Who was Kilian Stobaeus?

He was a physician, a scientist and a university vice chancellor. Kilian Stobaeus was the man whose donations formed the foundation for several University departments and museums, and the collection grew intensively over the next century. The Stobaeus Project aims to shed light on his life and achievements.

Portrait of Kilian Stobaeus.
The collections of Kilian Stobaeus formed the origins of the Historical Museum of Lund University.
The collections of Kilian Stobaeus formed the origins of the Historical Museum of Lund University.

Kilian Stobaeus was born on 6 February, 1690 in Vinslöv in southern Sweden to a well-educated family. Having lost his father in early childhood, Stobaeus grew up with his uncles and aunts in Karlskrona, Lund and Gothenburg, where he received an education in natural history, humanities and medicine. One of his teachers was Olof Bromelius, a medical doctor, scholar and avid collector. It is very likely that the mentorship and friendship of Olof and his son Magnus set Stobaeus on the path of medicine and natural philosophy and inspired him to collect.

In 1709, Stobaeus moved to Lund to complete his formal education. In 1721, he received a doctorate in medicine. After working as a physician in Gothenburg, Lund and the spa resort in Ramlösa, he returned to academia in 1728, becoming professor in natural philosophy and experimental physics at Lund University. A year later, he was nominated to the prestigious Royal Society of Sciences in Uppsala, and in 1732 he became a professor of history and received a title of archiater (chief physician). By that time, he had already a substantial museum collection, which he used for his teaching and research. The collection was donated to the university in 1735 but Stobaeus retained keen collecting zeal until his death in 1742. He also owned a comprehensive library and a coin and medal collection, which were bought by the university after his death. His most famous student, Carl Linnaeus, described Stobaeus as:  “One-eyed, crippled in one leg, constantly bothered by migraine, hypochondria and back pain but otherwise outstanding genius.”

The collector

It is not known when exactly Stobaeus started to collect. By the 1720s however, his collections were considerable and well known, at least in Sweden. Stobaeus was mainly interested in natural history specimens – fossils, rocks, plants, animals and seashells – but he also owned a collection of coins and medals, archaeological and historical artefacts and ethnographic objects. Hindered by his poor health and university commitments, Stobaeus did not conduct fieldwork and his travels were rather limited. Instead, he used other mechanisms to obtain objects for his museum. He corresponded and exchanged objects with family, friends and like-minded acquaintances. Especially important were exchanges with Theodor W. Grothaus, a Copenhagen physician who supplied Stobaeus with curiosities and natural history specimens from the colonies and Johan Heinrich Lincke, an apothecary and serious fossil collector from Leipzig. Stobaeus also relied on his students, including Carl Linnaeus, David Samuel Koulas and Nils Rosén, who collected and exchanged objects for him during their travels in Sweden and abroad. Stobaeus encouraged his students to collect as part of their studies in Lund. Some of these collections, including Johan Leche’s entomological collections, were then added to Stobaeus’s museum. Another way of obtaining objects was through purchases.  Stobaeus relied heavily on a Copenhagen bookseller, Christian Rothe, who not only supplied the collector with scientific publications but also made transactions of curiosities.

Stobaeus bequeathed his natural history collections to the university in 1735. This act inspired a flurry of private donations. Between 1736 and 1753 (when the first inventory was drafted), Museum Stobæanum received, for example, an Egyptian mummy and various objects from Asia and America from baron Carl Gyllenborg; Chinese objects from the director of the Swedish East India Company Colin Campbell and various animals from Erik Gustaf Lidbeck, lecturer at Lund University. At that point, the museum became a tourist attraction.

The teacher

Kilian Stobaeus was an appreciated and dedicated teacher, who used his collections as a didactic tool in his empirically oriented lectures. His large house, close to the Cathedral, had twenty extra rooms, which he rented to students. Some of the students even received access to his library and collections. Among them was Carl Linnaeus who received private lessons from Stobaeus during his stay in Lund in 1727–1728.

The University Library in Lund has a manuscript with lecture notes taken by Sven Bring (later Lagerbring), one of Stobaeus’s students. These notes inform about Stobaeus as a teacher and scientist. The manuscript contains summaries of lessons, experiments and demonstrations in natural philosophy and physiology taking place sometime between 1728, when Stobaeus became professor in natural philosophy and experimental physics, and 1731, when Bring left Lund. The descriptions of experiments and demonstrations are particularly interesting as they describe chemical processes as well as sensory effects, such as sounds, smells and tastes, they caused. Lectures of physiology included close observations of the human body and its functions.

The lectures thus illuminate Stobaeus not only as a teacher and scientist but also as a physician. They also represent an interesting period in the history of science with Stobaeus as a bridge between his older masters and a new scientific approach represented by his own student Linnaeus.

The antiquarian

Stobaeus authored a few works in the field of history, genealogy and antiquarianism. The most original was his dissertation entitled [Miolner hamar Thors], seu ceraunii betulique lapides disputatione historica illustrati published in 1738. There, he engaged with the question that preoccupied generations of antiquarians, namely: are the regularly shaped stones, called ceraunia, fashioned by thunder or humans? Based on existing scholarship, comparative studies of Native American stone artefacts and his own analysis of stone objects from his collection, Stobaeus concluded that these objects were the earliest human-made tools and not natural stones shaped by thunder. He understood them as a technology predating the invention of iron, speculating thus about two-age system. Furthermore, he suggested that the stone tools were not just of religious or ritual significance, as many of his Scandinavian contemporaries thought, but were indeed of wider use and their function was to be deduced from their shape and size.

The natural philosopher

Stobaeus initially pursued a career in medicine, but in the 1720s his attention increasingly turned to the natural sciences. In 1728 he became professor of “natural philosophy and experimental physics” in Lund, the first chair ever in the natural sciences at Lund University.

As a scientist, Stobaeus was influenced by the empirical philosophy of Francis Bacon and Robert Boyle, emphasizing the importance of careful and systematic empirical observations of natural phenomena. His research in the natural sciences primarily focused on paleontology. In the 17th century, fossils had commonly been interpreted as lusus naturae, or “sports of nature”, produced by inorganic processes in the earth. In his first dissertation on the subject, De Nummulo Brattensburgensi (1732), Stobaeus relied on comparative studies as well as practical experiments – including calcination and the boiling of fossil samples in nitric acid – to prove that fossils were organic in origin, formed by living creatures embedded in the earth.

Stobaeus’s last and most comprehensive dissertation was the Monumenta diluvii universali or “Testimonies of the universal deluge” (1741). There he argued that fossils had been formed during the “mosaic cataclysm”, the biblical deluge as described in Genesis 6-9. Stobaeus’s views were influenced by a number of internationally renowned scholars, including Nicolas Steno (1638–1686), John Woodward (1665–1728) and Johann Jakob Scheuchzer (1672–1733), all of whom had argued that the existence of fossils proved the accuracy of the biblical account of the Flood. Thus, despite his empirical approach Stobaeus cannot be characterized as a “modern” scientist. Like all 18th century scientists, he viewed science and religion as intimately related, arguing that the study of nature strengthened one’s faith in God. As he wrote in one of his dissertations, science forced us to “admire and worship the wisdom, holiness and justice of our Creator, visible even in the smallest and most common of things”.