Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Roxburgh, William
ROXBURGH, WILLIAM (1751–1815), botanist, was born at Underwood, Craigie, Ayrshire, 3 June 1751. From the village school he proceeded to the university of Edinburgh, where he studied botany under Professor John Hope (1725–1786) [q. v.] By Hope's influence, when qualified, he obtained in 1766 an appointment as surgeon's mate on one of the East India Company's ships. After making several voyages and graduating as M.D., he accepted an appointment as assistant surgeon on the company's Madras establishment. He arrived at Madras in 1776, and during the following two years he was, according to the manuscript of his ‘Flora Indica’ (now in the botanical department of the British Museum), ‘in large practice at the General Hospital at Madras.’ In 1780 he became full surgeon. In 1781 he was stationed at Samulcotta, about seven miles from Coconada, and twenty-two miles from one of the mouths of the Godavery. Here he cultivated coffee, cinnamon, nutmeg, arnatto, bread-fruit, indigo, and peppers, experimentally, and studied sugar-growing and silkworm-rearing with a view to improving native methods. He made large collections of plants, and until 1785 employed a native draughtsman, while he added sketches of dissections and notes on native uses of the plants. In 1785 he attended John Gerard Koenig professionally in his last illness, and at Koenig's request forwarded all his papers to Sir Joseph Banks. Roxburgh seems to have been formally appointed the company's ‘Botanist in the Carnatic;’ but in 1787 he lost most of his collections and papers in an inundation, and it was not until 1791 that the first parcel of his drawings was received by the company in England. By 1794 he had sent home five hundred, and from these Sir Joseph Banks selected three hundred which were reproduced life-size in colour in the three sumptuous folio volumes entitled ‘Plants of the Coast of Coromandel,’ published by the company in 1795, 1802, and 1819. Others were issued on a smaller scale in Robert Wight's ‘Illustrations of Indian Botany,’ 1838–40.
On the death, in 1793, of Colonel Robert Kyd [q. v.], the founder and first superintendent of the Calcutta Botanic Garden, Roxburgh was appointed to his post. He built the existing residence in the garden for the superintendent. From 1797 to 1799 and from 1805 to 1808 he was in England, owing to ill-health. Roxburgh was an active member of the Asiatic Society; in 1790 he had been made M.D. of Marischal College and University of Aberdeen, and fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, Edinburgh; he was elected a fellow of the Linnean Society in 1799; and was also a fellow of the Society of Arts and of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. The Society of Arts thrice awarded him its gold medal for his services in reference to Indian fibres. In 1813 his health finally broke down. He retired to the Cape, then to St. Helena, and to England. He died at Park Place, Edinburgh, 18 Feb. 1815, and was buried in the Greyfriars churchyard, in the tomb of the Boswells of Auchinlech, the family of his third wife.
Roxburgh married (1) Miss Bonté, probably the daughter of the governor of Penang, by whom he had one daughter, Mary, who married Henry Stone, B.C.S.; (2) Miss Huttenmann, by whom he had five sons, three of whom entered the Indian army, and three daughters; and (3) Miss Boswell, by whom he had a son William and two daughters. In 1822 some of his friends erected a pillar to his memory on a mound near the great banyan tree in the Calcutta Garden, bearing a Latin inscription by Bishop Heber. Dryander dedicated to him the genus Roxburghia, an evergreen Indian climber which was said to symbolise the manner in which he had made Indian botany his ‘ladder of success’ (Cottage Gardener, 1851, vi. 65).
On leaving India in 1813 Roxburgh left William Carey, D.D. [q. v.], in charge of the Calcutta Garden, leaving also in his hands the manuscript ‘Hortus Bengalensis,’ one of his two copies of his manuscript ‘Flora Indica,’ and 2,533 life-size coloured drawings of plants with dissections. Carey published the ‘Hortus Bengalensis’ in 1814. It is in two parts. Of these the first was a catalogue of 3,500 species in the Calcutta Garden, only three hundred of which had been there when Roxburgh arrived in 1793, while fifteen hundred had been named and described by him. The second part consisted of a catalogue of 453 species in the manuscript ‘Flora Indica’ which were not in the garden; most of them were also new to science. In 1820 Carey decided to publish the ‘Flora’ with additions by Nathaniel Wallich [q. v.], then superintendent of the Calcutta Garden, who had made large collections in Nipal and Malacca. The first volume, which contains little by Wallich, was printed at the Mission Press, Serampore, in 1820, and the second, which contains many notes by Wallich, in 1824; the scheme went no further. In 1832 Carey published a complete edition of the ‘Flora,’ without Wallich's additions, in three octavo volumes, at the request and expense of the author's two sons, Captains Bruce and James Roxburgh. This edition having become scarce and costly, Mr. C. B. Clarke in 1874 published, at his own expense, a verbatim reprint, in one volume, printed at Calcutta, with the addition of Roxburgh's account of the Indian cryptogams which had not been included by Carey, but had been printed by William Griffith [q. v.] in the ‘Calcutta Journal of Natural History,’ vol. iv. (1844). Though arranged on the Linnean system and with a nomenclature largely obsolete, Roxburgh's book is still not only a mine of wealth on Indian economic botany, but also the only compendious guide to the plants of the plains.
The manuscript copy of the ‘Flora Indica’ which Roxburgh took to England with him he submitted to Robert Brown. This is now in the botanical department of the British Museum, and it contains many notes by both Roxburgh and Brown that are not in the printed editions.
Besides these works, Roxburgh published a ‘Botanical Description of a New Species of Swietenia or Mahogany,’ London, 1793, 4to; a number of letters on Indian fibres in the ‘Transactions of the Society of Arts,’ vol. xxii. (1804), and papers in ‘Asiatic Researches,’ vols. ii.–xi., Nicholson's ‘Journal,’ ‘Tilloch's Philosophical Magazine,’ ‘Transactions of the London Medical Society,’ vol. i. (1810), and ‘Transactions of the Linnean Society,’ vols. vii. and xxi. These mostly deal with Indian botany, especially from an economic standpoint; they treat, for instance, of hemp, caoutchouc, teak, the butter-tree and the sugar-cane, but they include others on the lac insect, on a species of dolphin from the Ganges, on silkworms, and on land winds.
Wallich seems to have distributed Roxburgh's dried specimens, so that no set now exists; but his numerous detailed drawings largely compensate for this loss. These drawings were copied for Kew, at the expense of Sir W. J. Hooker.
There is an engraved portrait of Roxburgh by C. Warren in the ‘Transactions of the Society of Arts,’ vol. xxxiii. (1815), and an enlarged photo-etching of this forms the frontispiece of ‘Annals of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Calcutta,’ vol. v. (1895), a volume which is dedicated to Roxburgh's memory.[Brief Memoir by Dr. G. King in Annals of Royal Botanic Gardens, Calcutta, vol. v. (1895); The Cottage Gardener, 1851, vi. 65; the prefaces to Roxburgh's works.]