Fredrik Hasselquist (1722-1752) started out life as an orphan born into a clerical family in Törnvalla, Sweden. His uncle, also a churchman, discovered young Hasselquist’s enormous gift for the natural sciences and got him into the University of Uppsala. There, Hasselquist’s “bend for Physic, and Natural History,” quickly brought him under the mentorship of Carl Linnaeus. Anointed as one of the adventurous Linnaean apostles and with a dissertation titled On the Virtues of Plants under his belt, Hasselquist chose to pursue botanical and zoological discovery in underexplored Palestine at the age of twenty-seven.
To be able to conduct his explorations, he was assigned three royal stipends from the faculties of the “Civilians, Philosophic, and Theologic” and he joined one of the ships of the Swedish Levant Company heading to Smyrna. His quest into the Systema Naturae of animals, plants, and minerals found in the “East, Egypt and Palestine” was twofold. First, he would seek out and identify all the mythical plants and animals of the Scriptures: “I have often seen, and have well described the Rock Goat. It is such a fine creature, that Solomon could not mean any other animal than this by the Doe, to which he compared his Bride in the Canticles.” Second, he would also dutifully send samples of lesser-known naturalia back to Linnaeus: “I have the honour of transmitting a little fly, which I took yesterday in the fruit of a fig-tree; it lies inclosed [sic] in the germen of the female fig, which it has eaten up.” As he journeyed along from Smyrna to Alexandria and Cairo (where he would spend almost a year waiting for the safety of the pilgrimage caravan that he would join), he sent short treatises on specific topics—such as how to derive Gum Arabic from the Egyptian Acacia, locusts as food items, the preparation for Sal Ammoniac, and vipers—to be published twice a week in Stockholm newspapers.
A true apostle, Hasselquist often found himself having to defend the Linnaean system over those of Ray and Tournefort to the local gardening experts and physicians whom he encountered in Anatolia and Egypt. From these groups of men (and with the mediation of Armenian dragomans and European consuls), he learned how to anatomize a crocodile (Job’s Leviathan, according to Hasselquist), the fecundation of date and plantain trees, and the mythical source for the balsam of Mecca (the biblical myrrh). Although he received news of the conferral of his medical degree and appointments to the Stockholm and Uppsala Royal Societies while in Cairo, he never made it back to Sweden to enjoy the sedentary, academic profits of his adventures. Hasselquist died on his return to Smyrna, “laden with incredible amounts of curiosities, observations, and manuscripts.” Throughout his travels, he had accrued debt for which his creditors confiscated his carefully culled collections. With the joint appeal of Linnaeus and Olof Celsius, Queen Louise Ulrika of Sweden brought back the Hasselquist collection to be preserved at her palace in Drottningholm. When Linnaeus paid a visit to his student’s treasures at the Queen’s islet for the first time, he would write:
"The collections of dried plants from Natolia, Egypt, Palestine, Cyprus, &c. all the Stones and forts of earth from so many remarkable palaces in Egypt and the Holy Land; the many rare Insects, the extensive collections of Oriental Drugs, Arabian Manuscripts, Egyptian Mummies, &c. could not but excite the admiration of the beholder."
This text was generously prepared by Deniz Turker Cerda, Dumbarton Oaks Tyler Fellow, 2013–2015.