William Roxburgh

William Roxburgh (June 29, 1751April 10, 1815) was a Scottish surgeon and botanist. He has been called the Father of Indian Botany.

Early life

Roxburgh was born at Underwood in the parish of Craigie, Ayrshire. He studied medicine in Edinburgh. He had been a surgeon's mate on an East India Company ship at the age of 17 and had completed two voyages to the East in that capacity until the age of 21. He also studied botany in Edinburgh under John Hope. He joined the Madras Medical Service as an assistant surgeon in 1776 and became a surgeon in 1780.


At Madras he turned his attention to botany. The East India Company recognized his botanical knowledge and made him superintendent in the Samalkot garden in the Northern Circars in 1781. Here he conducted economic botany experiments. He employed native artists to illustrate plants. He had 700 illustration by 1790. He then succeeded Patrick Russell (1727-1805) as Naturalist to the Madras Government. He made rapid progress and acquired a good reputation and was in a short time invited by the government of Bengal, to take charge of the Calcutta Botanical gardens from Colonel Robert Kyd. In 1793 he succeeded Colonel Robert Kyd as Superintendent of the Company garden at Sibpur near Calcutta. A catalog of the garden was made in 1814 - Hortus Bengalensis. He sent many of his illustrations to Sir Joseph Banks. He was succeeded by Francis Buchanan-Hamilton.

He meticulously collected vast amounts of meteorological data for years, and is considered as a pioneer in the collection of tropical meteorological data, to an extent unrivalled elsewhere until the 1820s. He had begun collecting detailed meteorological data as soon as he set foot in India, at Madras and is known to have taken measurements three times a day, using Ramsden barometer and Nairne thermometers, made by then reputed scientific instrument makers, Jesse Ramsden and Edward Nairne. His training under John Hope, who was the curator of the Edinburgh botanical garden and an experimental physiologist. Roxburgh's interest in systematic meteorology may have stemmed from the influence of John Hope as well as his experiences at the Royal Society of Arts which in the early 1770s was greatly influenced by the climatic theories of Stephen Hales and Duhamel du Monceau. Such detailed measurements over many years led him to form an opinion on widespread famine and climate change in the empire.

He became a member of the Asiatic Society, to whose Transactions he contributed, from time to time, many valuable papers, and amongst these one of singular interest on the lacca insect, from which called lac was made.

Recognition, Death

In 1805, he received the gold medal of the Society for the Promotion of Arts, for a series of highly interesting and valuable communications on the subject of the productions of the East. In 1803 he received a second gold medal for a communication on the growth of trees in India, and on the 31st of May, 1814, was presented with a third, in the presence of a large assembly which he personally attended, by the Duke of Norfolk, who was then president of the Society of Arts.

Soon after receiving this last honourable testimony of the high respect in which his talents were held, Mr Roxburgh returned to Edinburgh, where he died.

Posthumous honours

In 1820, at the Mission Press in Serampore, William Carey posthumously edited and published vol. 1 of Dr. William Roxburgh's Flora Indica; or Descriptions of Indian Plants. In 1824, Carey edited and published vol. 2 of Roxburgh's Flora Indica, including extensive remarks and contributions by Dr. Nathaniel Wallich. Carey and Wallich continued to work in the field of botany and in 1834, both Carey and Wallich contributed botanical specimens to the Royal Society for Agriculture and Botany's Winter Show in Ghent, Belgium.


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