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Fruits of the earth: plants in the service of mankind

The garden at Saharanpur

John Forbes Royle (1798-1858) was an East Indian Company surgeon whose real passion was botany. In 1823 he was posted to a military station at Saharanpur in northern India, an appointment which also included superintendence of the town’s botanical garden, founded by the East India Company in 1750, and which thus gave him, at the age of 25, the opportunity to devote himself to the study of Indian plants.

Plan of the botanic garden at Saharanpur, with areas allocated to a medicinal garden, a Linnean garden, nurseries, a rockery and a Hindu templePlan of the botanic garden at SaharanpurRoyle employed agents to collect plants for him from across India and became interested in traditional Hindu or Ayurvedic medicine, believing it to have much in common with the medicine of Ancient Greece and to employ many of the same herbal remedies.

European medicine, he concluded, had much to learn from its Indian counterpart, and he later published the results of his researches in an Essay on the antiquity of Hindoo medicine, including an introductory lecture to the course of materia medica and therapeutics, delivered at King's College (1837).

In 1836 Royle was appointed to the chair of materia medica at King’s College London. He went on to become a pillar of the London scientific establishment, serving on the councils of the Linnean Society and the Royal Society and acting as secretary to the Geological Society and the Royal Horticultural Society.

At Saharanpur Royle took a particular interest in economically useful plants, comparing the productivity of different species. The plate shown here, one of many coloured plates in his magnificent two-volume study of the botany of the Himalayas, is a plan of the Saharanpur botanical garden. It shows areas allocated to a ‘medicinal garden’, an ‘agricultural garden’ and a ‘Linnean garden’, as well as nurseries for seedlings, fruit trees and hill plants, a rockery and a Hindu temple.

In this book Royle recommends the introduction of the cinchona plant to India, a suggestion which was eventually approved by the governor-general of India in 1852. Royle went on to draw up a useful report on the subject, but it was not until after his death that the scheme was carried out by Clements Markham (see case 7).

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