Gateway to the Classics: Story Lives of Great Scientists by F. J. Rowbotham
Story Lives of Great Scientists by  F. J. Rowbotham


E ARLY in the morning of the 23rd of May in the year 1707 the worthy pastor of Rashult, in Smaland, Sweden, paced up and down his garden with a beaming face. His favourite flowers seemed to return his greeting as though they knew his secret and shared his pleasure. The bees in the hives which he so carefully tended were already astir, and their humming sounded a note of welcome. The surface of the lake which stretched from the foot of the slope was glinting in the morning sunshine, while from the wooded hills on either side a soft and balmy air laden with the scent of larch and pine blew gently upon his face. Overhead a lark was carolling joyously as she mounted to the sky. All nature had awakened to a new day, and the pastor's heart warmed with joy and thankfulness as he retraced his steps to the little wooden cottage which formed his home. Crossing the threshold softly that he might not disturb the slumbers of the new-born infant and its mother, he entered the parlour, and opening the Bible which lay on the table, inscribed on the fly-leaf the name and date of birth of his first-born child: 'Carl LinnŠus. Born between 12 and 1 in the night dividing the 22nd and 23rd May, 1707.'

Nils LinnŠus, who had at first acted as curate to the pastor of Rashult village, had married his employer's daughter, Christina Broderson, and on the death of the pastor he had succeeded to the living. He was a simple, Godfearing man, with a passion for flowers; he eked out his scanty means by cultivating his garden and his bees, and a year after the birth of Carl Nils obtained the rectorship of Stenbrohult, the neighbouring parish, whither he removed with his family.

Nils and his wife Christina, we are told, 'received their first-born with joy, and devoted the greatest attention to impressing on his mind the love of virtue, both in precept and example.' 'Flowers,' says Stoever, 'were the first things they gave the smiling babe, and it seemed to take a natural delight in the variety of their colours.' One of Carl's earliest recollections was of an excursion to Moklen with his father, when he was barely four years old. A rural fŕte was held, and 'in the evening, it being a very pleasant season of the year, the guests seated themselves on the turf and listened to the good pastor, who talked to them about the names and properties of the plants which grew around them, showing them roots of Succisa, Tormentilla, Orchis,  etc.' Carl listened with eagerness, and from that time, he says, he never ceased harassing his father with questions about the name, qualities, and nature of every plant he met with. Very often he asked more than his father could answer, and as he quickly forgot all he was told, and especially the names  of the plants, it became necessary to put some check upon his pertinacity. To cure him his father refused to answer his questions unless he promised to remember what was told him. From this moment he ever afterwards retained with ease whatever he heard; and besides this retentiveness of memory we are told that he possessed an 'astonishing quickness of sight'.

Carl almost lived in his father's garden, which formed his first playground. At eight years old he was given a separate plot to himself, and 'Carl's garden' soon became crowded with all sorts of wild plants which he had collected during his rambles in the fields and woods. The stranger weeds throve amazingly, to the boy's delight; they also invaded the pastor's trim beds, and threatened to overrun the whole garden, to the good man's dismay, who found it 'a painful job' to eradicate the intruders. Nor were Carl's innovations restricted to weeds; he brought wild bees home in his cap and introduced them to his father's hives, with the result that the newcomers 'by their hostile demeanour began to desolate the paternal hives'. Nevertheless, the pastor regarded these signs of a love of nature with complacency, for they were after his own heart; and as the boy grew older his chief delight was to assist his father in the work of the garden.

But Nils and his wife had already planned Carl's future. He was to be trained for the pulpit; and after receiving some tuition from his father's relative, John Tiliander, a morose and passionate man, he was sent in 1717 to the Latin school in the adjacent town of Wexio. But he made no figure whatever at school studies; his passion was all for plants, and whenever he could break away from school he was scouring the woods and fields, so that, as his biographer says, 'on holidays no pupil was so little found at home as LinnŠus.' As he made no progress in anything else he was removed in 1719 and placed under the care of another tutor, Gabriel H÷k, a man of mild disposition and some capacity for teaching, who afterwards became related to LinnŠus by marriage. He married the sister of LinnŠus. But not even H÷k's gentle persuasion could avail to overcome the boy's distaste for school studies. In 1722 LinnŠus entered the higher form of Wexio School, known as the 'circle', the chief result of which was to give him more liberty for pursuing his bent. Two years later, on attaining qualifying age, he entered the superior college, or 'gymnasium'; but here, once more, though he studied mathematics and physics, his progress was extremely slow. Only in natural history was he quite at home. He formed a little library of botanical books, which he studied day and night (this was his first taste of the literature of his favourite science), and among the masters and scholars he was known as 'the little botanist'.

In 1726 his father came to Wexio, hoping to hear flattering accounts of Carl's progress; but his hopes were dashed by the report. The boy's conduct left nothing to be desired, but for the rest Nils was assured that it was throwing money away to continue him at school. Manual employment of some kind would suit him far better, and apprenticeship to 'a taylor or a shoemaker' was suggested. The father's grief at the failure of his plans was great; for Carl had now been at school twelve years, and the expense had been a sever strain upon the good man's slender income. LinnŠus, struck with remorse, promised to obey his father's wishes in regard to studying divinity; but at the same time he honestly avowed his disinclination for the calling of a priest. Nils was unwilling to enforce compliance, and reluctantly came to the conclusion that the college authorities were right, and that the only thing to be done was to apprentice Carl to a trade. Without money a scientific career was hopeless, and Nils had neither money nor interest. It was with much dejection that the good pastor prepared to carry home to Christina the ill news that her darling ambition for Carl, to see him one day wearing the cassock, must be dismissed as an idle dream, and that they must be content instead if he could earn a livelihood by stitching clothes or working at a cobbler's bench. As for Carl himself, he was probably undismayed by this outlook—all he wanted was leisure to pursue his botanical studies; and if he had to choose between preaching and mending boots he would prefer the latter calling as interfering less with his freedom of action.

At this critical juncture a 'friend in need' was found in John Rothmann, a well-known physician of Wexio, and lecturer on physics at the college. He begged Nils not to be hasty in judging his son's capacities, and offered to provide the means for testing the promise which Carl had shown for science by taking him into his own house and instructing him in medicine during the year that he had to remain at the college.

So generous an offer could not be refused, and the pastor, having expressed his gratitude to Dr. Rothmann, and taken an affectionate farewell of Carl, bent his steps homeward. To Christina he pointed out that after all the boy might prove a credit to the family, though not in the direction they had wished; and Christina, stifling her own disappointment, had the wisdom to join with her husband in hoping for the best.

LinnŠus was rejoiced to find himself free, and he made good use of his freedom by ransacking his patron's library and devouring the botanical works which it contained. Rothmann was not long in discovering the genius of his pupil, and he gave him every encouragement and assistance. Among other books LinnŠus studied the French botanist Tournefort's Elements of Botany  (1700), with the result that he was 'never easy until he could refer every plant he collected to its proper place in Tournefort's system'. But he found many puzzles which, owing to insufficient examination, could not be reduced to that system.

In 1727, after spending three years at the Gymnasium, LinnŠus was sent to finish his education at the University of Lund, where Professor HumŠrus, a relative of the family, had undertaken his support.

He was house with Dr. Kilian StobŠus, professor of medicine and botany, and one of the king's physicians, who showed much interest in his welfare. This kindness the young student repaid by zealously attending the professor's lectures and making a diligent use of the opportunity afforded him of studying the specimens in StobŠus's museum. By these means he speedily won the affectionate regard of StobŠus, who gladly availed himself of such services as LinnŠus could render in adding to his collections.

LinnŠus was now incited to begin a collection of dried plants—his 'hortus siccus', as he calls it in his Diary—by glueing plants to paper. Upon this delightful occupation he expended much time and care, making frequent excursions into the country to procure his specimens; one day in the early summer of 1728, however, LinnŠus, whilst searching for plants in the woods, was bitten in the arm by a venomous snake. The poison spread, and for some time LinnŠus's life was in danger. When he had sufficiently recovered he was sent home to Stenbrohult, where he spent the ensuing vacation. Here he met his friend and patron, Dr. Rothmann, who advised him, instead of returning to Lund, to go to Upsala, as that university offered exceptional advantages for a student of science. At Upsala, the most ancient seat of learning in Sweden, there were to be found, in addition to the two celebrated professors, Olaf Rudbeck the younger and Roberg, a rich public library and an extensive botanical garden—the last-named in itself a feature of special attraction to LinnŠus. It is, therefore, not surprising that he should have been eager to follow his friend's advice, more especially when it was pointed out to him that he might remedy the poverty of his circumstances by means of one of the royal foundations attached to the university. But that he should have decided upon this step without consulting or even taking leave of StobŠus, to whose kindness and protection he was so much indebted was as strange as, in point of gratitude, it was inexcusable.

However, the decision was taken, and at Michaelmas, 1728, LinnŠus quitted Stenbrohult for Upsala. Here he was soon to taste the bitter fruits of poverty. The struggle against fate aroused his every endeavour. He continued his vigils and exertions in his darling science.

LinnŠus's fortunes were at this low ebb when one day in the autumn of 1729, whilst he was examining some plants in the botanical garden, he was accosted by a venerable clergyman, who, seeing the young man bending over the flowers, began to question him concerning his knowledge of botany. LinnŠus's replies were so accurate and showed so much observation that the clergyman's interest was aroused; he invited the student to his house, and revealed himself as no less a personage than Dr. Olaus Celsius, Professor of Divinity in the university. Dr. Celsius, who had lately returned from Stockholm, was at this time preparing a great work on the plants mentioned in Scripture, The work was published in two volumes in 1745 and 1752 And having inspected LinnŠus's herbarium and learnt the distressful circumstances in which he was placed, he offered him board and lodging in his own house in return for his services in collecting and describing plants. LinnŠus joyfully accepted this generous offer, which not only brought him into personal contact with one of the most learned scholars in Sweden, but afforded him access to a library extremely rich in botanical works. LinnŠus's struggles with poverty were now ended, and he was able to pursue his studies in peace.

Shortly after LinnŠus became an inmate of Celsius's house he came across the review of a book by the French botanist SÚbastien Vaillant, on the structure of flowers. Sermo de Structure Florum, Leiden, 1718. The author's observations on the stamens and pistils fixed LinnŠus's attention upon these organs, and led him to observe the facts minutely for himself. Among the various systems of classification then in use that propounded by Vaillant (who died in 1722), which was founded upon the form and quality of the flower, was predominant. Vaillant's system, however, in common with other systems based upon the structure of the fruits, etc., had many deficiencies as a means of identifying plants—chiefly on account of the variable nature of the characters employed. These deficiencies were apparent to LinnŠus when he compared the condition of the essential organs in different flowers. On the other hand, he was struck by the importance of these organs as affording a trustworthy and simple means of classification by reason of their fixity in numbers and arrangement. Fired by this idea, he gradually thought out a system or order dependent upon the numbers of the stamens and pistils, and finally drew up his scheme in the form of a small treatise, which he submitted to Dr. Celsius.

Celsius was so pleased with the MS. that he lost no time in showing it to Dr. Rudbeck, who, we are told, 'honoured it with the highest approbation' and expressed a wish to know the author. From this moment LinnŠus's advancement was assured, and when, in 1830, Rudbeck on the score of advanced age obtained leave of the faculty to execute a part of his office by deputy, her recommended that LinnŠus should be appointed to lecture in the botanical garden. It is noteworthy that in bestowing the post of 'adjunctus' upon LinnŠus the faculty were willing to overlook the shortness of his time as a student, in consideration of the fact that 'no other person was so proper' to fill it. The joy of LinnŠus at receiving this appointment may be imagined; but in order to understand the significance of the honour thus conferred upon a student of less than three years' standing, as well as the importance which Dr. Rudbeck attached to what LinnŠus had written on the classification of plants, a word must be said about the state of scientific education at the university at this period. Rudbeck, we are told, 'exhibited beautiful coloured drawings of birds, and Professor Roberg lectured on problems of Aristotle, according to the principles of Descartes'; but 'in anatomy and chemistry there was a profound silence, neither did our botanist ever hear a single lecture, public or private, on the study of plants'. It is evident, therefore, that to the genius and industry of LinnŠus must be ascribed the awakening of interest in a branch of natural science which up till then had been neglected.

LinnŠus had held his post of garden-teacher for a twelvemonth when he heard that a royal command had been given to the Academy of Sciences to dispatch a person to explore the territory of Lapland. An expedition with this object had been sent out in 1695, under Olaf Rudbeck the elder, who brought back considerable collections; but these results had been destroyed in the great fire at Upsala in 1702, in which year also the explorer died. It was now proposed to compensate the Academy for this loss by dispatching another traveller to the country, and LinnŠus, perceiving an opportunity for rendering valuable service to the cause of science, offered himself for the work. Beyond the honour and the love of discovery there was nothing to attract LinnŠus to the undertaking, for the country was known to be bleak and inhospitable and the travelling attended by many hardships. But LinnŠus's zeal was not to be turned aside by obstacles, and, his offer having been accepted, he set about his preparations without delay.

On May 12, 1732, he began his lonely journey on horseback. His equipment, which was restricted to the barest necessaries, is thus described in his Diary: 'My clothes consisted of a light coat of West Gothland linsey-wolsey cloth, without folds, lined with red shalloon, having small cuffs and collar of shag; leather breeches; a round wig; a green leather cap; and a pair of half-boots. I carried a small leather bag, half an ell in length, but somewhat less in breadth, furnished on one side with hooks and eyes, to that it could be opened and shut at pleasure. This bag contained one shirt, two pairs of false sleeves, two half-shirts [vests], an inkstand, pencase, microscope, and spying-glass; a gauze cap to protect me occasionally from the gnats, a comb, my journal, and a parcel of paper stitched together for drying plants, both in folio; my MS. Ornithology, Flora Uplandica, and Characteres Generici. I wore a hanger at my side, and carried a small fowling-piece, as well as an octangular stick graduated for the purpose of measuring. My pocket-book contained a passport from the governor of Upsala, and a recommendation from the Academy.'

LinnŠus returned, after strange and wonderful experiences, to Upsala towards the end of October, 1732, having covered in his travels nearly 4,000 English miles, most of them on foot. The Diary  tells us modestly enough that 'on his arrival home he delivered to the Academy of Sciences an account of his expedition, which obtained their approbation, and they gave him 112 silver dollars [about ú10 sterling], and travelling expenses'. He wrote a catalogue and short description of the plants of Lapland, under the title of Flora Lapponica, and from all the plants collected during his travels he selected one to transmit his name to posterity. This was the LinnŠa Borealis, which he describes in his Critica Botanica  as 'an humble, despised, and neglected Lapland plant, flowering at an early age'. In this flower his own 'neglected fate and early maturity are said to be typified'. It need hardly be said that the 'little northern plant', with its trailing stem and pendulous flowers, is regarded with reverence and affection by all botanists.

The novelty of his subject (he was the first to lecture on mineralogy at Upsala), the vivacity of his style, and the clearness of his explanations secured LinnŠus numerous pupils. To improve his knowledge of mineralogy he made a tour of the principle Swedish mining districts, and at Fahlun met a certain Dr. MorŠus, with whom he became on terms of friendship, and with whose daughter, Elizabeth, he fell in love.

Six years later the fact that LinnŠus was now in receipt of an income equal to about ú250 sterling removed the only obstacle to his union with her. The father's consent having been obtained, they were married on June 26, 1739, at Sveden, near Fahlun, the country house of Dr. MorŠus.

In 1736—after travels in Europe and in England—he finished and published his Fundamenta Botanica—'the harbinger of his reform'—following this up with his Bibliotheca Botanic  (a much longer work), his Classes Plantarum. and Genera Plantarum  (the three last being published at Leyden in 1737). LinnŠus was impressed with the importance of losing no time in bringing his system in its entirety before the scientific world in order that the misconceptions which he had encountered amongst foreign botanists might be removed. On October 3, 1736, he was made a member of the Imperial Academy of Sciences of Leyden, under the name of 'Dioscorides Secundus'.

A few words must now be said about the scope of the Genera Plantarum, which is to be regarded as the starting point of modern systematic botany. Comprising 384 pages octavo, this work describes the characters of the genera according to the number, form, situation, and proportion of the reproductive organs (i.e. the stamens and pistils). At the same time, Stoever reminds us, LinnŠus 'rectified the names of the genera by those distinctive marks which were true to nature, and applicable to any system which might have been adopted for the limitation of the classes and orders. Had he not done this, such a change would only have created more confusion and disorder'. Proper names having thus been given to the genera, he proceeded to re-name most of the species. LinnŠus tells us that up to this time he had examined the characters of nearly 80,000 plants. He had described in the above work upwards of 935 genera of plants. This number, says Stoever, was afterwards augmented by one-half in the eleven different editions, with his own and foreign additions. In the same year (1737) he published a supplement to the Genera Plantarum  (Corollarium Generum Plantarum, 25 pages), in which he described sixty new genera. To this he added a concise view of the sexual system—Methodus Sexualis, in 23 pages.

In 1737 also appeared, in 372 page octavo, his Flora Lapponica, a preliminary list of the species enumerated in which had, as we have seen, been published in the Transactions  of the Royal Society of Upsala in 1732 and 1735. The plants were described in accordance with the new sexual system, and the habitat, properties, etc., of each were given. The work was embellished by twelve large copper-plates, containing fifty-eight figures, engraved at the expense of the Amsterdam Academy. 'At the solicitation of Gronovious [says Stoever], he permitted one of the Lapponian plants, called Campanula serpyllifolia, to be, after his own name, denominated LinnŠa, and represented on a plate of that work—an honour which he so well deserved.

The book, Hortus Cliffortianus  which was begun in 1737, on the completion of the arrangement of Clifford's collection and garden, was a work of love and gratitude towards the man who had treated him as his own son. The Hortus  took him nine months to complete (it was published the same year, and comprised 506 pages folio, with thirty-six plates), and in the intervals of its preparation LinnŠus, we are told, whenever he was fatigued by it, used to amuse himself with the Critica Botanica  (270 pages), which was printed at Leyden in 1737. The Critica  was 'an elaboration of the Aphorisms 210-314 of the Fundamenta Botanica.

With the establishment of LinnŠus in the chair of botany in 1741, a new epoch in the history of the University of Upsala was begun. The normal number of students in the science classes had been 500, but during LinnŠus's professorship this number rose to 1,500. His lectures, both in the classroom and the garden, formed the most brilliant part of the teaching, and his pupils were drawn from every part of Europe and even from America. Nor did he confine his efforts to improving the garden, but gave interest and permanence to his scientific work by establishing a museum in the university, for which he obtained many valuable gifts from the principle collections in his own and foreign countries.

In 1751 LinnŠus published his Philosophia Botanica, forming a commentary on the various axioms which he had published in 1735 in his Fundamenta Botanica. The work (which it is to be noted was dictated to his pupils during an attack of the gout) comprised a review of all the botanical systems; explanations of plant-structure, terms used, etc.; rules and definitions for establishing the characters of classes, orders, and genera; rules for establishing specific characters, and for distinguishing varieties; rules for describing and naming the species, and for giving their complete history in a scientific manner; together with a chapter treating of the virtues of plants. At the end of the volume were some directions to pupils for forming herbaria and for conducting botanical excursions (the latter a notable feature of LinnŠus's teaching), the method of laying out a botanical garden, and lastly, an 'Idea of a Complete Botanist', in which some of the principal botanists were mentioned. 'In this work,' says Pulteney, 'it is difficult to determine whether we ought to admire the genius of its author most in its inventive power, or in that exquisite scientific arrangement which he has given to the whole; the two circumstances together certainly render it a most extraordinary and pre-eminent performance.' Rousseau declared it to be the most philosophical book he had ever seen. LinnŠus himself seems to have regarded this work as complete, for it underwent no alteration at his hands.

In 1753 appeared what Haller emphatically termed LinnŠus's 'maximum opus et Šternum'—the Species Plantarum—in two octavo volumes, containing 1,200 pages. This work, says Stoever, with is System of Nature  became the immortal monument of his diligence and ingenuity both for his own age and for posterity. On this great work, which contained his portrait, LinnŠus expended many years of labour. It forms a complete catalogue of all the plants till then known to LinnŠus, and enumerates 7,300 species, without reckoning their varieties. Dedicating this work to the King and Queen of Sweden, LinnŠus says in his Preface: 'Never have I retorted upon mine enemies the arrows which they let fly against me. I have quietly borne offences of the satyrs, and the ironies and attacks of malice. They have at all times been the reward of the labours of great men; but they cannot hurt a single hair of my head. . . . My age, my profession, my character, do not permit me to combat my opponents. I will bestow the few years I have to live upon making useful observations. Errors in natural history will admit of no defence, nor can the truth be concealed. I appeal, therefore, to the judgement of posterity.'

The Species Plantarum  was supplemented by LinnŠus in a second edition published in 1762 and 1763, which was pirated by the German booksellers the year after. It should be noted that LinnŠus in his Preface gives an account of the assistance he had received and the pains he had taken to bring the work to its present state. He specifies the countries travelled, the botanical gardens visited, the herbaria examined, the names of pupils educated under him, and their various peregrinations, and the many liberal communications of seeds and specimens sent to him from all parts of the world by the first botanists of the time.

From Upsala—now the centre of attraction for students, professors, and collectors of every degree and of every nationality—were dispatched the disciples of LinnŠus to remote countries. Their subsequent fame, as it sprang from his teaching, reflected his genius and enthusiasm, and they became 'the priests and teachers of nature in all parts of the world'.

LinnŠus, as we have seen, was now in touch with naturalists in every quarter of the globe. Honours as well were bestowed upon him. In 1753 the year of publication of his Species Plantarum, he was created a Knight of the Polar Star by the King of Sweden, being the first scientific man of his country to receive this honour. The Royal Academy of Sciences of Stockholm, which he had been instrumental in founding, awarded him a Gold Medal. From the Imperial Academy of Sciences at St. Petersburg he received a premium for his paper on the Sexes of Plants  in 1759—a treatise to which he affixed his motto: 'Famam Extendere Factis'—'To spread fame by deeds.' In 1761 his sovereign granted him a patent of nobility, antedated April 11, 1757, under which he assumed the style of Von LinnÚ. He was also the recipient of distinctions from various foreign academies, and the King of Spain invited him to settle at Madrid, promising him a pension of 2,000 pistoles, letters of nobility, and the free exercise of his own religion. The last-named tempting offer he declined, saying that what abilities he possessed should be devoted to the country of his birth.

In 1758 LinnŠus published the tenth edition of his System Naturae—the first part of which, relating to the animal kingdom, comprised 821 pages (augmented in the twelfth edition to 1,327 pages). The three volumes published at Stockholm in 1766-7-8 are to be considered (says Pulteney) as having received the author's finishing hand. The three kingdoms are distinguished in the following manner:—

1. MINERALS. Concrete bodies, not endued with life or sensation.
2. VEGETABLES. Organized bodies, endued with life, but not with sensation.
3. ANIMALS. Organised bodies, endued with both life and sensation.

He subdivides the Animal Kingdom as follows: Mammalia, Birds, Amphibia, Fishes, Insects, Vermes—each sub-kingdom being again divided into orders. In regard to the Vegetable Kingdom, it must be borne in mind that the system of classification invented by LinnŠus is entirely artificial, being based, as we have seen, on a single character, the sexuality of plants. In the existing state of botanical knowledge no other or better system could have been devised, and its utility in furthering the study of plants came to be universally admitted. But LinnŠus himself was emphatic in maintaining the necessity for a Natural system—i.e. one based, not on any single character, but on the sum of real affinities, as revealed by the examination and comparison of the structure and life development of plants. A sketch or outline of some such system was actually begun by LinnŠus, but it was left to be perfected by others. Meanwhile, the value of the LinnŠan system—the impulse which it gave to study by the substitution of order for confusion, of clear, definite language, methodical treatment of organs each in its turn, and with special terms for describing each organ and for expressing the differences between them, for the lengthy and cumbrous method then in use—such value was simply incalculable.

LinnŠus was now nearing the end of his long and laborious life. In 1763 his son Charles, then in his twenty-second year was appointed assistant professor of botany at Upsala, with the promise of succeeding his father in the chair. In 1774 Mr. Pennant, the zoologist, wrote to LinnŠus, entreating him not to forget his promise of writing the natural history of Lapland which he had made in the preface of his Flora Lapponica. To this LinnŠus answered that 'it would now be too late to begin—'Nunc nimis sero inciperens'.

In his last days, when deprived by an apoplectic seizure of the power of audible speech and incapable of writing or walking, 'he used to be carried to his museum, where he viewed the treasures which he had collected with so much labour, and manifested a particular delight in examining the rarities and new productions which during the latter part of his life had been brought him by M. Mutis from Carthagena and New Grenada, and by his other pupils from the Cape of Good Hope and Asia.' He died January 10, 1778, in his seventy-first year, at Upsala, and was buried in the cathedral of that city.

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