Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Griffith, William (1810-1845)
GRIFFITH, WILLIAM (1810–1845), botanist, youngest son of Thomas Griffith, was born at Ham Common, near Petersham, Surrey, on 4 March 1810. He was educated for the medical profession, and completed his studies at University College, then recently established under the name of the University of London. Here he was a pupil of Dr. Lindley, under whose instructions, and in company with zealous companions, his progress was rapid in the attainment of botanic knowledge. His first published work appeared in Dr. Wallich's third volume of the ‘Plantæ Asiaticæ rariores,’ in the shape of a microscopic delineation of the wood and an analysis of the flower of Phytocrene gigantea, and in a note on the development and structure of Targionia hypophylla, also in a paper of Mirbel's, all of these being published in 1832. In May of that year he sailed from England for India, which was destined to be the scene of his marvellous labours. He reached Madras on 24 Sept., and was forthwith appointed assistant-surgeon in the service of the East India Company.
His first station was on the coast of Tenasserim, but in 1835 he was attached to the Bengal presidency, and was chosen to form one of an expedition, with Dr. Wallich and himself as botanists, and Dr. MacClelland as geologist, to inspect the tea-forests of Assam and explore the natural history of that almost unknown district.
This was the beginning of a series of journeys through nearly the whole of the company's possessions, resulting in large collections in every branch of natural history, especially botany. Under the direction of Captain Jenkins, the commissioner, he pushed his investigations to the extreme east of the Indian territory, traversing the unexplored tracts lying between Suddiya and Ava, through country which was not again traversed by Europeans till Burmah was annexed by England. He undertook a still more perilous expedition from Assam to Ava, and thence to Rangoon, in the course of which he was reported to have been assassinated. The hardships he underwent produced an attack of fever soon after his return to Calcutta, but on his recovery he was appointed surgeon to the embassy to Bhotan, under Major Pemberton. He took this opportunity of revisiting the Khasiya Hills, and, rejoining Major Pemberton at Goalpara, with him traversed four hundred miles of Bhotan territory, again reaching Calcutta about the end of June 1839. The following November found him attached to the army of the Indus, and, after the fall of Cabul, he penetrated beyond the Hindoo Koosh into Khorassan, whence, as well as from Afghanistan, he brought collections of great extent and value. During these arduous journeys he was frequently prostrated by illness, but his strong constitution enabled him to triumph over his attacks, while his mental energy impelled him to active work during the early days of his convalescence. He was again at Calcutta in August 1841, and, after visiting Simla, he was appointed to Malacca on medical duty, but was recalled in 1842 to take charge of the Calcutta botanic garden, Dr. Wallich, the superintendent, having proceeded to the Cape to re-establish his health. In conjunction with this duty he acted as botanical professor in the Medical College, Calcutta. Towards the close of 1844 Dr. Wallich resumed his post, and in September Griffith married Miss Henderson, sister of the wife of his brother, Captain Griffith. On 11 Dec. he left Calcutta for Malacca, where he arrived a month later; but on 31 Jan. he was attacked by hepatitis, gradually sank under it, and died on 9 Feb. 1845, his constitution having been completely undermined by previous hard work.
Comparatively little was published by Griffith during his lifetime, as he had set before himself the task of drawing up a general flora of India. To this end he had analysed, drawn, and described his plants as he collected them, and these notes, with his splendid collections, formed a good basis of operation. After his death the whole of these came into the possession of the East India Company. His manuscripts were confided to his friend Dr. MacClelland for publication, but, unfortunately for science, they were not properly edited, and the published volumes are disfigured by gross errors. The originals are in the library of the Kew herbarium, which also possesses a fine set of his plants. In the opinion of the highest living authority on Indian botany, Griffith was the acutest botanist who ever visitod India, but his unfortunate temper was the means of constantly involving him in quarrels with his brother officials.
His most important papers were published in the ‘Transactions of the Linnean Society,’ while shorter papers came out in the ‘Asiatic Researches,’ ‘Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal,’ ‘Medical and Physical Society of Calcutta,’ and the ‘Calcutta Journal of Natural History,’ which lapsed on his death.
The following were published posthumously by MacClelland: 1. ‘Icones Plantarum Asiaticarum,’ Calcutta, 1847-51, 4to. 2. ‘Itinerary Notes,’ Calcutta, 1848, 8vo. 3. ‘Palms of British East India,’ Calcutta, 1850, folio. 4. ‘Notulæ ad Plantas Asiaticas,’ Calcutta, 1851, 3 vols. 8vo.[Proc. Linnean Soc. i. 239-44; Jackson's Guide to Lit. of Botany, p. 553.]