little herbarium, but there are also large scientific herbaria at universities and institutes with millions of herbarium specimens. In Uppsala there are somewhat less than three million herbarium sheets. Carl Peter Thunberg's collection is kept in Uppsala. Linnaeus’ herbarium was sold together with the rest of his scientific collections and his library to London after his death. There they are safely kept in a bombproof vault at the Linnaean Society near Piccadilly Circus.

Last modified: 2021-11-25