Olof Rudbeck

Drawn portrait of Olof Rudbeck senior

Olof Rudbeck the Elder (1630–1702), is one of Uppsala University’s most outstanding figures throughout the centuries. He was the son of a bishop from Västerås and entered the University at a young age.

Discovery of the lympatic system

Medical education was not especially advanced at Uppsala at the time, but the young Rudbeck made what has been called ‘the first scientific discovery by a Swede’, the lymphatic system and the circulation of lymphatic fluid in the human body.

A Danish scientist had made roughly the same discoveries at the same time, and the two naturally disagreed about which one of them had been first. At any rate, Rudbeck had performed a scientific feat and as a young man made a name for himself among the learned in Europe.

Rudbeck's academic career in Uppsala

After a period abroad Rudbeck returned to Uppsala, and in 1660 he was appointed to one of the chairs at the Faculty of Medicine (at that time there were only two). He held the post until 1692, when he was succeeded by his son Olof Rudbeck, Jr. On several occasions he was the University’s Vice-Chancellor.

Theatrum anatomicum

In the early 1660s he had the Theatrum Anatomicum built – an anatomical theatre for dissections of human cadavers. It is easy to imagine what a bold move this was, to build something so large right on top of the university’s main building, the Gustavianum. Ever since, the cupola with its sundial has given the building its special character.

The dome of the anatomical theater with many windows

The Theatrum anatomicum is seated in the cupola of Gustavianum.


Otherwise Rudbeck became best known for his book Atlantica, an extremely patriotic account of ancient history first published in 1677. It got a very mixed reception, and by today’s standards it appears quite unscientific and with little bearing on reality. However, some of the actual methods that Rudbeck used were sound and even before their time. For instance, he tried to date artefacts based on the soil layers they were found in.

Many other aspects of Rudbeck’s work have been of lasting value. Together with the Chancellor, Magnus Gabriel De la Gardie, he introduced the so-called ‘exercitia’. They meant that young students from the nobility received training in useful pursuits such as riding, dancing, fencing, modern languages, etc. The riding academy that Rudbeck had built stood where University Main Building now stands, and academic training in riding is still provided.

He also arranged to have a botanical garden established (the present-day Linnæan Garden), set up boat connections with Stockholm, built bridges and aqueducts, etc.

He was also a composer and had a strong singing voice which he performed with in Uppsala Cathedral and at the crowning of King Karl XI in 1675.