Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Gin, tonic, and ornithology

The tomb of Willam Graham McIvor in the
St Stephen's Church cemetery in Ooty.
It is widely held that gin and tonic was an invention to get soldiers in British India swallow some bitter quinine to keep away malaria. It might have been an even bitter pill to swallow for those who believed that miasmas caused disease. The refusal to believe that minute living organisms caused disease was convenient in some ways, it meant you could ward away disease by dressing  in flannel to avoid chilling as cold weather favoured the miasma. It also meant that quarantine (etymologically the Italian root referred to 40 days based on the incubation of plague) delays in (already slow) ship journeys could be avoided.

The story of quinine in India is an interesting one and has some surprising connections to ornithology in India that I was exploring recently on a visit to the Nilgiris.

The story behind malaria, cinchona and quinine is so fascinating that the sheer number of publications on the history of cinchona is staggering (there are several bibliographic compilations on the topic!). Looking at the literature for India suggests that vast changes in landscape have been caused just so that people (at least the ones that did not have sickle cells and other forms of evolved resistance to malaria) could enter new regions and they further altered these habitat by building roads and habitations. "Malarious" regions were probably large pockets of natural protection for biodiversity. Malaria literally means bad air and the theory was that diseases were spread by miasmas (gases or mists) and this partly justified the idea of treating higher elevations as safe sanataria. There was even the field of "medical topography" that dealt with spatial distribution of disease and although they might have erred on causal factors, the practitioners did work on actual evidence. The sheer number of people involved in researching and fighting the problem (often dying in the process) of diseases (particularly malaria, plague and cholera) and the spin-offs to the sciences of botany, entomology, chemistry and oddly ornithology is just incredible. Scientific pursuits that saved human lives earned a halo of nobility. Seen in this light, the public repute of the modern botanist is sadly a lot lower than it was before.

The cinchona introduction program was part of a solution to a problem coming in the way of the colonial quest for conquering more lands. The Spanish had discovered the effectiveness of Cinchona bark in curing malarial fever and their extraction of the bark led to near complete destruction of trees in some regions and then the British Empire saw the problem of being dependent on dwindling South American supplies.

Detail on the tomb of McIvor with Cinchona carvings

Clements Markham is the man who takes a lot of credit for the cinchona program in India. He was knighted for this achievement but the idea that cinchona could be grown in the Nilgiris was first floated by John Forbes Royle.

Markham, a chronicler, explorer, geographer and writer also attempted to bring back the spelling Chinchona to correctly reflect its etymology - the plant is named after Lady Ana de Osorio, countess of Chinchón, wife of the Viceroy of Peru, who was in 1638 afflicted with a "tertian" fever while in Lima. Don Francisco Lopez de Canizares, heard of her illness and sent a parcel of bark that was used by the natives around Quito. The Countess recovered rather miraculously and word of the drug travelled rapidly. She took bank bark to Spain to distribute among the sick there and it soon came to be known as Pulvis Comitissae (the Countess' powder) among the druggists. Linnaeus came to hear of the plant via the French and though he intended to name the genus after the Countess, he spelt it wrong (in the 1767 edition it even got printed as "Cinhona"). The Spanish botanists Ruiz Lopez and José Antonio Pavón Jiménez noted the spelling mistake and described several species in the genus but the spelling stuck and many were upset that it credited "cinchon", a policeman's belt, instead of their dear Countess. Markham's attempts at taxonomic emendation of the spelling were not as successful as his mission to introduce cinchona into India.

Markham's map of the "Chinchona" plantations.
By the 1800s, the Spanish trade in Cinchona had managed to depauperate the forests of South America. Removal of the bark in unsustainable ways by uprooting the tree and strip barking or girdling killed off the trees [Alexander Humboldt noted in 1799 that for obtaining 11,000 Spanish pounds nearly 800 or 900 Cinchona trees were cut down every year]. Meanwhile the front-line warriors of the British Empire were  falling to malaria at an estimated 2 million a year and were at the mercy of Spanish supplies with the few trees left being closely guarded in South America. Markham's main role was to help solve the problem of malaria in British India and this even required covert actors - among them Charles Ledger who managed to smuggle some seeds of Cinchona to Kew. Other explorers were Dr. Spruce and Mr. Robert Cross who went after Loxa bark (Cinchona officinalis Linn.; syn. C. condaminea) and "Red Bark" (C. succirubra Pavon) in Ecuador while Mr. Pritchett searched in northern Peru; and  Markham and John Weir explored  the Calisaya region in Bolivia for Cinchona calisaya.

An illustration from 1862. The European man sitting in the group in this picture is Sir William Denison (after whom Francis Day named the pretty fish - "Miss Kerala" (Sahyadria denisonii). To Denison's left and holding a spade is McIvor.
Markham and his team managed to get some plants and these were established at Kew in greenhouses. Wardian cases were then used to transport the plants to India. It was however one thing to grow them inside a controlled environment and entirely another to grow them in a large enough scale. And that was where the skills and experimental approaches by William McIvor paid off. It was another saga to extract the active ingredient and produce concentrated drug that could be stored and transported where it was needed. Botanists, chemists and administrators, all got into action in this project and it is interesting that Sir George King who headed the Calcutta botanical gardens and the cinchona project in Darjeeling (Mungpoo) credits A.O. Hume for his role in supporting the project. King was knighted for his role in setting up a system of quinine delivery via the postal system that would work out cheap enough anywhere in India.

Davison could speak Tamil, "Burmese",
Malay and Hindi!
One of King's assistant was a lad named William Ruxton Davison. King noticed that he had an eye for natural history and although Davison had trained in a bit of chemistry in the Nilgiris, he had moved into botany at Calcutta. Davison was born in Myanmar but after his father's death, he grew up as a boy in Ootacamund, schooled briefly under "Pope Iyer" (at his own school although he gave it up later and moved to Bishop Cotton's in Bangalore). King recommended Davison to Hume and under Hume's training, he became one of the foremost ornithological observers- although his method was in the old collection tradition - indeed much of Hume's collection was actually made by Davison (while Hume was on official work). Davison seems to have had a keen eye for ferns and made collections of these as well for Hume's little-known botanical collection. Hume's botanical interest would be rekindled when Hume retired to London. After Hume's retirement from ornithology, Davison moved to Singapore (then called the Straits settlement) to head the Raffle's Museum. Davison seems to have done well here but after his wife's sudden death which occurred while he was out on an expedition, his mental health took a downturn. Suffering from depression, he is thought to have committed suicide (or in any case died) from an overdose of opium. This tragic story has only recently been unravelled by historian Kevin Tan in his book on the Singapore Natural History Museum (2015).

The cinchona project was obviously not a complete success as malaria managed to keep a grip (as still does today with the potential to save some wilderness areas) and the next big wave of work on the disease was by the surgeons and physicians of the Indian Medical Service. Many of them, with a completely new and higher level of training in biology, contributed to the study of natural curiosities and contributed beyond their professional area of research.

The cinchona project had its impact well beyond India - even in its ornithology spin-offs. Imagine my surprise when I found that a comprehensive bibliography of cinchona cultivation was compiled in 1945 by R.E. Moreau, the brilliant ornithologist who worked in Africa as an accountant.

Note: Please note that tonic water today does not have the quinine levels needed for therapeutic use, so no it is not beneficial to your health! You can however have some fun by shining ultraviolet light on tonic-water and watch it fluoresce.

Further reading

Friday, November 4, 2016

Birds and landscape histories

Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.
I would not change it. 

Most traditional historians do not see much use for science but there are now growing branches of science that are essentially about determining histories. These include histories of climate, land connectivities, and the evolution of organisms. The field of phylogeography attempts to look at the distributions and evolutionary relationships of a cluster of inter-related species to see patterns in their diversification and examine timing and relationship to environmental or climatic changes. Past vegetation  can be guessed by the signs left by plants through pollen deposits in certain kinds of preserving environments like peat bogs. A cylindrical core can then be extracted from the bog and the deeper layers tell us something about the vegetation of the older period, the time itself can be established by carbon dating. Every organism has a book in the form of DNA and the lines in this book are constantly being edited with copy pasting as the organisms reproduce and accumulate mutations. By looking at the edit history of specific sections of DNA across sample individuals, it is possible to reconstruct a chronological sequence of the edits (the way to establish what is recent versus what is older requires a trick that requires prior knowledge of a script that is decidedly older - an individual known as an outgroup). In addition to regular nuclear DNA, there is DNA in the mitochondria which passes from mother to offspring and this is generally conserved with occassional changes caused by mutations. The history of these mutations can also be examined to reconstruct chronologies. There are of course little problems with these sources including possibly corrupt histories resulting from the possibility of DNA being inserted by viruses or bacteria that break the linearity. Histories of human movements have been found by examining DNA across peoples.

Histories at different scales and for varying epochs can be read from diverse sources. Igneous rocks tell the pressure, temperature and rate of cooling around them by the sizes of the crystals formed within them and their mineral compositions. Sedimentary rocks hold fossils in the leaves of their pages. Trees keep note of fires and environmental conditions in the rings. Bubbles trapped in polar ice have been the source of atmospheric composition history.

The sources for history therefore go well beyond what archaeologists and traditional historians would want to preserve. It is a pity however that these other sources get so little attention.
Few can read the significance of this specimen from Antharasanthe near H.D. Kote, Karnataka

I recently visited the Regional Museum of Natural History at Mysore along with Dr Robert Prys-Jones of the Natural History Museum at Tring and thanks to his presence, I was, reluctantly, allowed to go behind the scenes and take a peek at some bird specimens that Salim Ali had collected in the late 1930s. [I had been at the RMNH many years ago with the late S.A. Hussain when this collection was moved there and I have since always been irritated by the way government officials prevent access to such collections across India.] One of the specimens that caught my attention was of a black-headed babbler / dark-fronted babbler (Rhophocichla atriceps). It was collected by Salim Ali in 1939 from Antharasanthe. I have passed through Antharasanthe many times in recent years and for someone who knows the bird and the kind of location in which it is normally found, it is simply mind-boggling to realize that Antharasanthe once held dense forests with a dark and dense undergrowth. This is something that few can appreciate and it requires that they know something about the bird in question.

Clearly not all sources of history can be appreciated or understood by traditionally trained historians. There is a classic example of such ineptitude provided by Delhi-based historians Romila Thapar and Valmik Thapar who, in their book Exotic Aliens – The Lion and Cheetah in India, claim that lions and cheetahs in India were introduced from Africa in fairly recent times by local rulers. This of course can easily be dismissed by looking at DNA evidence and the book of course has since been dismissed by scientists.

In April 2016 I had the privilege of walking along a Himalayan hillside with Emmanuel Theophilus and S. Subramanya and we came across trees with curious rings on their trunks. Observing them closely showed that there were series of punctures made over these rings by woodpeckers. There are a group of woodpeckers in North America that are called sapsuckers - they all belong to the genus Sphyrapicus and have the habit of making punctures on trees and waiting for sweet sap to fill them up. They revisit these holes and sip the sap that collects. Now there is just one species in Asia that has the same habit - the rufous-bellied woodpecker and even called the rufous-bellied sapsucker (Dendrocopos hyperythrus) - and it evidently leaves a trace on the trees. Not a single individual but evidently generations of them. The trees which are at least a century old have rings that are tapped repeatedly and the calluses grow quite wide due to the repeated injury. Not all trees seem to respond to the damage in the same way and the most significant callusing was found in karsu oak and rhododendrons (they are massive trees here, worth mentioning for readers familiar only with rhododendrons from higher latitudes). Interestingly Green-tailed sunbirds (Aethopyga nipalensis) seem to be secondary sapsuckers and they hover and steal sips of sap.

Emmanuel Theophilus points to calluses on karsu oak Quercus semecarpifolia

Callus rings on a Rhododendron


Rings seen at a distance.
Close up of a ring showing a fresh line of punctures.


Perhaps there are places in the Himalayas where the woodpeckers have left their traces in the trees and vanished since and these are the histories that are lost perhaps to the timber trade.

There is then a case for historians to learn a bit of ornithology and there is of course a case to be made for ornithologists to know a little bit of history. The latter is probably harder considering that hordes of them can contribute to such systems a ebird but not put any effort to standardizing the recording of habitat conditions. Since such a standard that can be analyzed quantitatively has to be evolved locally, it involves democratizing citizen science websites and therein lies the problem. Perhaps history, even of humans, is important for the software designers.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Maude Lina West Cleghorn: A little-known amateur entomologist

I recently came across the works of Miss Maude Lina West Cleghorn and was surprised by the breadth of her entomology research conducted in Calcutta. Miss Cleghorn actively studied insect pollination as an amateur and apparently some government-supported studies on the genetics of voltinism in silkworm in the early 1900s and remarkably little is known of her despite her being a Fellow of the (Royal) Entomological Society, the Linnean Society and the Zoological Society of London. Enquiries with the Linnean Society reveal that she was elected Fellow on the 4th of December 1913, nominated by Isaac Henry Burkill (director of the Botanic Gardens at Singapore); David Hooper (economic botanist with the Botanical Survey of India) and Lawrence Lewton-Brain (director of agriculture, Federated Malay States). Her address was given as 57, Ballygunge Circular Road, Calcutta and a bit before that period at 12, Alipore Road. All that can be found is that she died in 1946 - a single line mention of her death (as Associate Member - a class created in 1835 which according to the byelaws- "Associate Members shall be persons well known for their literary or scientific attainments, but who are not likely to apply to become Ordinary Members.") is found in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal for 1949.

Among Miss Cleghorn's studies is one on the longevity of insects, specifically silkworm. She notes in passing that a  Hypolimnas bolina lived for 92 days but she examines the lengths to which the moths live based on the season in which the pupae eclose. The graphs are very elegant summaries of her findings (Edward Tufte would admire the simple lines rather than broad bars).

Miss Cleghorn notes that adults emerging in the rainy season are short-lived

She also studied insect-pollination in some detail and especially interesting is her description of trap pollination in two species of Araceae. The first study was in 1913 on Colocasia (Kachu) and she described how cross pollination was enforced by a combination of protogyny by the flower and the timing with which the flower trapped and released carrion flies. She followed up this with a study the next year on Typhonium trilobatum (and she uses the local name Ghet-Khechu!), a member of the Araceae which has a spadix that releases a strong smell of rotting carrion in the evening and keeps the beetles overnight inside the cavity formed by the spathe. It attracts beetles including those in the Coprinae (Scarabaeidae) - and two species are identified Onthophagus tarandus and Caccobius dimiunitivus - the voucher specimens from these flowers were deposited in the Pusa collection and these life-history notes are included with some care in the Fauna of British India (Arrow, Gilbert John (1931) The Fauna of British India. Coleoptera Lammelicornia. Part III (Coprinae). London: Taylor and Francis. pp. 143-144, 181-182.)
Trap mechanism in Typhonium for beetles.

Burkill, the nominator of Cleghorn for Fellow of the Linnean Society, has a very interesting review of pollination mechanisms in Indian plants and he seconds Cleghorn's observations.

Observations of flowers on the trees with field-glasses and close ups of some flowers.
Fig. 1.—Rough sketch made from bunch actually growing on the tree, and observe 1 through field-glasses, showing young buds as seen on the morning of the 14th March.
Fig. 2.—Rough sketch of the same bunch on the morning of the 16th March, which shows the buds taking up the drooping position but with no styles projecting.
Fig. 3.—Sketch of the same bunch in Figs. I and 2, drawn on the morning of the 19th March. Tt shows the buds more pendant, and in two or three of the buds the styles appeared to be protruding slightly as far as could be made out with the glasses.
Fig 4.—Rough sketch of two bunches on the tree with buds older than those shown in Figs. 1, 2, and 3. Sketched on the morning of the 12th March. Three buds on the right bunch had styles protruding. On the left bunch one of the flowers was beginning to " ripen."  On the 13th March two more flowers on the left bunch were becoming fleshy.
Fig. 5.—The same two bunches as shown in Fig. 4, but sketched on the 14th March. The left bunch had four flowers with ripe corollas while the right bunch had two. On the loth March only one ripe flower was left on the right bunch. On the 19th March two of the younger buds of the bunch on the right had become fleshy and had styles protruding.
Fig. 6.—Sketch of two buds on a flowering branch as they appeared on the 2nd April.
Fig. 7.—The same buds sketched on the 5th April. But B which was of the same age as A when cut on the 2nd April was shedding pollen on the evening of the 5th April. The corolla at this stage is almost completely covered by the sepals.
Fig. 8.—Bud-like flower in  first  stage   sketched   on   the evening of   the 5th April.    When lightly tapped, pollen was shed  through the pore-like openings and when the style was touched through the tip of the corolla tube.
Fig. 8a.—Slightly enlarged drawing of flower in the first stage with the tip of one of the sepals turned back to show the opening through which the pollen is shed. There were two other openings just under the tip of the opposite sepals but they were not so large.

Fig. 9 —Section of flower in the first stage. At this stage the anthers are ripe and the stigma sticky and when tapped or shaken at night it produces a shower of pollen. Sketched at 2 a.m. on the 29th March.
Fig. 10.—Section of flower in second stage with much enlarged fleshy corolla, and pollen shed.    Natural size.
Fig. 11.—Sketch of fully "ripe" flower with the much enlarged and fleshy corolla. In this stage the style is about half an inch longer than it was in the first stage. Natural size.
Figs. 12-17 give sketches of a bud and flowers of different ages. The flowering branch was cut at 6-30 p.m. on the 9th April and the flowers were examined almost immediately after.
[In taking the exact measurement of the lengths of the sepals, corollas and styles the sections became slightly distorted and wider.    The exact lengths are shown in the drawings.]
Fig. 12.—Sepals much  longer than petals, style only little longer than the sepals.    Anthers immature and no pollen shed when tapped.
Fig. 13.—Pollen being shed and fleshy part of corolla still completely hidden under sepals.
Fig. 14.—Pollen being shed. Style and petal slightly longer than that of flower shown in Fig. 13.
Fig. 15.—Fleshy part slightly thicker than that in Fig. 13. Appears to be a bit older than that in Fig. 13.
Fig. 16.—Section of old flower in which corolla has fallen off. The style was much longer than the old style of that in Fig- 15, but the sepals were of the same length.
Fig. 17.—Section of old flower showing corolla shed and ovary slightly larger. Sepals the same length as that in Fig. 15, but style found to be exactly 1 cm longer.
Figs. 18-31 give the sections of all the flowers found on a bunch which was examined about 8 a.m. Altogether there were fourteen flowers and none were destroyed by bats.
Fig. 18.—Quite a young bud.
Fig. 19.—Flower in first stage shedding pollen.
Fig. 21.—Most of the pollen shed.
Fig. 26.—Pollen shed thickly.
Figs. 29.-31.—Old flowers which have lost their fleshy corollas.
Fig. 32 shows two stamens enlarged about twice the natural size.

She seems to have maintained an interest in floral biology and pollination for long and her last publication appears to be in 1922 when she wrote on the floral biology of the Mahua (Madhuca longifolia) and noted that it is quite unique and how contemporary botany texts missed out its details. She notes that contrary to some illustrations, the Mahua flower never opens up. She notes that (emphasis mine) - "the mechanism found ... in which a large portion of the actual flower is edible is a rather costly and uncertain one...and appears to be rare among plants. The only other plant with this type of mechanism, recorded so far, is Fracinclea, a pandanus-like plant of Java, which is pollinated by bats while visiting the flowers for the edible bracts." She observed flowers using field-glasses and drew diagrams to demonstrate how the pollen were dispersed through a pore on the side of the otherwise closed bud-like or berry-like flower. The pollen collects inside the closed corolla cup of the hanging flowers in the initial stage and bats going to feed on them get the underside of their wings dusted with pollen. As the flower matures the anthers wither and the corolla becomes fleshy and the stigma becomes receptive. Once the corolla is eaten the stigma is exposed and the bats deposit pollen on them. This aging mechanism ensures cross-pollination.

It seems likely from the names listed in the pages of the Journal that some of Miss Cleghorn's relatives attended the monthly meetings of the Asiatic Society of Bengal. Cleghorn also took an interest in other taxa, there is a mention of her maintaining a live Kaloula pulchra. Harold Maxwell-Lefroy (Imperial Entomologist) in 1916 notes that Miss Cleghorn was to be offered the work on cross-breeding silkworm. It appears that from 1910, "it was decided to prepare a scheme to employ Miss Cleghorn". A visit to Pusa is noted. It seems that she worked on cross-breeding European silkworm which produced high quality silk and produced just one generation a year (univoltine) and Indian varieties that produced multiple generations in a year (multi/polyvoltine) but coarser silk. Cleghorn conducted a series of breeding experiments to examine the heritability of multivoltinism and her conclusion was that multivoltinism was a dominant trait in females but recessive in males.

There is a mention of a Mr J(ames?). Cleghorn, an executive engineer at Cuttack who curiously was engaged in sericulture research. According to a Memorandum by a certain Liotard : "In Cuttack, sericulture has been carried out as an experiment since 1877 at Government expense, under the supervision of the Executive Engineer of the Mahanadi Division." and there is a comment by Mukerji, N.G. in his 1903 A monograph on the silk fabrics of Bengal-:
The reference here is no doubt to the experiments of Mr. J. Cleghorn of the Public Works Department. Mr. Cleghorn's experiments were not altogether fruitless. He published his studies of the life-history of the parasitic fly, and brought to light the great destruction caused by it. He produced some valuable races of beautifully white cocoons, both annual and poly vol tine. He also claimed to have discovered a simple means of avoiding or destroying the fly-pest. But as he could not be induced to part with his secret for less than a lakh of rupees, nothing is known with regard to his method of coping with one of the chief enemies of sericulture in Bengal. The fine races of cocoons he was rearing in conjunction with the Secretary of the Agri-Horticultural Society were not given out to the world either, and Mr. Cleghorn's researches and experiments have, therefore, left little of practical value behind. 
The fly mentioned here is of course Exorista bombycis (Tachinidae) and I wonder if this might be Miss Cleghorn's father, perhaps a clever but money-minded man.


Hopefully someone in a better position to research her life will do justice to this very observant and insightful amateur entomologist whose contributions to pollination biology are almost unknown. I bumped into this remarkable and little-known researcher while looking up on Hugh Cleghorn - one of the pioneers of forestry in India- on whom a most comprehensive biography has just been published by Henry Noltie.

Acknowledgements

Thanks are due to Lynda Brooks at the Linnean Society for tracking down some details and to Ann Sylph at the Zoological Society of London for checking their archives.


References

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Crowdsourced Indian geology in the 1800s

Crowd might be a bit of a stretch for less than a hundred contributors but George Bellas Greenough (1769 – 1839), one of the founders of the Geological Society of London produced, posthumously, the first geological map of India which was published in 1855. Greenough was the first president of the Geological Society of London and was reportedly best known for his ability to compile and synthesize the works of others and his annual address to the Society was apparently much appreciated. He was however entirely against the idea that fossils could be used to differentiate strata and in that he failed to admire William "Strata" Smith who produced the first geological map of England. An obituarist noted that Greenough was an outspoken critic of theoretical frameworks and a "drag" on the progress of the science of geology!

Not much has been written about the history of the making of the Greenough map of Indian geology - it was begun somewhere in 1853 and was finally published in 1855 and consisted of four sheets and measured 7 by 5¾ foot. A small number of copies were made which are apparently collector items but hardly any are available online for anyone wishing to study the contents. The University of Minnesota has a set of scanned copies of three-fourths of the map but if you want to read it you need to download three large files (each of about 300 MB!) . I decided to stitch together these images and to enhance them a bit and since the image is legally in the public domain (ie. copyright expired), I have placed it on Wikimedia Commons. There really is a research need for examining the motivations for making this map and on how Greenough went about with it. He apparently had officers of the East India Company providing him information and he seems to have sent draft maps on which they commented. There is a very interesting compilation of the correspondence that went into the making of this map. It has numerous errors both in geology as well as in the positions and labelling but definitely something to admire for its period. 

On has to lament that nobody has made a nice geological map in recent times showing interesting regional formations, fossil localities and so on. So much for our human-centricity and recentism. 

Here is a small overview of the 1855 map. You can find and download the whole image on Wikimedia Commons.

You can zoom into this image and enjoy the details by using this viewer that uses the Flash plugin or this one that is Flash-free.

PLEA: If anyone can find a digital version of the northeast sector at a resolution that is readable, please please do let me know.

PS: November 8, 2016 - just created an entry in Wikipedia for Henry Wesley Voysey (with the only known portrait of the man when no likeness has been recorded by the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography!) who is supposed to have made the first geology map covering a part of the Hyderabad region but two known copies of that map disappeared from Calcutta and London.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Tracing some ornithological roots

The years 1883-1885 were tumultuous in the history of zoology in India. A group called the Simla Naturalists' Society was formed in the summer of 1885. The founding President of the Simla group was, oddly enough, Courtenay Ilbert - who some might remember for the Ilbert Bill which allowed Indian magistrates to make judgements on British subjects. Another member of this Simla group was Henry Collett who wrote a Flora of the Simla region (Flora Simlensis). This Society vanished without much of a trace. A slightly more stable organization was begun in 1883, the Bombay Natural History Society. The creation of these organizations was precipitated by the emergence of a gaping hole. A vacuum was created with the end of an India-wide correspondence network of naturalists that was fostered by a one-man-force - that of A. O. Hume. The ornithological chapter of Hume's life begins and ends in Shimla. Hume's serious ornithology began around 1870 and he gave it all up in 1883, after the loss of years of carefully prepared manuscripts for a magnum opus on Indian ornithology, damage to his specimen collections and a sudden immersion into Theosophy which also led him to abjure the killing of animals, taking to vegetarianism and subsequently to take up the cause of Indian nationalism. The founders of the BNHS included Eha (E. H. Aitken was also a Hume/Stray Feathers correspondent), J.C. Anderson (who was a Simla naturalist) and Phipson (who was from a wine merchant family with a strong presence in Simla).

Shimla then was where Hume rose in his career (as Secretary of State, before falling) allowing him to work on his hobby project of Indian ornithology by bringing together a large specimen collection and conducting the publication of Stray Feathers. Through readings, I had a constructed a fairytale picture of the surroundings that he lived in. Richard Bowdler Sharpe, a curator at the British Museum who came to Shimla in 1885 wrote (his description  is well worth reading in full):
... Mr. Hume who lives in a most picturesque situation high up on Jakko, the house being about 7800 feet above the level of the sea. From my bedroom window I had a fine view of the snowy range. ... at last I stood in the celebrated museum and gazed at the dozens upon dozens of tin cases which filled the room ... quite three times as large as our meeting-room at the Zoological Society, and, of course, much more lofty. Throughout this large room went three rows of table-cases with glass tops, in which were arranged a series of the birds of India sufficient for the identification of each species, while underneath these table-cases were enormous cabinets made of tin, with trays inside, containing series of the birds represented in the table-cases above. All the specimens were carefully done up in brown-paper cases, each labelled outside with full particulars of the specimen within. Fancy the labour this represents with 60,000 specimens! The tin cabinets were all of materials of the best quality, specially ordered from England, and put together by the best Calcutta workmen. At each end of the room were racks reaching up to the ceiling, and containing immense tin cases full of birds. As one of these racks had to be taken down during the repairs of the north end of the museum, the entire space between the table-cases was taken up by the tin cases formerly housed in it, so that there was literally no space to walk between the rows. On the western side of the museum was the library, reached by a descent of three stops—a cheerful room, furnished with large tables, and containing, besides the egg-cabinets, a well-chosen set of working volumes. ... In a few minutes an immense series of specimens could be spread out on the tables, while all the books were at hand for immediate reference. ... we went below into the basement, which consisted of eight great rooms, six of them full, from floor to ceilings of cases of birds, while at the back of the house two large verandahs were piled high with cases full of large birds, such as Pelicans, Cranes, Vultures, &c.
I was certainly not hoping to find Hume's home as described but the situation turned out to be a lot worse. The first thing I did was to contact Professor Sriram Mehrotra, a senior historian who has published on the origins of the Indian National Congress. Prof. Mehrotra explained that Rothney Castle had long been altered with only the front facade retained along with the wood-framed conservatories. He said I could go and ask the caretaker for permission to see the grounds. He was sorry that he could not accompany me as it was physically demanding and he said that "the place moved him to tears." Professor Mehrotra also told me about how he had decided to live in Shimla simply because of his interest in Hume! I left him and walked to Christ Church and took the left branch going up to Jakhoo with some hopes. I met the caretaker of Rothney Castle in the garden where she was walking her dogs on a flat lawn, probably the same garden at the end of which there once had been a star-shaped flower bed, scene of the infamous brooch incident with Madame Blavatsky (see the theosophy section in Hume's biography on Wikipedia). It was a bit of a disappointment however as the caretaker informed me that I could not see the grounds unless the owner who lived in Delhi permitted it. Rothney Castle has changed hands so many times that it probably has nothing to match with what Bowdler-Sharpe saw and the grounds may very soon be entirely unrecognizable but for the name plaque at the entrance. Another patch of land in front of Rothney Castle was being prepared for what might become a multi-storeyed building. A botanist friend had shown me a 19th century painting of Shimla made by Constance Frederica Gordon-Cumming. In her painting, the only building visible on Jakko Hill behind Christ Church is Rothney Castle. The vegetation on Shimla has definitely become denser with trees blocking the views.
 
So there ended my hopes of adding good views (free-licensed images are still misunderstood in India) of Rothney Castle to the Wikipedia article on Hume. I did however get a couple of photographs from the roadside. In 2014, I managed to visit the South London Botanical Institute which was the last of Hume's enterprises. This visit enabled the addition a few pictures of his herbarium collections as well as an illustration of his bookplate which carries his personal motto.

Clearly Shimla empowered Hume, provided a stimulating environment which included several local collaborators. Who were his local collaborators in Shimla? I have only recently discovered (and notes with references are now added to the Wikipedia entry for R. C. Tytler) that Robert (of Tytler's warbler fame - although named by W E Brooks) and Harriet Tytler (of Mt. Harriet fame) had established a kind of natural history museum at Bonnie Moon in Shimla with  Lord Mayo's support. The museum closed down after Robert's death in 1872, and it is said that Harriet offered the bird specimens to the government. It would appear that at least some part of this collection went to Hume. It is said that the collection was packed away in boxes around 1873. The collection later came into possession of Mr B. Bevan-Petman who apparently passed it on to the Lahore Central Museum in 1917.

Hume's idea of mapping rainfall
to examine patterns of avian distribution
It was under Lord Mayo that Hume rose in the government hierarchy. Hume was not averse to utilizing his power as Secretary of State to further his interests in birds. He organized the Lakshadweep survey with the assistance of the navy ostensibly to examine sites for a lighthouse. He made use of government machinery in the fisheries department (Francis Day) to help his Sind survey. He used the newly formed meteorological division of his own agricultural department to generate rainfall maps for use in Stray Feathers. He was probably the first to note the connection between rainfall and bird distributions, something that only Sharpe saw any special merit in. Perhaps placing specimens on those large tables described by Sharpe allowed Hume to see geographic trends.

Hume was also able to appreciate geology (in his youth he had studied with Mantell ), earth history and avian evolution. Hume had several geologists contributing to ornithology including Stoliczka and Ball. One wonders if he took an interest in paleontology given his proximity to the Shiwalik ranges. Hume invited Richard Lydekker to publish a major note on avian osteology for the benefit of amateur ornithologists. Hume also had enough time to speculate on matters of avian biology. A couple of years ago I came across this bit that Hume wrote in the first of his Nests and Eggs volumes (published post-ornith-humously in 1889):

Nests and Eggs of Indian birds. Vol 1. p. 199
I wrote immediately to Tim Birkhead, the expert on evolutionary aspects of bird reproduction and someone with an excellent view of ornithological history (his Ten Thousand Birds is a must read for anyone interested in the subject) and he agreed that Hume had been an early and insightful observer to have suggested female sperm storage.

Shimla life was clearly a lot of hob-nobbing and people like Lord Mayo were spending huge amounts of time and money just hosting parties. Turns out that Lord Mayo even went to Paris to recruit a chef and brought in an Italian,  Federico Peliti. (His great-grandson has a nice website!) Unlike Hume, Peliti rose in fame after Lord Mayo's death by setting up a cafe which became the heart of Shimla's social life and gossip. Lady Lytton (Lord Lytton was the one who demoted Hume!) recorded that Simla folk "...foregathered four days a week for prayer meetings, and the rest of the time was spent in writing poisonous official notes about each other." Another observer recorded that "in Simla you could not hear your own voice for  the grinding of axes. But in 1884 the grinders were few. In the course of my service I saw much of Simla society,  and I think it would compare most favourably with any other town of English-speaking people of the same size. It was bright and gay. We all lived, so to speak, in glass houses. The little bungalows perched on the mountainside wherever there was a ledge, with their winding paths under the pine trees, leading to our only road, the Mall." (Lawrence, Sir Walter Roper (1928) The India We Served.)

A view from Peliti's (1922).
Peliti's other contribution was in photography and it seems like he worked with Felice Beato who also influenced Harriet Tytler and her photography. I asked a couple of Shimla folks about the historic location of Peliti's cafe and they said it had become the Grand Hotel (now a government guest house). I subsequently found that Peliti did indeed start Peliti's Grand Hotel, which was destroyed in a fire in 1922, but the centre of Shimla's social life, his cafe, was actually next to the Combermere Bridge (it ran over a water storage tank and is today the location of the lift that runs between the Mall and the Cart Road). A photograph taken from "Peliti's" clearly lends support for this location as do descriptions in Thacker's New Guide to Simla (1925). A poem celebrating Peliti's was published in Punch magazine in 1919. Rudyard Kipling was a fan of Peliti's but Hume was no fan of Kipling (Kipling seems to have held a spiteful view of liberals - "Pagett MP" has been identified by some as being based on W.S.Caine, a friend of Hume; Hume for his part had a lifelong disdain for journalists. Kipling's boss, E.K. Robinson started the British Naturalists' Association while E.K.R.'s brother Philip probably influenced Eha.

While Hume most likely stayed well away from Peliti's, we see that a kind of naturalists social network existed within the government. About Lord Mayo we read: 
Lord Mayo and the Natural History of India - His Excellency Lord Mayo, the Viceroy of India, has been making a very valuable collection of natural historical objects, illustrative of the fauna, ornithology, &c., of the Indian Empire. Some portion of these valuable acquisitions, principally birds and some insects, have been brought to England, and are now at 49 Wigmore Street, London, whence they will shortly be removed. - Pertshire Advertiser, 29 December 1870.
Another news report states:
The Early of Mayo's collection of Indian birds, &c.

Amids the cares of empire, the Earl of Mayo, the present ruler of India, has found time to form a valuable collection of objects illustrative of the natural history of the East, and especially of India. Some of these were brought over by the Countess when she visited England a short time since, and entrusted to the hands of Mr Edwin Ward, F.Z.S., for setting and arrangement, under the particular direction of the Countess herself. This portion, which consists chiefly of birds and insects, was to be seen yesterday at 49, Wigmore street, and, with the other objects accumulated in Mr Ward's establishment, presented a very striking picture. There are two library screens formed from the plumage of the grand argus pheasant- the head forward, the wing feathers extended in circular shape, those of the tail rising high above the rest. The peculiarities of the plumage hae been extremely well preserved. These, though surrounded by other birds of more brilliant covering, preserved in screen pattern also, are most noticeable, and have been much admired. There are likewise two drawing-room screens of smaller Indain birds (thrush size) and insects. They are contained in glass cases, with frames of imitation bamboo, gilt. These birds are of varied and bright colours, and some of them are very rare. The Countess, who returned to India last month, will no doubt,add to the collection when she next comes back to England, as both the Earl and herself appear to take a great interest in Illustrating the fauna and ornithology of India. The most noticeable object, however, in Mr. Ward's establishment is the representation of a fight between two tigers of great size. The gloss, grace, and spirit of the animals are very well preserved. The group is intended as a present to the Prince of Wales. It does not belong to the Mayo Collection. - The Northern Standard, January 7, 1871
And Hume's subsequent superior was Lord Northbrook about whom we read:
University and City Intelligence. - Lord Northbrook has presented to the University a valuable collection of skins of the game birds of India collected for him by Mr. A.O.Hume, C.B., a distinguished Indian ornithologist. Lord Northbrook, in a letter to Dr. Acland, assures him that the collection is very perfec, if not unique. A Decree was passed accepting the offer, and requesting the Vice-Chancellor to convey the thanks of the University to the donor. - Oxford Journal, 10 February 1877
Papilio mayo
Clearly Lord Mayo and his influence on naturalists in India is not sufficiently well understood. Perhaps that would explain the beautiful butterfly named after him shortly after his murder. It appears that Hume did not have this kind of hobby association with Lord Lytton, little wonder perhaps that he fared so badly!

Despite Hume's sharpness on many matters there were bits that come across as odd. In one article on the flight of birds he observes the soaring of crows and vultures behind his house as he sits in the morning looking towards Mahassu. He points out that these soaring birds would appear early on warm days and late on cold days but he misses the role of thermals and mixes physics with metaphysics, going for a kind of Grand Unification Theory:

And then claims that crows, like saints, sages and yogis are capable of "aethrobacy".
This naturally became a target of ridicule. We have already seen the comments of E.H. Hankin on this. Hankin wrote that if levitation was achieved by "living an absolutely pure life and intense religious concentration" the hill crow must be indulging in "irreligious sentiments when trying to descend to earth without  the help of gravity." Hankin despite his studies does not give enough credit for the forces of lift produced by thermals and his own observations were critiqued by Gilbert Walker, the brilliant mathematican who applied his mind to large scale weather patterns apart from conducting some amazing research on the dynamics of boomerangs. His boomerang research had begun even in his undergraduate years and had earned him the nickname of Boomerang Walker. On my visit to Shimla, I went for a long walk down the quiet road winding through dense woodland and beside streams to Annandale, the only large flat ground in Shimla where Sir Gilbert Walker conducted his weekend research on boomerangs. Walker's boomerang research mentions a collaboration with Oscar Eckenstein and there are some strange threads connecting Eckenstein, his collaborator Aleister Crowley and Hume's daughter Maria Jane Burnley who would later join the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. But that is just speculation!
1872 Map showing Rothney Castle

The steep road just below Rothney Castle

Excavation for new constructions just below and across the road from Rothney Castle

The embankment collapsing below the guard hut

The lower entrance, concrete constructions replace the old building

The guard hut and home are probably the only heritage structures left


I got back from Annandale and then walked down to Phagli on the southern slope of Shimla to see the place where my paternal grandfather once lived. It is not a coincidence that Shimla and my name are derived from the local deity Shyamaladevi (a version of Kali).


The South London Botanical Institute

After returning to England, Hume took an interest in botany. He made herbarium collections and in 1910 he established the South London Botanical Institute and left money in his will for its upkeep. The SLBI is housed in a quiet residential area. Here are some pictures I took in 2014, most can be found on Wikipedia.


Dr Roy Vickery displaying some of Hume's herbarium specimens

Specially designed cases for storing the herbarium sheets.

The entrance to the South London Botanical Institute

A herbarium sheet from the Hume collection

 
Hume's bookplate with personal motto - Industria et Perseverentia

An ornate clock which apparently adorned Rothney Castle
A special cover released by Shimla postal circle in 2012

Further reading
 Postscript

 An antique book shop had a set of Hume's Nests and Eggs (Second edition) and it bore the signature of "R.W.D. Morgan" - it appears that there was a BNHS member of that name from Calcutta c. 1933. It is unclear if it is the same person as Rhodes Morgan, who was a Hume correspondent and forest officer in Wynaad/Malabar who helped William Ruxton Davison.
Update:  Henry Noltie of RBGE pointed out to me privately that this is cannot be the forester Rhodes Morgan who died in 1919! - September, 2016.