Rewriting the System of Nature: Linnaeus's Use of Writing Technologies

As a consequence of overseas discoveries, early modern scientists were faced with what has been termed the "first bio-information crisis". The sheer amount of exotic, hitherto unknown species that reached the shores of Europe forced scientists to reconsider the ways in which they wrote and thought about the natural world. Paper technologies had to be developed that allowed to process large amounts of new information, and these technologies in turn allowed early modern naturalists and physicians to think in new ways about the "order of nature".

The aim of this four year Wellcome Trust funded research project was to explore these processes through a detailed reconstruction of the ways in which the naturalist Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778) assembled, filed, and cross-referenced information about plants and their medicinal virtues. Linnaeus has been described as a "pioneer in information retrieval." In particular, Linnaeus was one of the first to suggest that "natural" plant genera and families share similar pharmaceutical virtues, and that herbal drugs might be sought out on that basis. His manuscripts, held at the Linnean Society (London) and in a few Swedish institutions (Uppsala Carolina Rediviva Library, Royal Academy of Sciences in Stockholm…), provide an excellent opportunity to understand how information processing practices determine such ideas.

Through a detailed study of these manuscripts we were able to reconstruct how Linnaeus experimented with a variety of paper-based information technologies throughout his career – including commonplace books and notebooks, maps, schematic diagrams and drawings, collections of loose paper sheets, sometimes folded up to form slim files, annotations in interleafed copies of Linnaeus's own publications, and paper-slips resembling index cards. His "natural system" emerged not out of direct observation of nature, but out of Linnaeus's day-to-day work of revising and rearranging what he and others had written earlier.

The results of this project enabled the Linnean Society to seek support from the Mellon Foundation for the full cataloguing and digitisation of its Linnaean manuscript collection.

This project was awarded two grants by the Wellcome Trust, £119,746 for 2009-2013 and £28,000 for 2012-2013. 

Past events

11-13 January 2012: the Linnean Society of London hosted a conference funded by the Wellcome Trust and the British Academy, entitled "Worlds of Paper. Writing Natural History from Gessner to Darwin".
17 June 2010: the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science hosted the workshop "Paperwork. Writing (in) Books, 1650-1850".

Research articles in peer-reviewed journals

I. Charmantier. 'Carl Linnaeus and the Visual Representation of Nature', Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences 41 (2011), 365-404.
S. Müller-Wille and I. Charmantier. 'Natural History and Information Overload: The Case of Linnaeus', Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 43 (2012), 4-15.
S. Müller-Wille and I. Charmantier. ‘Lists as Research Technologies’, Isis 103:4 (2012), 743-752.
S. Müller-Wille and K. Böhme. '"In der Jungfernheide hinterm Pulvermagazin frequens": Das Handexemplar des Florae Berolinensis Prodromus (1787) von Karl Ludwig Willdenow', NTM – Journal of the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine 20:4 (2012).
S. Müller-Wille. 'Systems and How Linnaeus Looked at Them in Retrospect', Annals of Science 70:3 (2013).

Other publications

S. Müller-Wille and S. Scharf. 'Indexing Nature: Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) and His Fact-Gathering Strategies', Working Papers on The Nature of Evidence: How Well Do 'Facts' Travel? 36 (2009).
S. Müller-Wille. 'Vom Sexualsystem zur Karteikarte. Carl von Linnés Papiertechnologien', in Nicht Fisch – nicht Fleisch. Ordnungssysteme und ihre Störfälle, edited by T. Bäumler, B. Bühler and S. Rieger (Zürich: diaphanes, 2011), 33–50.
S. Müller-Wille and Sara Scharf. 'Indexing Nature: Carl Linnaeus and His Fact Gathering Strategies', Svenska Linnesällskapets Årsskrift (2011), 31–60.
J. Delbourgo and S. Müller-Wille, guest editors. Isis Focus Section ‘Listmania’, Isis 103:4 (2012).

In preparation

I. Charmantier and S. Müller-Wille. 'Inventing the Index Card: Carl Linnaeus’s Botanical Paper Slips', Intellectual History Review (submitted, under review).
S. Müller-Wille and I. Charmantier. 'The Genesis of Carl Linnaeus's Sexual System' (in preparation for British Journal for the History of Science).
I. Charmantier and S. Müller-Wille. 'Linnaeus’s Materia Medica' (in preparation for Bulletin Hist. Med.)


Linnean Society of London (for the Linnean Society Collections online)
The Linnaean Correspondence
The Linnaean Dissertations
Linné Online, Uppsala Universitet
Linnaeus’s titles on the Biodiversity Heritage Library