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On May 23, 1707, Swedish botanist, physician, and zoologist Carolus (Carl) Linnaeus was born. He laid the foundation for the modern scheme of taxonomy, the classification of plants and animals.

When Linnaeus studied medicine, botany was an important part of medical studies because doctors had not only to prescribe drugs derived from medicinal plants, but also to prepare them.

Before Linnaeus, the practice of naming species varied. Linnaeus, who’d studied botany at his father’s knee, built a system of naming plants by which every species could be identified with no ambiguity. And in just two words apiece! Although Linnaeus was not the first to formulate a classification system, he was the first to do so with clarity and precision. His innovation, a two-part naming system – binomial nomenclature – is indicated by a genus name followed by a lowercase specific descriptor or nickname, both words in modern usage are italicized in print. For example, Homo sapiens is the scientific term for the human being. Linnaean nomenclature meant that the same name could be used world wide, in any language, and without anyone missing anything in translation.

Another part of his system was how he grouped life above the smaller groupings, basing them on broader shared similarities. For example, at the top or kingdom level, Linnaeus set Animalia – to hold all animals. Next level down, he set the class Vertebrata – to hold animals with backbones. Below this, he placed orders, such as Primates … then the genus Homo … then its specific species descriptor sapiens. With this elegant and inclusive classification, Linnaeus created a framework for future biologists to add additional ranks and additional levels as required.

Linnaeus collected and classified specimens his entire long life. His students did likewise and brought back even more specimens from their travels of discovery throughout the world. He could fit new species into his classification and modify classification to accommodate new discoveries. Because Linnaeus retained every sample he acquired, he was able to maintain consistency and precision within his system while providing a usable survey and observable reference of all the world’s plants and animals then known.

Soon after his death, Linnaeus’ collection became the first and founding collection of the Linnean Society of London that has continued the work of documenting plant and animal life. These collections have increasing scientific importance, as, in our lifetimes, we can see how almost every part of our environment is rapidly losing plant species and their genetic diversity.

B Bondar / Real World Content Advantage