Saturday, 7 February 2015


The dilapidated Roxburgh Building and the herbarium (storehouse of dried plant), that boasted one of the richest collection of plant specimens anywhere, and the library in front of it in a restricted area of the Indian Botanic Garden in Shibpur, which went to ruin after they were abandoned in the 1970s, but unless urgent measures are taken to restore both the heritage buildings will fall to pieces.

The sprawling garden on the banks of the Hoogly opposite Metiabruz was founded by Colonel Robert Kid in 1787, and William Roxburgh was its first salaried superintendent between 1793-1814. The building named after him was constructed around1794, and although initially it served as Roxburgh’s residence, he subsequently constructed a plant house and the library in the dilapidated house opposite it. Roxburgh was a pioneer in botanical studies in India and he has written “Flora Indica”, once the bible for botanists studying Indian flora.

Little is known about the early life of Robert Kyd. He was born at Forfarshire may have studied medicine at Edinburgh. He joined the Bengal Engineers as an ensign in 1764. He become a lieutenant a year later, a captain on 3rd April,1768 major on 29th May,1780, and lieutenant-colonel by 7th December ,1782. He was then made a Secretary to the Military Department of inspection in Bengal and continued in that post until his death.

Kyd was interested in horticulture and owned a private garden in Shalimar near Howrah. He proposed the idea of a botanic garden to the then Governor General Sir John Macpherson, who passed on the idea to the Court of Directors of the East India Company. His idea was that it should help in finding alternate sources of food to prevent famines and to identify plants that might be commercially useful. The plan was approved on 31st July 1787 and Kyd was made an honorary Superintendent. Kyd made a request in his will that he be buried without any religious ceremony in the botanical garden that he founded, but was instead in South Park Street cemetery.

Much development in Botany took place during British Empire in India. Linnean system of “Binomial nomenclature” was introduced only in 1778 by the natural historian engaged with the British East India Company. During this period, botanical gardens were being founded in every significant city in India to study the natural history of plants. Many botanists and surveyors were recruited by East India Company to report and record Indian flora. One such botanist of this period and the founding father of Indian botany by his contemporaries was William Roxburgh.

William Roxburgh was born on June 29th 1751. He matriculated at Edinburgh University in 1771-72 to study surgery under Dr. Alexender Monro. Further he was also the student of Dr. John Hope, professor of botany and “Materia-medica” .John Hope was the curator of the Edinburgh botanical garden as well an experimental physiologist. Roxburgh reached Chennai in 1776 as an assistant surgeon in the East India Company’s Madras General Hospital. At Chennai he turned his attention to botany. For the period 1776-1793 he worked at Coromandel Coast, during this period he also met Johann Gerhard Konig (who introduced binomial nomenclature in India). In 1789 he was appointed as natural historian of East India Company. 

 He moved to Kolkata to be the superintendent of the Botanic Garden, the present Indian Botanical Garden at Shibpur, Howrah. He was instrumental in introducing many plant and species to India and simultaneously he sent many species to Kew, London. His voluminous work, “Flora Indica” was published after his death. Roxburgh left for England from Kolkata in 1813 at the age of 62 spending some 37 years in India. He died at Edinburgh in 1815.

Dr. William Roxburgh was a botanist who made immense contribution to the study of Indian botany and is regarded as many as the father of Indian botany. He was also interested in meteorological impacts on droughts and famine, and therefore, recommended for food, tree plantation in the countryside and in public land.

Dr. Tin Robinson in his PHD thesis mentioned abount a short review of the Calcutta Botanic Garden written in 1971 wherein it was mentioned, “William Roxburgh was one of the greatest botanists of his time, and during his term converted the garden in its character from its original economic purpose to the service of scientific botany.” He is often referred as “The father of Indian Botany”.

Sources :
1.    “The Botanic Garden” by Dr. Anis Mukhopadhyay.
2.    “The Bengal Obituary”, Publisher : W. Thacker & Co.
3.    Wikipadia, Robert Kyd & William Roxburgh.
4.    “Annals of Royal Botanic garden, Calcutta,” “preface” by George King.
5.    “The European discovery of the Indian Flora”. By Desmond Ray,Oxford University Press.
6.    “Botanic Garden Heritage House by Sanjoy Mondal,The telegraph.29th Sept,2008.

              Reasearch  -  Santanu Roy.
               Picture Courtesy - Sudip Ghosh.

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