Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Atkinson, James (1780-1852)
ATKINSON, JAMES (1780–1852), an accomplished Persian scholar, was born in the county of Durham, 9 March 1780. After studying medicine at Edinburgh and London, he accepted the post of medical officer on board an East Indiaman, and in 1805 was appointed an assistant surgeon in the Bengal service, and placed in medical charge of the station of Backergunj, near Dacca. In the leisure afforded by his not very arduous duties he devoted himself with considerable success to the study of Persian and other oriental tongues; and his linguistic attainments having attracted the attention of the governor-general, Lord Minto, with whom learning was ever a strong recommendation, Atkinson was invited to Calcutta in 1813, and given the appointment of assistant assay master at the mint, which he retained till 1828, with a brief intermission in 1818, when he filled the deputy chair of Persian in Fort William College, and another interval in 1826–7, when he revisited England. In addition to his appointment at the mint, he held the post of superintendent of the ‘Government Gazette’ from 1817; and when the official connection of the government with that print was discontinued in 1823, the proprietors were induced by the success which had attended Atkinson's management to confide both the ‘Gazette’ and the ‘Press’ to his sole charge. Under his editorship the ‘Gazette’ was supplied with valuable statistical and topographical information on little-known parts of India. After a second visit to England in 1828–33, Atkinson returned to his original profession, as surgeon to the 55th regiment of native infantry. In 1838 he was appointed superintending surgeon to the army of the Indus, and accompanied it on its march to Kabul; but was relieved in ordinary course of routine shortly after the surrender of Dost Mohammad, and, returning to Bengal in 1841, escaped the fate which awaited the army of occupation. He was appointed a member of the medical board in 1845, retired in 1847 after forty-two years of service, and died of apoplexy, 7 Aug. 1852.
Atkinson's Persian translations are his chief title to fame, and of these his selections from the ‘Shâh Nâmeh’ of Firdausi are the most notable, inasmuch as they were the first attempt to make the great Persian ‘Epic of Kings’ familiar to English readers. He first published the episode of ‘Sohrab,’ in Persian with a free English translation, in 1814, and after a long interval ‘The Shah Nameh, translated and abridged by James Atkinson,’ was issued in the publications (and won the gold medal) of the Oriental Translation Fund in 1832, to which the earlier excerpt was appended. Next in importance stands his verse translation of Nizâmi's ‘Leyla and Mejnûn’ (Orient. Trans. Fund, 1836). The ‘Expedition into Affghanistan: Notes and Sketches made in the Campaign 1839–40’ (London, 1842), is a valuable and interesting personal narrative, and the supplementary ‘Sketches in Affghanistan’ (fol. 1842), containing a series of lithographed drawings, serve to complete the picture of what was then an unexplored country. From early youth Atkinson had shown a talent for rhyming. His first published poem was a romance called ‘Rodolpho’ (Edinburgh, 1801). His selections from the ‘Shâh Nâmeh’ are partly in verse. He also wrote ‘The Aubid: an Eastern Tale,’ in verse, 1819; ‘The City of Palaces, a Fragment, and other Poems,’ 1824; translations from the Italian, Ugo Foscolo's ‘Ricciarda,’ 1823, and Alessandro Tassoni's ‘La Secchia Rapita,’ 1825. An edition of the popular Persian romance of ‘Hatim Taee,’ 1818; ‘The Customs and Manners of the Women of Persia,’ an amusing translation of a Persian essay on harîm life, 1832; his one professional treatise, ‘Description of the New Process of perforating and destroying the Stone in the Bladder,’ 1831; contributions to the ‘Calcutta Annual Register,’ 1821–2; and a solitary political squib, ‘Prospectus of the Calcutta Liberal,’ 1824, complete the list of Atkinson's publications. Accomplished both in literature and art, at once a scholar and a popular writer, James Atkinson holds an honourable place among the pioneers of oriental research.
[Annual Report of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, Proceedings of the Thirtieth Anniversary Meeting, 1853.]