Natural Scientists in 18th-Century Uppsala

When you think of Uppsala University and natural science in the 18th century, you first think of Linnaeus. But even though he is indisputably the greatest name in this context, he is not the only one we should recall. While natural scientists at Uppsala in the 17th century were not exceptionally successful – with the exception of Olof Rudbeck – the climate for such academics grew considerably more propitious after the Great Nordic Discord of the early 18th century. Sweden was forced to focus on industry, trade, and agriculture. The situation cried out for natural scientists.

Linnaeus’ colleague was named Nils Rosén (1706–1773), or von Rosenstein as a nobleman; there were only two professorial chairs at the Faculty of Medicine in those days. He strove to apply the results of medical science in the clinic, and he was pioneer especially in the field of pediatrics, the study of childhood diseases. Among his accomplishments was the sedative ‘Rosén’s breast drops’, which were used well into the 19th century.

At the same time as Rosén and Linnaeus were appointed to their chairs in the 1740s, the Uppsala son Anders Celsius (1701–1744) published observations regarding ‘two constant degrees on a thermometer’. He based it on another scale than the one we use: the zero point marked the boiling point of water, and 100 degrees was when snow melts. Later these two were reversed, but Celsius’ thermometer prevailed and is now the only one used for scientific measurement.

The chemist Torbern Bergman (1735–1784), professor 1767, belonged to a younger generation than the scientists above. In the academic laboratory off Västra Ågatan—the building is still standing—he did pioneering work above all in analytical chemistry. He observed that certain elements attracted each other, and he created the concept of ‘elective affinities’. This term spread even outside the realm of chemistry, since Goethe, who had read Bergman, used it as the title of one of his novels.

In the 1770s Bergman collaborated with Carl Wilhelm Scheele (1742–1786), a retiring man who was never officially affiliated with the University, working, rather, at the apothecary ‘Upland Arms’ on the Main Square. He was behind several of the century’s great discoveries of elements, above all, oxygen.


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