How Linnaean learning spread far and wide
7 June 2021
An inspiring middle-school teacher sparked Linda Andersson Burnett’s interest in history. Now a researcher in the history of science and ideas at Uppsala University, she is currently studying Carl Linnaeus and his influence, which extends far beyond Sweden’s borders.
Linda Andersson Burnett spends a lot of time reading old books and letters, and searching in archives – not a far cry for a historian. During her research in the UK, while she was writing her master’s dissertation and doctoral thesis about British natural history and the Scottish Highlands, Linnaeus caught her attention.
Early on in her research, she discovered Linnaeus’ great influence on natural history in both Scotland and England. He corresponded with British naturalists who travelled in northern Scotland, and students were taught about him at British universities.
British society paved the way in spreading Linnaeus’ findings in natural history between 1750 and 1850. Andersson Burnett has also researched how people used Linnaeus’ classification of people in the British Empire.
“As a historian of ideas and science, I’m interested in how knowledge can transcend both institutional and geographical boundaries,” she says.
She has just begun a new research project, Early Citizen Science: How the public used Linnaean instructions to collect the World c. 1750–1850, as a Wallenberg Academy Fellow. In it, she is examining how science developed through collaborations between universities, museums and interested laymen during the 18th and 19th centuries.
The emphasis is on the Anglo-Swedish tradition of scientific instructions on how to collect specimens from nature. These evolved from guidelines written by Linnaeus for his Swedish students, which also had a major influence on how instructions were written in Great Britain.
Contrary to previous research, which focused above all on how Linnaeus’ natural history was taken up by British scientific elites, this project will analyse how a large number of British informants used the Linnaean guidelines. These informants could be merchants, landowners, military personnel, colonial officials and missionaries working in the expanding British Empire.
“The project is in a construction phase where I’m currently surveying which instructions were written and which agents collaborated with the university museums,” Andersson Burnett says.
So far, she has discovered in her research how much material there is about people from various walks of life who worked at the university museums. These were not just professors.
“Numerous assistants looked after the collections and wrote thank-you letters to collectors. There was also a caretaker who was tasked with taking a puma on walks around the University of Edinburgh,” she says.
Another purpose of the new project is to add new knowledge of modern citizen science, in which members of the public help researchers to investigate various issues. It has recently become very popular, but citizen science is nothing new: it has been used since the 19th century.
“There are very few studies of early citizen science, and I hope to able to contribute to them. It’s very much a matter of learning from history,” Anderson Burnett says.
Among the influences on Linda Andersson Burnett, as both a person and a researcher, is Scotland. She went there directly after upper secondary school to take a course in academic English.
“The plan was to be there for six months, but I stayed for 14 years,” she says.
She read history at the University of Edinburgh, and her first postdoctoral position was a fellowship at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities (IASH) in the same city. She also met her husband in Scotland.
“My entire education was permeated by Edinburgh’s historic setting, and having access to all the archives there has been a tremendous boon.”
Andersson Burnett is also part of the Young Academy of Sweden, where she is particularly involved in internationalisation issues.
“There are fairly few Swedish students who go abroad and I think it’s vital to learn about other cultures. I also want to work for the kind of internationalisation that makes it easier for young researchers from outside Sweden to establish long-term careers here,” she says.
The next five years will be dedicated to Andersson Burnett’s current research project. She has not decided what to do after that, but there is a good chance of her returning to Linnaeus.
“One area I’m interested in is how people taught Linnaean natural history in North America. That’s something I’ve been pondering.”
Facts: Linda Andersson Burnett
Titles: Researcher in the history of science and ideas at Uppsala University; Wallenberg Academy Fellow (in a career programme for young researchers); and member of the Young Academy of Sweden.
Spare-time activity: Since we’ve just moved here, I like exploring Uppsala and the superb nature reserves in Uppland at the weekends.
Last book read: Levels of Life by Julian Barnes. There are also children’s books in Swedish and English piled up on my bedside table.
Driving force as a researcher: Curiosity. Shining a spotlight on historical figures who have previously been marginalised, such as colonised people, is also important to me.
Person who inspires you: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the American politician and Democrat.
Eighteenth-century citizen science inspired by Linnaeus (article from Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation)