ISSN 2977-0602


Linnea Johnels

An eponym is a taxonomic name based on a real or fictional person.

The Linnea flower Linnaea borealis was named after the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus. He is known as the father of modern taxonomy. Linnaeus binomial nomenclature, a method of naming biological species with two consecutive Latin names, is now used worldwide.

On 10 January 2023, two zoologists met me at the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm. The year before, my father told me in passing that a fish had been named after my grandfather Alf. On that day in January, the two men from the museum showed me a specimen of the fish Chrysichthys johnelsi, collected by Alf in the Gambia. The pale orange creature was floating in a jar of alcohol, its mouth open and eyes shrivelled up, suspended in time.
Alf Johnels was born 27 October 1916 as the youngest of six children to John and Elsa Andersson. John and Elsa decided to merge their names to create the more original last name Johnels.

On 27 May 1950, my grandfather arrived in Bathurst, the capital of the British colony of the Gambia, together with two other scientists. They were on a research expedition with the aim to collect fish for anatomical and embryological research.

On 2 June 1739, together with five other men, Linnaeus founded the Royal Swedish Academy of Science in Stockholm, modelled after similar societies around Europe. Their aim was to promote and teach relevant and useful knowledge to strengthen the society of Sweden with an emphasis on the economy.

Like other Scientific Societies, the Royal Swedish Academy of Science collected curious and scientific objects for research and education. Many were collected in conjunction with European imperial expeditions. The Academy had a policy to keep its collection accessible to the public already in 1784 and it became an official state funded museum in 1819. The public was invited to exhibitions demonstrating how much of the world had been conquered by Europeans, demonstrating their asserted ‘superior’ structure of knowledge. The Academy was required to move several times during the years as the collection grew to include animals and items expropriated from all corners of the world. Finally in 1915, two palatial buildings were erected just north of Stockholm where the Royal Swedish Academy of Science and the Swedish Museum of Natural History are still located.

The Swedish Gambia Expedition of 1950 was a continuation of a previous Swedish expedition twenty years earlier. The country of investigation was inspired by a British zoologist who found species important for the research on the evolution of primitive fishes in the Gambia in the late nineteenth century. My grandfather’s expedition settled in Bansang on the south bank of the Gambia river, 300-km upstream from the Atlantic Ocean. They stayed in the vicinity of a hospital run by Europeans.

I walked through the corridors lined by cabinets and shelves stacked with preserved animals. The smell evoked memories from when I visited my grandfather at work as a child. Down in the basement’s security vaults, where the majority of the highly flammable collection is stored, the zoologists showed me specimens dating back to Linnaeus himself. Some species that have gone extinct, some specimens that were chopped up to anatomical pieces. In one of the bigger jars - a baby elephant.
The collection started through donations from wealthy private collectors. Items continued to arrive from merchants in the Swedish East India Company, from the Swedish colony of Saint Barthélemy and from Linnaeus’ disciples. Anders Sparrmann, who famously travelled with Captain Cook, donated a large collection of specimens after his expedition to the Senegambia region in 1788.

The Senegambia region is the western point of the African continent, situated between the Sahel, the Futa Jallon plateau, and the Atlantic Ocean. It has a rich cultural history with empires like Ghana, Tekhur, Mali and Songhai, the kingdoms of Futo Toro and Gajaaga, the Kaabu and Jolof confederations. Because of its geographical position, Senegambia was the first region in Africa to come into contact with the Europeans via the Atlantic Ocean. First came the invading Portuguese traders, who dominated the area until the second half of the sixteenth century, then the French, Dutch and British entered in a competition for African resources. From the seventeenth century the slave trade dominated Senegambia. Devastating, large-scale manhunts were conducted, shattering millions of lives, leaving consequences that bleed into our present time.
The archive of the Swedish Gambia Expedition is kept at the Swedish Museum of Natural History. Black and white photographs and a travelog depict many of the local people helping the Swedish researchers. Only one name was written down - Abdullaj.

The scientists examined the swamps and creeks, fishing with nets, lines and hooks, seines, traps, and with an electrofishing device. They bought some fish from the local fishermen. They walked through the muddy beds of the swamps or floated on the surface in a small boat. They monitored the water levels, rainfall, and temperatures, meticulously noting every change. They suspected the locals of stealing fish from their traps only to find out it was actually the crocodile.
In 1816 the British founded the settlement Bathurst, and in 1820, they claimed the Gambia River as a British Protectorate. They used the abolition of the slave trade as an excuse to control the market and wanted the river as an access point to gold deposits and other resources in the interior of Africa. In 1889, after decades of rivalry over the area, they reached an agreement with France and the Gambia-Senegal border was drawn up. Cutting through already existing communities, the British obtained the small strip of land shaped like the river it surrounds. The Gambia stayed under British rule until the country gained independence in 1965.  

The collection of the Royal Swedish Academy of Science contained objects of all sorts, both cultural and natural. Some human remains had been collected based on the false belief of distinctly different human races and their inherent traits. The collection was divided in 1935, when an ethnographic museum was founded. In 1965, the independent Academy of Science had to let go of the state funded Swedish Museum of Natural History. Since then, both the Academy and the Museum have rebranded their relation to nature, changing how they articulate their role from collecting to protecting, becoming hard science institutions without a social context. They have created national parks and environmental protection around Sweden, shadowing its participation in the social history leading up to the need to protect it.
My grandfather had a successful career as a scientist. He became a professor at the Swedish Museum of Natural History, and later the director of the museum as well as the head of research. He was accepted as a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Science 1972 where he held the presidency between 81 and 83. During his career he was a pioneer in the research of environmental toxins such as DDT and mercury, conducting research on taxidermy specimens from the natural history collection. Alf visited the museum daily until late in his 80s. He died in 2010, at the age of 93. On his coffin was the emblematic Linnea flower, a symbol for his biological interest.

Attributing a name to a species after a person is more than just naming, it is a statement of that person’s achievements and station. It often gives importance to one knowledge system over another.

The Chrysichthys johnelsihas many names, each conjuring a world. 


Ba-sagoin bethguye




Footage from the Swedish Museum of Natural History 2023, shot with the same Keystone K-8 double 8 camera that Alf used in the Gambia 1950.


Barry, Boubacar, and American Council of Learned Societies (1998) Senegambia and the Atlantic slave trade. Cambridge, U.K. ; New York: Cambridge University Press

Frängsmyr, Tore (red.) (1989). Science in Sweden: the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, 1739-1989. Canton: Science History Publications

Johnels, A., G., (1954). Notes on fishes from the Gambia River. Ark. För Zool. Stockh. 6, 326–411.

Guedes, P., Alves-Martins, F., Arribas, J.M. et al. Eponyms have no place in 21st-century biological nomenclature. Nat Ecol Evol 7, 1157–1160 (2023).

The Journal of Art & Ecology published by MA Art & Ecology, Goldsmiths, University of London

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