Italian Ornithological Web Site
by Alberto Masi since 1996

The Polemics between Carl Linnaeus and Johann Georg Siegesbeck

1. The Background of the Polemics.

Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), ennobled Carl von Linné (1757), was very sensitive to criticism all his life. He introduced a new system for the classification of plants, the so-called sexual system, in Systema naturae (1735), in which the stamens and pistils, the organs of reproduction, formed the basis. This work met with much resistance. Some protested because they found it unnatural, i.e. Christian Gottlieb Ludwig (Leipzig), Lorenz Heister (Helmstedt), Albrecht von Haller (Göttingen). The Pope forbade the introduction of Linnaeus's works to the Vatican. It was not until 1774 that a botanices professor was appointed in Rome to lecture on the basis of Linnaeus's work.

Another objection to the system was that it was repugnant and immoral. One of those critics was the German Johann Georg Siegesbeck (1686-1755). After taking a doctoral degree of medicine at Wittenberg in 1716 he began to study botany for Lorenz Heister. On 21 July 1735 Siegesbeck was appointed Demonstrator of the Botanical Garden at St. Petersburg. Once there he tried in vain to get the Imperial Academy of Sciences to print his thesis Dubia contra systema Copernicanum.

In December 1737 Siegesbeck published the Botanosophiae verioris brevis sciagraphia in usum discentium adornata. To this work was added another, i.e., Epicrisis in clar. Linnaei nuperrime evulgatum systema plantarum sexuale, et huic superstructam methodum botanicam. In the Epicrisis he tried to refute Linnaeus's sexual system, but the scholarly argumentation was very poor. What really made Siegesbeck so upset was, as he put it, "the immorality" of the Linnaean system. Siegesbeck openly mocks Linnaeus asking whether God really would allow that twenty men or more (i.e., the stamens) have one wife in common (i.e., the pistil) or that the wedded man, apart from his legitimate wife, had concubines in the shape of the nearby flowers.

Thus Siegesbeck concludes that God would never allow such abominable unchastity among his innocent plants, his dearest little creations!

2. The Early Friendship between Linnaeus and Siegesbeck

Initially Linnaeus and Siegesbeck had a friendly relationship. Between 14 November 1735 (o. st.) and 12 April 1737 (n. st.) Siegesbeck wrote four very ingratiating letters to Linnaeus when he lived on Hartecamp, the estate of his Dutch benefactor, George Clifford (1685-1760). On 24 May 1736 (o. st.) Siegesbeck informed Linnaeus that by order of the Russian Empress Anna, medical gardens had been founded the year before in both St. Petersburg and Moscow. Siegesbeck was in charge of the former and another German botanist, Traugott Gerber (d. 1743), of the latter. It was their task not only to examine domestic plants, especially those that were rare and not yet described, but also to start a botanical correspondence so as to collect exotic plants for their medical gardens.

3. The Siegesbeckia

Linnaeus and Siegesbeck appeared to be friends at an early period. But there seems to have been some irritation under the surface. In Hortus Cliffortianus, printed during the summer of 1737, Linnaeus had named a little stinking weed Siegesbeckia! Linnaeus had probably been warned about Siegesbeck's attack and in this way he wanted to castigate him. One of Linnaeus's ideas in Critica botanica (1737, pp. 78-81) is that there should be a link between the flower and the botanist whom it was named after. For example, Magnolia, Linnaeus says, has very handsome leaves and flowers, which recall the splendid botanist Magnol. But Dorstenia has insignificant flowers, faded and past their prime, like the works of Dorsten. According to Linnaeus himself there was such a "charm" in his associations that they would never fade from memory!

4. The Effects of Siegesbeck's Criticism

Linnaeus was forced to realise that Siegesbeck's criticism had had serious consequences. When he came back to Sweden in 1738 after three years in Holland, he found that the whole of Stockholm was in fact laughing at him. This was hardly surprising considering the way Siegesbeck had presented Linnaeus's new ideas. The situation was so bad that Linnaeus could not even find one servant to work for him. Actually in one of his biographies he states that nobody even dared to send him his dog to be cured. And he, Linnaeus, who had been honoured everywhere abroad as a Princeps botanicorum, was in Sweden like a Klimius from the inferior regions. Obviously Linnaeus had a great gift for creating compassion for himself and indignation towards his enemies!

5. Linnaeus's Defence against Siegesbeck's Criticism

Linnaeus was forced to defend himself against Siegesbeck's attack. In a letter on 13 September 1748 (o. st.) Linnaeus confides to Haller that in Leiden he had promised his teacher, Hermann Boerhaave (1668-1738), the foremost professor of medicine in those days, never to partake in any scientific quarrels. He had kept his promise in so far as he had not attacked Siegesbeck's thesis in his own name. It was Linnaeus's old friend, Johan Browallius (1707-1775), later Bishop of Åbo, who undertook the defence. In 1739 he published his Examen epicriseos in Systema plantarum sexuale Cl. Linnaei, Anno 1737 Petropoli evulgatae, auctore Jo. Georgio Siegesbeck, where Siegesbeck's opinions were reduced to nothing. Browallius asserted that the criticism that could be made against Linnaeus's sexual system is that widely different plants are brought together within the same class. But this criticism can be attributed to every artificial system and cannot be avoided until a true natural system is discovered. Linnaeus's system still contained more natural classes than any other previous system. In one of his autobiographies Linnaeus says himself that he supported Browallius when he wrote the thesis (multa communicavit). The same seems to have been the procedure with Consideratio epicriseos Siegesbeckianae in Linnaei systema plantarum sexuale et methodum botanicam huic superstructam, a work which was published in 1740 by Johann Gottlieb Gleditsch (1714-1786), another of Linnaeus's German correspondents, to defame Siegesbeck. Siegesbeck in his turn gave a sharp retort in Vaniloquentiae botanicae specimen (1741), which in no way improved his own reputation, since it was a good specimen of idle talk - by Siegesbeck himself! He says, e.g., that he does not know whether Linnaeus is competing with botanists or poets or orators, since he calls the seeds ovaries and talks of matrimony, happiness and love of the plants. Really, Linnaeus's sexual method should be called the lascivious method (p. 20). There is a great difference between polygamy and associations with prostitutes. The one is sanctioned in the Old Testament, the other not! (p. 38 sq.).

6. The St. Petersburg Episode

The hostility between Linnaeus and Siegesbeck was intensified in the 1740's through a series of coincidences. Linnaeus found a seed packet with some fruits of Siegesbeckia orientalis (Sw. "Klibbfrö") in the University Botanical Garden at Uppsala and he could not restrain himself. All his bitterness towards Siegesbeck burst out anew. He re-labelled the packet with the name Cuculus ingratus ("the ungrateful cuckoo"). This would not have caused such embarrassment, if the packet had not ended up at St. Petersburg and finally found its way to Siegesbeck himself. These were the unfortunate circumstances: in 1744 Count Sten Carl Bielke (1709-1753) together with Linnaeus's future disciple, Pehr Kalm, made a journey to Russia to collect plants. A rich collection of dried plants, seeds and more than 200 sorts of herbs, all Siberian, was brought back to Uppsala. However, at St. Petersburg Bielke happened to trade the packet by chance for Russian seeds. Thus it eventually came into Siegesbeck's own hands. He sowed the seeds with great curiosity and harvested - a Siegesbeckia. Naturally enough Siegesbeck was absolutely furious. Linnaeus's little mischief was to have damaging effects on the botanical interchange as Siegesbeck now stopped all exchange of herbs with Uppsala. This was a severe blow to Linnaeus, who was very interested in the Siberian flora, as its plants were ideal for the barren soil of Uppsala. Bielke repeatedly tried to put things right by urging Linnaeus to send a letter of apology to Siegesbeck saying the fault was that of the gardener; he had written the label. As a last resort Bielke tried to persuade Linnaeus by offering all the Siberian plants that he could have in return, reminding Linnaeus that Georg Wilhelm Steller (1709-1746), who sailed with Vitus Bering (1681-1741), would soon return with great collections from Kamchatka (in those days this comprised the whole of the Russian far East). However Linnaeus replies:

"With regards to your last letter I must say with Pilate, 'What is written is written'. Siegesbeck shows himself to be cruel; death and cruelty will always have some cause. Nobody has ever been able to give me a rarer gift than the one you, Mr Count, gave me of Siberian herbs, but if someone told me: 'apologise to Siegesbeck, and I will give you an equally big and rare collection', I must admit that this would be impossible for me, because of a public malice without reason. He then tried to escape, but it is an idiot and fool, under which I have suffered, such a thing cannot be eradicated from a mortal heart. The more he writes, the more he rages, the better it is. If you, Mr. Count, writes to him, you had better pray him right away to open all his sources of evilness and rush forward as an example to posterity, an ingratissimus cuculus et nebulo. Let him also know that I will never forgive him his roguery, but also that I do not meet wickedness with wickedness, but smile at the idiot and fool, who pretends to be a botanicus, something that he will never become."

7 Epilogue

In his Nemesis Divina, a work with edifying and moralising stories for the education of his son, also called Carl, Linnaeus reveals a rather primitive sort of religion. If you suffer, it is God's punishment for something that you have done yourself. There always seems to be a just connection between guilt and punishment. "Wicked" Siegesbeck was to prove himself an excellent example of Linnaeus's interpretation of divine revenge, especially as he was to live to see his only son commit suicide, which meant the end of his family line.

In the 1760's Linnaeus once and for all settled his account with Siegesbeck. In one of his autobiographies no less than thirty-three contemporary botanists are given various ranks as "officers of Flora". Siegesbeck is listed at the bottom of the list as the absolutely last one with the rank of sergeant major ("fältväbel"). The last but one is Heister. In accordance with his title of omnium seculi sui botanicorum princeps Linnaeus placed himself at the top of the list as the general.

Linnaeus declared that he never replied to criticism, but as we have seen this does not mean that he accepted criticism with equanimity and serenity. On the contrary he did in fact react with great bitterness and he did not hesitate to refute meanness with meanness. In his autobiography Linnaeus concludes:

"God has been with him [sc. Linnaeus], wherever he has gone, and has eradicated all his enemies for him and made him a great name, as great as those of the greatest men on earth .... Nobody has been a greater botanist or zoologist".


Verantwortlich/Responsible: Dr. Heinrich C. Kuhn & Prof. Dr. Eckhard Keßer