200 Years. 200 Stories. Story 117: “Linnaeus' System ”

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Systema Naturae, 1748 edition, opened to Vermes
Systema Naturae (1748 edition) from the rare book collection of the Ewell Sale Stewart Library & Archives. The book is opened to the beginning of the section on “Vermes,” the class to which Linnaeus assigned all invertebrates except the arthropods (e.g., insects, spiders, and crabs). The “Reptilia” shown here refers to earthworms, tapeworms, leeches, and other worm-like animals rather than the vertebrates we consider reptiles.

Linnaeus' System

Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778) revolutionized the natural sciences in 1735 with the publication of Systema Naturae. He proposed a hierarchical system for classifying the natural world into three kingdoms (plant, animal, and mineral), and each of these kingdoms would be subdivided into four levels (class, order, genus, and species). The system provided a way to reconcile synonymies (different names for the same taxonomic group) and the means to describe new species. A pragmatic system that was designed to be easy to learn and easy to use, Systema Naturae brought consensus and simplicity to the formerly chaotic endeavor of cataloging nature. Fittingly, Linneaus is quoted to have explained “God created, Linnaeus organized.” Although it has been frequently criticized for being an “artificial system,” Systema Naturae fostered a flourishing of taxonomic research during the 18th and early 19th centuries.

Linnaeus revised and greatly expanded Systema Naturae during the 18th century. The first folio edition (1735) consisted of 11 large pages, while the 12th edition (1766–1768) was made up of 2,400 pages spread over three volumes. A copy of the first edition was sent to naturalist James Logan of Philadelphia in the year it was published, but unfortunately it has since disappeared. Thomas B. Wilson donated another copy of the 1735 edition to the Academy. It is Philadelphia’s only copy of the exceedingly rare first edition. Other editions of Systema Naturae are also held in the Ewell Sale Stewart Library & Archives, including a 1748 edition that was also donated by Wilson and a 1758 edition that William Bartram once owned.

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