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A Living Bond between Idrija and Uppsala
by Branko Soban
Translated by Christina Strojan

Science has been ahead of the political unification of Europe for several centuries and required no highflying empty phrases or (too) expensive summit meetings. Scientists’ deep commitment to their work, a passion for discovering new things and of course the need to share their findings and knowledge with other similar scientific souls around the Old Continent were sufficient. Two great scientists of the 18th century – Carl Linnaeus and Joannes Antonius Scopoli – were living proof of this. They established a link between Uppsala in Sweden and Idrija through their letters 250 years ago, while politicians only recently achieved this when Slovenia became a member of the EU on the 1st of May 2004.

Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778) – who when knighted changed his name to von Linné – was a scientific genius of the 18th century. At the time of his correspondence with Scopoli he had been a professor of medicine and botany at the University of Uppsala for almost two decades. He was the co-founder and the first chairman of the Swedish Academy of Science, the court doctor and the favoured “princeps botanicoricum mundi”, a sort of prince of flowers. He was the first to put all of nature into encyclopaedic order. On the basis of dividing the natural world into three kingdoms, Systema Naturae, his great work, was developed. It came out in three volumes; for flora, fauna, and minerals. “Deus creavit, Linnaeus disposuit”, “created by God, arranged by Linnaeus”, was how the great man himself assessed his work.

Linné renovated the taxonomy of animals and plants by introducing a two-name system or binominal nomenclature. He classified each species by the name of its order and species, thus eliminating multi-word and often varying naming of species. He categorised around 7700 plant and 4400 animal species. It was he who proclaimed man to be Homo sapiens.
Joannes Antonius Scopoli (1723–1788) began cooperating with Linné while working as a young doctor in the quick-silver mine in Idrija, which at that time belonged to the Habsburg monarchy. The mine had employed no doctor before Scopoli. As an enthusiastic natural scientist Scopoli began exploring the unknown environment around him immediately after arriving in Idrija (that is in 1754 or 250 years ago). Thus he published a book called Flora Carniolica, the first monograph which contained around 1100 plant species of the north-western part of Slovenia, the then Kranjska or Carniola region. He informed Linné of this achievement by letter on the 1st of September 1760.

Giovanni Antonio Scopoli, as Italians write his name, was also one of the great scientists of the 18th century. His biographer Guglia declared him to be the first a-national European and also “the Karl Linné of the Austrian Empire”. He was born in Cavalese in the region of Trenton in Italy, which was then a part of the South Tyrol. After three years of studying medicine in Innsbruck he graduated with his paper on “The Nutrition of Intellectuals” which would still be an interesting read today. As the licence for practising medicine could only be obtained in Vienna, Scopoli, after a few years of working for Bishop Firmian, went to the capital to complete this state exam. The examination lasted for six hours and Scopoli passed with honours. Some sources claim that her enlightened highness, the Empress Maria Theresa herself, came to listen.

The young doctor was promised an important state job in Linz but due to court intrigue the position went to someone else. Instead, Scopoli was sent to Idrija, where quicksilver had been mined for 250 years but constant medical care had never been provided. When he set out on his long voyage with his wife and daughter, their craft hit a log on the river Inn and sank. All of them survived, but they lost their possessions including Scopoli’s books and medical equipment. Similar misfortunes accompanied him in Idrija where he was to remain for 15 years. He again lost everything in a fire which destroyed his home and all of his family. He was later remarried in 1758, to a noblewoman from Ljubljana.

The manager of the mine, who had so eagerly awaited its first doctor, soon died and his successor was more concerned with profit than the health of his workers, so he and Scopoli were always at each others throats. Scopoli’s yearly salary of 760 goldinars, for instance, had to be covered by the Miner’s Fraternity Fund from profits made by selling wine. How ironic, if we consider that alcoholism was an additional hardship that plagued the families of miners already facing constant exposure to poisonous fumes.
The care of 2000 miners and their families, scattered over the surrounding hills, was for Scopoli a torment so, after nine years, he applied for a transfer. As the Empress Maria Theresa wanted to keep the scientist where he was she opened a Miner’s School in Idrija and made Scopoli Professor of Chemistry and Mineralogy with an additional salary of 460 goldinars. In 1769, when he moved to Banska Štiavnica in Slovakia, the then Hungarian Schemitz, the school closed down. In Slovakia he worked as a professor at the Miners’ Academy and for the last 12 years of his life lectured chemistry and botany at the University of Pavia.

The rich flora and fauna of the unexplored surroundings was a sort of counterweight for his personal and professional difficulties. His key works were written in Idrija; the afore-mentioned Flora Carniolica, Entomologia Carniolica (the first publication on insects and other invertebrates which he was able to find on Slovenian land all the way to Trieste) and Annus historico-naturalis, five chronicles of nature which were completed and printed after he had left Idrija. He communicated all of his research, findings, and descriptions (for example, proteus and dormouse, two little animals which were not known to Linné) to the famous Swedish explorer for several years, but because of the great distance they were never able to meet. Letters and packages containing seeds, insects, or rocks also took widely varying times to travel between Uppsala and Idrija; anywhere from five weeks to 18 months.

Carl von Linné was a great scientist, but though he was much older than Scopoli he had a great respect for his work. The letters he sent to Idrija also plainly reveal his passionate love for nature. What childish delight he experienced when Scopoli sent him an unknown plant, the scopolia which grows in abundance in the forests of Idrija.

Later this plant was named after Scopoli – Scopolia carniolica – and an alkaloid, scopolamine, also bears his name; it was one of the first anaesthetics made from Scopolia carniolica. This plant is also a symbol of the Slovene society of anaesthesiology and intensive care, although scopolamine was replaced with synthetic anaesthetics a long time ago.
Though Linné and Scopoli are giants among the natural scientists of the world, not much was known about their correspondence even in Slovenia. Scopoli's letters in particular were only known in fragments while Linné’s had been already translated into Slovene by 1995. Thanks to Dr Darinka Soban, a retired professor at the medical University of Ljubljana and a well known anaesthesiologist who also has a lifelong interest in botany and its history and evolution, these troubles are over. Dr Soban has, after some years of diligent and in a way arduous work, translated all of the correspondence between the two men into Slovene and English from Latin (which was the lingua franca of the scientific circles at that time). The work is published bearing the title Joannnes A. Scopoli – Carl Linnaeus: Dopisovanje/ Correspondence 1760–1775.

Thirty letters are collected in the work: 17 Scopoli’s and 13 by Linné. The greatest merit of the book, which was presented at the Slovene Academy of Arts and Science at the end of October and given as a present to the visiting Swedish royal couple this summer, is that for the first time all the correspondence between Idrija and Uppsala is collected, neatly arranged, translated into two modern languages and equipped with the appropriate expert comments. The book contains the facsimile of the manuscripts, Latin transcription, and the translations of the letters into Slovene and English with comments. Thus the reading public at home and abroad can equate the originals to the translation.

The author and all those who helped prepare the book for printing have renounced any payment in the hope that the technically demanding book would be priced as low as possible. The publisher – the Natural Science Society of Slovenia – intended the book, which was published on the occasion of the society’s 70th anniversary, to represent to the scientific circles at home and abroad Slovenia’s 250 years long involvement in the European scientific space and as a celebration of Slovenia’s membership in the EU. As the financial support provided by the Ministry of Sport and Education did not even cover one fourth of the cost of printing, the Society offered the book to five ministries, Parliament and the State Council as appropriate promotion material. The suggestion was greeted with complete silence. This clearly shows how today’s political elite values science and the great men who carried the name of Slovenia and Carniola into the wide world centuries ago.

(Content abstracted from "Slovenija.svet January 2005" published by
Slovenska izseljenska matica.)