Roxburgh, William

Roxburgh, William (1751-1815) referred as the 'Father of Indian Botany', William Roxburgh was born in Ayrshire, Eastern Scotland, in 1751. He studied medicine at Edinburgh University where he was initiated in the rudiments of botany and Linnaean taxonomy by famous British botanist Professor John Hope (1725-1786). He entered the service of the East India Company as a surgeon's mate on the Company's ships and in 1776 he was appointed assistant surgeon in the Madras General Hospital. There, he was influenced by Johan Gerhard Koenig (1728-1785), famous student of Linnaeus. Promoted to full surgeon in 1780, Roxburgh spent most of his early service in the Northern Circars at the garrison station at Samalkot some 200 miles north of Madras. At Samalkot, he established experimental gardens where he grew coffee, pepper, cinnamon, indigo, and breadfruit, and experimented with Opuntia, the host plant of the cochineal insect. In 1790 he had been made MD by the University of Aberdeen and Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, Edinburgh.

Roxburgh trained a team of Indian artists in botanical drawings who produced nearly 500 drawings of the local flora. Each plant was accurately drawn, described, and added with remarks on their usage. This resulted in Roxburgh's Plants of the Coast of Coromandel, published by the Company's home authority in folio volumes in 1795, 1802, and in 1819. He took over the charge of the Calcutta Botanical Garden in November 1793 as the Superintendent after the death of Robert Kyd, its founder. From what had hitherto been a gigantic nursery garden, it soon assumed the character of a truly scientific botanical garden of remarkable authenticity under Roxburgh.

At Calcutta, Roxburgh resumed the work he had been doing at Samalkot, drawings of Indian plants by trained native artists and describing them accurately. He sent to the Directors of the Company his 1200 drawings in December 1797; 1300 drawings in February 1801. In November 1802, Roxburgh reported that he had completed a further three hundred drawings.

Roxburgh took up the challenge of his new post with characteristic zeal, propagating and distributing seedlings of teak, Bengal hemp, Virginia tobacco, Arabian coffee, and indigo to different parts of the subcontinent for trial cultivation. By January 1794 over 2000 plants had been dispatched throughout India, to England, the West Indies, and St Helena. Amongst the new introductions he was trying to grow were French olives and Jamaican spice. He also tried to reduce the dependency of impoverished peasants on a few grain crops. In October 1797, Roxburgh sent specimens of Nutmeg to the Court of Directors, which continued to thrive well in the Garden; and again in November of the same year sent 170 different seeds and two chests of about 120 living plant species containing seeds

The most noticeable among Roxburgh's experiments were those with fibrous plants of India like Hemp, Flax, Sunn, etc for which the Society of Arts of England thrice awarded him its gold medal.

When Roxburgh took the charge of the Garden there were about 300 species of plants, and in 1813 when he retired from the post, he left behind about 3500 species and over 2533 drawings. These drawing as well as dried specimens of plants laid the foundation of the most remarkable herbarium in the tropics. On leaving India Roxburgh left William Carey in charge of the Garden. Carey published in 1814 Hortus Bengalensis, a catalogue of 1510 plant species cultivated in the Garden. Roxburgh also left manuscript of his 'Flora Indica' in Carey's hand. In 1820, William Carey decided to publish the 'Flora' with additions by Nathaniel Wallich, official successor of Roxburgh in the Garden, who had made large collections in Nepal and Malacca. The first volume, which contains little additions by Wallich was published in 1820, and the second volume, which contains many notes by Wallich, was published in 1824.

In 1832, Carey published an exact reprint of Roxburgh's 'Flora Indica' as it had been left by the author in three octave volumes. This edition of Flora Indica in course of time became very costly and scarce, and in 1874, CB Clarke of the Bengal Educational Service published a verbatim reprint of Roxburgh's Flora Indica in one volume. 'Dr Roxburgh was the first botanist', wrote George King, the Superintendent of the Garden during 1871-1897, 'who attempted to draw up a systematic account of the plants of India'. He remarked on Roxburgh's Flora Indica: 'This book is the basis of all subsequent Indian botanical works. He died at Park Place, Edinburgh on 18 February 1815. [Abhijit Mukherjee]