Olaus Rudbeck

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Olaus Rudbeck
Olaus Rudbeck Sr (portrait by Martin Mijtens Sr, 1696).jpg
Olaus Rudbeck, painted in 1696 by Martin Mijtens the Elder.
Born13 September 1630
Died12 December 1702 (age 72)
Scientific career
InstitutionsUppsala University

Olaus Rudbeck (also known as Olof Rudbeck the Elder, to distinguish him from his son, and occasionally with the surname Latinized as Olaus Rudbeckius) (13 September[citation needed] 1630 – 12 December 1702) was a Swedish scientist and writer, professor of medicine at Uppsala University, and for several periods rector magnificus of the same university. He was born in Västerås, the son of Bishop Johannes Rudbeckius, who was personal chaplain to King Gustavus Adolphus, and the father of botanist Olof Rudbeck the Younger. Rudbeck is primarily known for his contributions in two fields: human anatomy and linguistics, but he was also accomplished in many other fields including music and botany. He established the first botanical garden in Sweden at Uppsala, called Rudbeck's Garden, but which was renamed a hundred years later for his son's student, the botanist Carl Linnaeus.

Human anatomy[edit]

Rudbeck was one of the pioneers in the study of lymphatic vessels. According to his supporters in Sweden, he was the first to discover the lymphatic system and is documented as having shown his findings at the court of Queen Christina of Sweden in the Spring of 1652. However, he did not publish anything about it until the fall of 1653, after Thomas Bartholin, a Danish scientist, had published a description of a similar discovery of his own.[1] (For other early discoverers of the lymphatic system, see Gasparo Aselli and Jean Pecquet).

Rudbeck's research led to the Queen's support of his career. To facilitate his studies of human anatomy, he had a cupola built on top of Gustavianum, a university edifice, and in it was built an arena-like Theatrum anatomicum, where dissection could be carried out in front of students. The cupola still remains and is a landmark in Uppsala. The "Gustavianum" stands in front of the cathedral, and is still part of the university. [2]

Historical linguistics[edit]

An illustration from 1689 in Olof Rudbeck's book Atlantica where he shows himself surrounded by Hesiod, Plato, Aristotle, Apollodorus, Tacitus, Odysseus, Ptolemy, Plutarch and Orpheus.

Between 1679 and 1702, Rudbeck dedicated himself to contributions in historical-linguistics patriotism, writing a 3,000-page treatise in four volumes called Atlantica (Atland eller Manheim in Swedish) where he purported to prove that Sweden was Atlantis, the cradle of civilization, and Swedish the original language of Adam from which Latin and Hebrew had evolved.[3] His work was criticized by several Scandinavian authors, including the Danish professor Ludvig Holberg, and the Swedish author and physician Andreas Kempe, both of whom wrote satires based on Rudbeck's writings. His work was later used by Denis Diderot in the article "Etymologie" in Encyclopédie as a cautionary example of deceptive linking of etymology with mythical history.[4]

David King, in his biography of Rudbeck, notes that he developed a system for measuring the age of old monuments and graves by the thickness of the humus accumulated over them – which, though many of his conclusions were erroneous, anticipated the methods of modern archaeology and was far in advance of most historians and antiquarians of his time.[5]

Despite the criticism targeting his linguistic theories and despite the priority dispute with Bartholin, Rudbeck remained a national icon in Sweden for many years. His son, Olof Rudbeck the Younger, continued his linguistic work and also became involved in providing an "intellectual reason" for power during a period when Sweden aspired to a position as one of the great powers of Europe. Rudbeck the Younger added speculations about the relationship between Sami and Hebrew languages to his father's long list of fantastical linguistic relationships.[6] A nephew of Olaus the Elder, Petter Rudebeck, also wrote antiquarian books going even further, purporting to locate the scene of the Trojan War and ancient city of Troy in southern Sweden.

The above-mentioned David King noted that, while specific conclusions of father and son Rudbeck about the relationships of various languages to each other were disproven, they anticipated the later systematic study of Indo-European languages, and the scientific proof that languages distant from each other geographically and historically are indeed related.


Rudbeck was active in many scientific areas, including astronomy, and left many traces still visible in the city of Uppsala today.

During the course of a fire that destroyed most of Uppsala in 1702, a large portion of Rudbeck's writings was lost. Rudbeck himself directed the people of the city, shouting orders from a roof while his house burned down. He died the same year, shortly after the fire, and was buried in Uppsala Cathedral at the transept. (Since then, Swedish monarchs have frequently been crowned over his grave.)

The Nobel family, including Ludvig Nobel, the founder of Branobel, and Alfred Nobel, the founder of the Nobel Prizes, was a descendant of Rudbeck through his daughter Wendela, who married one of her father's former students, Peter Olai Nobelius.

The plant genus Rudbeckia was named by the botanist Carl Linnaeus in honor of both Rudbeck and his son.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Eriksson, G. (2004). Svensk medicinhistorisk tidskrift, 2004;8(1):39-44. In Swedish. English abstract at Olaus Rudbeck as scientist and professor of medicine, U.S. National Library of Medicine. Retrieved 1 June 2007.
  2. ^ Nyström, Gunnar (1964). Olaus Rudbeck's anatomical theatre in the "Gustavianum". Uppsala: Almqvist & Wicksells.
  3. ^ Auroux, Sylvain, ed. (2006). History of the Language Sciences: An International Handbook on the Evolution of Language Sciences. Walter de Gruyter, ISBN 3-11-016735-2, pp. 1125-1126.
  4. ^ Bandle, Oskar et al. (2002). The Nordic Languages: An International Handbook of the History of the North Germanic Languages. Volume I. Walter de Gruyter, ISBN 3-11-014876-5, p. 109.
  5. ^ David King, "Finding Atlantis" ( Epilogue)
  6. ^ Ekman, Ernst (March 1962). "Gothic Patriotism and Olof Rudbeck". The Journal of Modern History. 34 (1): 52–63. doi:10.1086/238996. ISSN 0022-2801. S2CID 143910175.
  • King, David. Finding Atlantis: A True Story of Genius, Madness, and an Extraordinary Quest for a Lost World. Harmony Books, New York, 2005. ISBN 1-4000-4752-8.
  •  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Sweden". Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 26 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 188–221. (See p. 216.)

External links[edit]