Carl Peter Thunberg

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Carl Peter Thunberg
Carl Peter Thunberg.jpg
Born (1743-11-11)11 November 1743
Jönköping, Sweden
Died 8 August 1828(1828-08-08) (aged 84)
Thunaberg, Uppland, Sweden
Nationality Swedish
Other names
  • Carl Pehr Thunberg
  • Carl Per Thunberg
  • Thunb.
Occupation Naturalist

Carl Peter Thunberg, also known as Karl Peter von Thunberg, Carl Pehr Thunberg, or Carl Per Thunberg (11 November 1743 – 8 August 1828), was a Swedish naturalist and an apostle of Carl Linnaeus. He has been called "the father of South African botany", "pioneer of Occidental Medicine in Japan" and the "Japanese Linnaeus". Linnaeus, 1758

Early life[edit]

Thunberg was born in Jönköping, and became a pupil of Carl Linnaeus at Uppsala University. There he studied natural philosophy and medicine, and took his degree in 1767. In 1770, he left Sweden for Paris, to continue his studies in medicine and natural history.

In 1771, during a stay in Amsterdam and Leiden, he studied their botanical gardens and musea. He was commissioned by Johannes Burman and his son Nicolaas to visit the Dutch colonies and Japan to collect specimens for Dutch botanical gardens. He left in December 1771, as the ship's surgeon in the Dutch East India Company. After his arrival at Cape Town, Cape Colony, he stayed there for three years in order to learn the Dutch language and to be able to pass himself off as a Dutchman, as Japan at that time was only open to Protestant Dutch merchants.[1]

In September 1772, in the company of Johan Andreas Auge, the superintendent of the Company garden, he set out north to Saldanha Bay, east along the Breede Valley through the Langkloof as far as the Gamtoos River and returning by way of the Little Karoo. On his journey to the Gamtoos River, lasting from September 1772 to January 1773, he was guided by the sixteen-year-old frontiersman Daniel Ferdinand Immelman (b. 1756). Daniel subsequently corresponded with Thunberg and also sent him animal skins, which he had bought with money the Swede supplied.[2] Shortly after returning Thunberg met Francis Masson, a Scots gardener come to the Cape to collect plants for the Royal Gardens at Kew. They were immediately drawn together by their shared interests. On one of their trips they were joined by Robert Jacob Gordon, on leave from his regiment in the Netherlands. During his three expeditions in the interior, Thunberg collected a significant number of specimens of both flora and fauna. He also became a doctor of medicine.

Thunberg then sailed to Java in March 1775. He stayed in Batavia for two months.


In August 1775, he arrived at the Dutch factory of the V.O.C. (Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie) at Dejima, a small artificial island (120 m by 75 m) in the Bay of Nagasaki, connected to the city by a single small bridge. He was appointed head surgeon (1775–1776) of this trading-post. But, like the Dutch, he was hardly allowed to leave the island. Nevertheless, he was one of the few to be allowed to conduct some botanical research ashore.

In order to obtain more specimens, he traded his knowledge of European medicine with Japanese interpreters for new specimens. In mid-1776, at last, he was allowed to accompany the director of the Dutch settlement to the shogun in Edo (the old name of Tokyo). During this slow travel, he was able to collect many Japanese plants. His scientific activities resulted in the first detailed description of the flora and fauna of Japan: "Flora Japonica". Many of the plants which he gave the epithet "japonica" were actually Chinese plants which had been introduced into Japan, and many plants which he described as living in the wild were actually garden plants.

He also wrote about his adventures on his trip to Japan and about his stay in the book "Voyages de C.P. Thunberg au Japon par le Cap de Bonne-Espérance, les Isles de la Sonde, etc." ("Voyages of C.P. Thunberg to Japan, along the Cape of Good Hope, the Islands of Sunda etc."). He sketched a sombre view of his stay at Dejima. In this book he also sketches several aspects of daily life in Japan (such as obligatory walking on the left side of the road).

Thunberg left Japan in November 1776. After a short stay in Java, he arrived at Colombo Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in July 1777. He made several travels, such as the one to the Dutch settlement at Galle, and collected a great number of plants.

Return to Sweden[edit]

In February 1778, Thunberg left Ceylon for Amsterdam, passing by at the Cape and staying there for two weeks. He finally arrived at Amsterdam in October 1778. In 1776, Thunberg had been elected a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

He returned to Sweden in 1779. But first he made a short trip to London and made the acquaintance of Sir Joseph Banks. He saw there the Japanese collection from 1680s of the German naturalist Engelbert Kaempfer (1651–1716), who had preceded him at Dejima. He also met Forster, who introduced him to his collections he had obtained during Cook’s second voyage.

On arrival in Sweden in March 1779, he was informed of the death of Linnaeus, one year earlier. He was first appointed botanical demonstrator in 1777, and in 1781 professor of medicine and natural philosophy at the University of Uppsala. His publications and specimens resulted in many new taxa.

He published his Flora japonica in 1784, and in 1788 he began to publish his travels. He completed his Prodromus plantarum in 1800, his Icones plantarum japonicarum in 1805, and his Flora capensis in 1813. He published numerous memoirs in the transactions of many Swedish and other scientific societies, of sixty-six of which he was an honorary member.

In 1809 he became correspondent, and in 1823 associated member of the Royal Institute of the Netherlands.[3]

He died at Thunaberg near Uppsala on 8 August 1828.

Thunbergia, thunbergii[edit]

A genus of tropical plants (Thunbergia, family Acanthaceae), which are cultivated as evergreen climbers, is named after him.

Thunberg is cited in naming some 254 species of both plants and animals (though significantly more plants than animals). Notable examples of plants referencing Thunberg in their specific epithets include:-


Selected publications[edit]

  • Flora Japonica (1784)
  • Edo travel accompaniment.
  • Prodromus Plantarum Capensium (Uppsala, vol. 1: 1794, vol. 2: 1800) [5]
  • Flora Capensis (1807, 1811, 1813, 1818, 1820, 1823)
  • Voyages de C.P. Thunberg au Japon par le Cap de Bonne-Espérance, les Isles de la Sonde, etc.
  • Icones plantarum japonicarum (1805)
  • Donationis Thunbergianae 1785 continuatio I. Museum naturalium Academiae Upsaliensis, pars III, 33–42 pp. (1787).
  • Dissertatio Entomologica Novas Insectorum species sistens, cujus partem quintam. Publico examini subjicit Johannes Olai Noraeus, Uplandus. Upsaliae, pp. 85–106, pl. 5. (1789).
  • D. D. Dissertatio entomologica sistens Insecta Suecica. Exam. Jonas Kullberg. Upsaliae, pp. 99–104 (1794).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Chisholm 1911.
  2. ^ Carl Peter Thunberg, Travels at the Cape of Good Hope, 1772–1775, ed. V. S. Forbes (Cape Town: Van Riebeeck Society, 1986),
  3. ^ "Carl Peter Thunberg (1743 - 1828)". Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 20 July 2015. 
  4. ^ "Author Query for 'Thunb.'". International Plant Names Index. 
  5. ^ Prodromus Plantarum Capensium at Biodiversity Heritage Library. (see External links below).


  • Wikisource-logo.svg Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Thunberg, Karl Peter". Encyclopædia Britannica. 26 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. 
  • Carl Peter Thunberg, Botanist and Physician, Marie-Christine Skuncke, Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study 2014

External links[edit]