Olof Rudbeck

Olof Rudbeck

Scientific discoveries

Olof Rudbeck, Sr. (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 tender age. 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 gland 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 gentlemen naturally wound up at odds with each other 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.

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 rector magnificus of the University.

Theatrum anatomicum

As an expression of his ambitions in medicine, in the early 1660s he had a Theatrum anatomicum built, 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, that is, the Gustavianum. This cupola with its sundial still today lends the building its special character.

The dome of the Gustavianum building, covered by snow
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, today largely regarded as learned fantasies. But 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 fantastic singing voice, and he sometimes performed in the cathedral.