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“Little Brother Carl” – the Making of a Linnaean Naturalist in Late Eighteenth Century Sweden


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“Little Brother Carl” – the Making of a Linnaean Naturalist in Late Eighteenth Century Sweden

Abstract:


“Little Brother Carl” was Carolus Linnaeus’ affectionate name for his best friend’s son, Carl Bäck. It is Carl Bäck’s natural history education and the network of friends and clients of Abraham Bäck (Carl’s father) engaged in the pedagogical project that forms the focal points in this article. The naturalists occupied in Bäck junior’s education taught him a combination of social and scientific skills. To be selective and informed in exchanges of natural history specimens was a central skill, which in turn demanded an intimate knowledge of one’s collection. Bäck junior also learned how to display this knowledge, including e.g. how to write catalogues corresponding with Linnaeus’ systems of classification. The combination of social skills and theory informed knowledge displaying techniques aimed at shaping Bäck’s scientific persona into that of a Linnaean naturalist and potential leader of Swedish naturalist scholars. The education of Carl Bäck contributed to the reproduction of this newly formed group in other ways too. The relationships between Abraham Bäck and his son’s teachers illustrates how private education promoted both friendships and patron-client relationships between different generations of naturalists, something that contributed towards the extension and strengthening of the naturalist community in Sweden (a community Linnaeus had laid the foundation to in his work educating several hundreds of students in Uppsala from the mid-eighteenth century and on onwards). In this respect this article also demonstrates the need for a bifocal approach to science pedagogy, taking into account the interplay between private and public education in the early modern period.


“Little Brother Carl” – the Making of a Linnaean Naturalist in Late Eighteenth Century Sweden

What can the history of education teach us? In recent years, science pedagogy has become prominent.1 It promises to contribute to the “big picture”, as Kathryn Olesko puts it, wherein science pedagogy is “central to understanding the contours of scientific practice, the formation of scientific personæ, and indeed the ability of science as an enterprise to reproduce and survive.”2

In this article I test the explanatory power of science pedagogy in relation to natural history in late eighteenth century Sweden.3 This period included the final decades in the life of Carolus Linnaeus (1707–1778), one of the most prominent naturalists of the time. Linnaeus spent a large part of his adult life at the University of Uppsala, where he taught several generations of students. In the traditional historiography of Swedish science, the period in which Linnaeus was active constituted a golden era, not only in virtue of his work reforming and diffusing natural history, but also because of the way the subject became prominent in the political, economic and intellectual life in Sweden. In this respect, the final decades of the eighteenth century and the first of the nineteenth represents a decline. Natural history lost its fashionable status during this time, as art and literature moved to the forefront, and (outside of chemistry) scientific intellectual achievements and innovations were rare.4
At the end of the article I shall return (briefly) to the early nineteenth century and consider whether my analysis suggests a new way to explore this development, or (to borrow from Olesko) I will look at the ability of natural history ”as an enterprise to reproduce and survive” in Sweden. This discussion will follow an analysis of ways in which junior and senior naturalists became involved in teaching natural history in the 1770s, and in which friendships and patron-client relationships shaped both these pedagogical activities and (relatedly) the recruitment of new members to the naturalist community. My analysis will also illuminate the reproduction of social practices central to Linnaean natural history, and building on that, I shall discuss the making of a Linnaean naturalist as a “scientific persona”.

Borrowing from H. Otto Sibum and Lorrain Daston’s definition, a scientific persona is a “cultural identity”, on which individuals with widely differing professions and social statuses can model themselves. It is protean: as conditions change, old scientific personæ are replaced by new ones; and as an analytical category it belongs between the “individual biography” and the “social institution”.5 It deserves mention that the term “scientific persona” has been defined to facilitate an analysis of a heterogeneous range of individuals who contributed in different ways to intellectual developments from the early modern period onwards. In contrast to this tradition, that of science pedagogy has focussed almost exclusively on modern scientific developments – i.e, processes which took place in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.6 This corresponds to a rather limited conception of science, as involving the changing role of research in defining new disciplines, reforms of academic structures, and the rise of professional scientists. While I do not in this paper attempt to defend a historically more inclusive conception of science, I intend my discussion of science pedagogy in the late eighteenth century to raise questions relevant to those interested not only in early modern natural history but also in the “birth” of modern sciences.



Bifocal focus on early modern education

One explanation for the relatively few existing attempts to discuss the pedagogy of natural history in the early modern period might have to do with the changing definition of the term amateur. Today the word amateur implies the existence of professionals. While education is pivotal to the professional’s identity and legitimacy, the lack of formal education is one important characteristic of a contemporary amateur. The early modern conception of an amateur was however neither shaped by the existence of a professional group nor by the lack of education per see. As the etymology of the term “amateur” and other closely related ones (e.g. “lieberhaber” and “dilettante”) suggest, love and passion (for a subject) and pleasure (associated with exploring it) was the defining feature of this identity.7 It was not shaped in opposition to those (relatively few) who were responsible for e.g. teaching natural history or curating collections on behalf of institutions or patrons. Moreover, the role of learning varied; as Steven Shapin has pointed in relation to natural philosophy in seventeenth century England, too much education threatened to turn gentlemen scholars into “pedants”.8 However, such fears did not render education superfluous; rather what a gentleman needed to learn was among other things how to display knowledge in the correct way in e.g. conversations with others. The social context that shaped the conduct of and relationship between naturalists in the eighteenth century was the Republic of Letters – a community of men (and some women) who corresponded with one another across regional and national borders. And it is against the backdrop of the Republic of Letters as the main social context, and with the early modern notion of the amateur as a reference point that I suggest we think about the central topic of this paper: the education of Linnaean naturalists. I propose to tackle this topic in a way which integrates two distinct approaches; one which draws on a relatively rich history of education and one which is much less well researched.


The first tradition is concerned with public education. The fact that transnational communication between members of the Republic of Letters was frequently conducted in Latin suggests a relatively high level of education (and social standing). Although the details vary from one country to another this would in many cases have included a university degree. Some, though by some margain not all members of the Republic, had even studied natural history as part of their degree. The subject was taught mainly in the medical faculties in early modern European universities. Natural history was also taught in lower level schools, although the provision was patchy, and varied from region to region.9

In this respect, the provision of natural history teaching in higher and lower education in Sweden followed a European pattern. The teaching of natural history in Swedish “gymnasium”, secondary schools located in centre of dioceses of Sweden, can be traced back to the mid seventeenth century. This teaching was further extended in the eighteenth century – a trend that was tied to several different developments, including the extension of medical care provision, particularly the establishment of new district physicians’ positions. These were in some cases expected to instruct the students of local gymnasiums in natural history, though they were often prevented from doing so by their heavy medical work-loads, something which also explains the drive behind other attempts to secure natural history on the gymnasium curriculum (including the creation of a special natural history lectureship).10 More generally, these reform plans reflect the influence of Mercantilism and Cameralism on the policies of the “Hat Party”, one of the two dominant political parties during Sweden’s Age of Liberty (1718–1772). Natural history was promoted as central to making the country more self-sufficient hence the support for the wider diffusion of relevant knowledge – it was part of a grander scheme to utilise nature more efficiently.11 The campaign to reform the curriculum lost its momentum towards the end of the century. Voices critical of the economic and political doctrines that underpinned natural history grew louder and more influential, and natural history lost its fashionable status among the Swedish elite, particularly in the wake of the regime change and the return to absolutism in the 1770s.12 Only in the second half of the nineteenth century did natural history (and then at the beginning of the twentieth, biology) gain a secure place in the reformed secondary school system (“läroverken”).13

The central initiative and political debates apart, it is clear that the provision of natural history teaching depended very much on local circumstances and individual initiatives. Some of the Swedish gymnasiums, e.g. Skara, Strängnäs and Växsjö (where Linnaeus received his early education) had a long and successful tradition of teaching the subject.14 However, the most important centre for natural history in the eighteenth century was the University of Uppsala, or more precisely its medical faculty, where Linnaeus had been professor since 1741. Today Linnaeus is best known for his reforms of scientific nomenclature. His system of binary names replaced the old diagnostic nomenclature – the tradition of using a description of a species as a name. Diagnostic names were generally long and hard to remember; moreover, as new species were discovered they often had to be modified. Linnaeus’ new nomenclature was much more stable: every species received two fixed names, a generic name which indentified the family to which it belonged, and a specific epithet which served to distinguish it from other members of the genus. There is a pedagogical explanation of this reform. As William Stearn and Lisbet Koerner (Rausing) have argued, Linnaeus developed the system partly in response to watching his students struggle with the diagnostic names while working on the field.15 Linnaeus’ “sexual system” (an earlier innovation) was also intended to make natural history more accessible. It was designed to simplify the identification of plant species using a system of keys, the most important being the number and position of stamens and pistils.16

The sexual system helped to promote autodidact studies of natural history in the second half of the eighteenth century across Europe, particularly, perhaps, amongst women, who as a rule were excluded from public education (this notwithstanding the popular perception of Linnaeus’ sexual metaphors as unsuitable for the "weaker sex”).17 Back in Uppsala, Linnaeus also helped his students to acquire more tacit knowledge, e.g. involving the observation of nature outdoors, on the regular excursions that he organized. Elsewhere I have argued that Linnaeus’ use of the meadows and forests around Uppsala as classrooms also served to make natural history more socially inclusive. The outdoors offered opportunities for ambitious students to train their observational skills without incurring the costs traditionally associated with advanced studies of natural history, as these exercises did not require expensive equipment or large libraries.18 Linnaeus also helped his best students: he utilized his expansive network to give several of them opportunities to travel further afield. As Kenneth Nyberg and I have argued elsewhere, such journeys functioned as a form of graduation and returning survivors were often rewarded with attractive salaried positions within the university, church or medical organizations.19

The success of Linnaeus as a teacher, a pedagog, is evinced by the number of students he attracted, particularly to the excursions around Uppsala where several hundred could march together, accompanied by drums, horns and shouts. To a certain extent, Linnaeus’ leadership followed the pattern identified by Jerome Ravetz in which a successful leader of a new (or in this case, reformed) discipline acts in order to attract followers.20 According to different estimations, Linnaeus taught between 273 and 457 Swedish students.21 The importance of Linnaeus’ role as a teacher becomes even more conspicuous if we include the students of his students, i.e. the many who were taught natural history by instructors educated by Linnaeus. Positions as professors, adjuncts and lecturers in natural history, medicine, œconomy and chemistry at universities and gymnasiums around Sweden (and elsewhere) where dominated by his students; and at the turn of the century, two thirds of the members of the Royal Swedish Society of Science had studied under Linnaeus.22

Against this background the link between the pedagogy and teaching of Linnaean natural history and the survival of natural history seems quite straight forward. We can visualize it as an educational family tree, with Linnaeus as the ancestor, the stem, and subsequent generations of students as the branches. There is, however, a problem with this analysis. By focusing exclusively on formal professor/teacher-student relationships, it automatically and exclusively locates the transfer of knowledge in public educational institutions. Moreover, it tends to limit the discussion of what was transferred to types of knowledge that were on the official curriculums. Learning processes taking place elsewhere and lessons about other things are excluded per see. Moreover, the model seems peculiarly modern or ahistorical: it does not tell us anything about circumstances specific to the early modern period. In order to understand the role played by pedagogy and education in a broader and less anachronistic way we need, I argue, a complementary history of science pedagogy.23

One reason for pursuing such an approach can be found in discussions of the role of trust in the making of knowledge. As Steven Shapin discusses in his A Social History of Truth in relation to developments in natural philosophy in seventeenth century England, descriptions of experiments e.g. were accepted as true and circulated among individuals because these individuals trusted each other. Such trust was rooted in an early modern notion of honour and a gentlemen’s identity and was further consolidated in face-to-face discussions and extended in networks and through correspondence. Ultimately this trust helped to establish ways in which intellectual disputes could be resolved and new questions raised. One marker of the modern scientific world, in contrast, is a different form of trust, directed towards institutions (such as universities) rather than individuals. It is this “system trust” that gives scientists employed by these institutions the status of truth-speakers today.24

It is against this backdrop that I suggest it becomes particularly interesting to analyze an alternative history of Linnaean pedagogy and education. We can say that by reforming natural history, Linnaeus contributed to the shift towards system trust and ultimately the coming of modern science. His reforms not only made it easier for natural history to be learned at gymnasiums and universities, and even to a certain extent with the help of autodidact studies; something which also contributed to the popularisation and consumption of natural history that characterized the eighteenth century and onwards. Linnaeus’ reforms also made the production of natural history easier: communication between producers of natural history within the Republic of Letters was improved as a result of the new nomenclature. This was particularly true of Britain, were Linnaeus became very popular, and where his collections ended up after his death. The growing importance of great collections marks a general change in how natural history was becoming organised. As Alix Cooper has argued in Inventing the Indigenous, Linnaeus’ reforms benefitted naturalists in the centre with access to great collections, while “local experts” became marginalized in the process.25

Even if we take into account the greater consumption and production of natural history and the beginning of a centralisation of natural history material, this does not mean that we should apply the modern distinction between amateurs and professionals to this time in history – i.e. the second half of the eighteenth century. The research-driven specialization, the institutionalisation and professionalization of natural history had not yet happened: natural history had not detached from medicine and the foundation and institutionalisation of independent disciplines such as systematic botany, zoology, entomology and ultimately biology were still decades away. Moreover, and independently, whether or not an eighteenth century naturalists had been educated by Linnaeus, he still needed to be trusted and acknowledged by fellow naturalists in order to be able to contribute to their discussions of the natural world. This means that this naturalist needed to know the social codes that dictated how relationships were formed and maintained between the lovers of nature – the early modern amateurs who formed parts of the Republic of Letters. These codes were by all accounts complex and difficult to negotiate (I shall return to them below).

My aim in this article is to present a history of pedagogy and education that places the modernisation process to which Linnaeus’ reforms and teaching contributed in the social context of early modern natural history. While the official curriculums and the histories of teaching natural history at universities and gymnasiums is a (significant) part of this history, we also need a history of the learning of the social codes which promoted trust and of the formation of a naturalist persona who could navigate the social context of the time. As I shall try to demonstrate below, not only can such a twin analysis help us to understand the ability of natural history to reproduce, it might also enrich our understanding of the change from early modern to modern science.

I suggest we begin this second history of education in the households of the naturalists. As Alix Cooper has observed, the homes of early modern scholars – e.g. their kitchens, studies, attics and gardens – have generally been overlooked in the history of early modern science, which has instead typically focused on botanical gardens, laboratories and museums, as places where knowledge was produced and reproduced. Not only were households important spaces for experimentation and observation, their organisation, the interpersonal relationships and the ideological foundation on which they rested, also shaped this production. A household was a hierarchy of personal relationships and its master could conscript not only his servants, but also his children and wife, in projects exploring the natural world. Embedded here is also a history of education. Cooper touches on this when she discusses how collections were extended and research projects carried on over decades and within the same family. She compares this to the way in which trade knowledge and guild membership were inherited over generations within families. 26

Cooper’s understanding of households as sites where knowledge was transferred and collections and networks were passed on between generations within the same family touches on several aspects of my discussion below. However, this approach must be complemented in one respect if it is to contribute to my history of learning. We need to pay further attention to the flexibility of the early modern household, the circulation of individuals between them, and the diffusion of knowledge this promoted. A good example is highlighted by Ylva Hasselberg: the tradition of members of social elites to send their children to live with other members of the same elites. One intention behind such visits was that the child would form relationships with people likely to benefit him or her in the future: another was that the child would learn to behave in ways that invited the trust of other members of the elite community.27 Another group of people that circulated between households, particularly in the early modern period, was that labelled “life cycle servants” by Sheila McIsaac Cooper. The emphasis on “life-cycle” is important: it involves (often young) individuals who worked and lived in a household other than the one in which they were born, for a short period (typically between childhood and marriage and formation of their own household). In contrast to “life-time servants” these individuals’ positions were temporary and did not signify a diminished status. The circulation of individuals between households can be seen as part of both an educational and a social process. As McIsaac Cooper puts it, it was part of “a form of social exchange, life-cycle service that helped cement social ties [...] reinvigorated alliances [...] and strengthened patron/client relationships.”28

Insofar as historical studies have taken into account this circulation of knowledge and individuals between households, it has generally been in the context if the rather fragmented and marginal history of private education. One possible reason why this subject matter has received relatively little attention is that it tends to be discussed as an appendix to the histories of aristocracies and costly grand tours. However, from the point of view of eighteenth century Sweden there are two interconnected problems with this association. First of all, as one of the few studies of the topic in Swedish (by Magnus von Platen) demonstrates, private education was not exclusive to the aristocracy. Rather, it was a widely used system among a rather large section of society: to employ a private tutor was common practice among well-to-do farmers and middle-ranking clergymen.29 One indication of the system’s extent can be found in the statistics involving students who had matriculated but were absent from their university studies. von Platen estimates that between half and one-third of all Swedish students in the eighteenth century were on leave, most on them in order to teach privately.30

Moreover, private education was closely linked to the system of public teaching. In schools older students taught or “informed” younger ones – a responsibility that often also included the organization of food and lodging. Similar services were also provided by lecturers and professors who often taught publically and also privately, to students who paid extra, sometimes as part of a package which included accommodation and meals in the lecturer’s own home. The salaries of lecturers and professors were often meagre, and this offered a welcome supplement. Senior students who took up assignments as private tutors and assisting teachers to junior students needed the work to finance their own studies.31 Compared to their continental equivalents, Swedish students tended to come from more modest social backgrounds: in the eighteenth century, as many as one-fifth of Uppsala university’s students were farmers’ sons.32 In sum, private and public teaching were closely connected activities, which reflected the relative ease of access to higher education that poorer Swedish students enjoyed at the time.33

But even if, by all accounts, private education played a central role allowing particularly poorer students the opportunity to fund their education, it is nonetheless a largely unexplored aspect of Swedish educational history. The main reason for this is of course that the system is hard to comprehend: we lack systematically archived material relating to it. This is also the chief reason why in the discussion below, I shall concentrate on a single case, the natural history education of Carl Bäck (1761–1776). As I shall demonstrate, although Bäck’s education took place mainly away from gymnasiums and universities, only an approach that integrates the histories of public and private education can provide a satisfactory analysis of how and by whom his scientific persona was shaped. It is also an example that brings us to the heart of the issue of how Linnaean natural history survived and was reproduced.

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