Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91

Vol. XXVIII No. 18, January 1-15, 2019

From India’s Digital Archives

- Karthik Bhatt

Introducing Madras to the scientists

The Digital Library of India (DLI) project, an initiative of the Central Government, aims at digitising significant artistic, literary and scientific works and making them available over the Internet for education and research. Begun in 2000 by the Office of the Principal Scientific Advisor to the Government of India and later taken over by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, it has to date scanned nearly 5.5 lakh books, predominantly in Indian languages.

The 106th session of the Indian Science Congress, the country’s premier conclave of science was held between 3rd and 7th January 2019 at the Lovely Professional University, Jalandhar. The Indian Science Congress Association, Kolkata, which organises this annual convention has a Madras connect to its founding, for one of its founders J.L. Simonsen, was a distinguished Professor of Chemistry at the Presidency College. Commemorating this connect, the book featured in this issue is the Madras Handbook, published in 1922 on the occasion of the session held in Madras that year.

The idea for forming an association for the advancement of science in India on the lines of the British Association for the Advancement of Science was brought about by Prof. J.L. Simonsen and Prof MacMahon of the Canning College around 1911 or so. The main objects were to provide a forum for the interaction between scientists across the country, paving the way for a more coordinated effort in scientific research and to give a more systematic direction to scientific enquiry. Scientific research and studies in India until that point in time were solely under the domain of the Asiatic Society. In fact, the first meeting of the Science Congress was held in Kolkata under its auspices and in its building in 1914, coinciding with the centenary of the Indian Museum.

The Science Congress came to Madras in 1922 for its ninth session and was held between January 30th and February 2nd. C.S. Middlemiss, former Director of the Geological Survey of India, was elected its President. It marked a return to the city after seven years, for the second session was held here in 1915. A handbook “to provide members with such information as to the City and Presidency of Madras and the scientific work that is being carried on there” was prepared on the occasion. It was edited by Clive Newcomb, the Chemical Examiner to the Government of Madras.

The book is divided into seventeen chapters covering a wide range of topics, starting with a brief history of Madras by Henry Dodwell, the Curator of the Madras Records Office. The other chapters include a sketch of Fort St George by the Rev C de la Bere, the Garrison Chaplain, a note on the Madras City Waterworks by one of its key personalities, J.W. Madeley and a brief history of the Madras Corporation by J.C. Molony.

Of particular interest are the chapters on the city’s premier research laboratory, The King Institute of Preventive Medicine, by its Director, Major John Cunningham, and the Biological Work in Madras. The King Institute, named after Colonel King, late Sanitary Commissioner, was founded in 1903 as a lymph depot for the supply of vaccine lymph to the Madras Presidency and grew to become one of the largest Provincial laboratories in the country, supplying over two million doses of the lymph vaccine annually. Its Microbiological Section was responsible for the clinical diagnosis of a bacteriological nature required by various medical institutions in the Presidency. It served as the headquarters of the Kala-Azar Commission in Madras in 1912.

The chapter on the Biological Work in Madras gives due recognition to the fact that the Presidency was the scene of the earliest biological work done in India, first by the Dutch and then the British. Hortus Malabaricus, a seminal work dealing with the flora of the Western Ghats, published over twelve volumes between 1686 and 1703, was commissioned by Henry Van Reede, the Governor of Dutch Malabar as early as 1674. Yet another seminal work that had part origins in the Presidency was Flora Indica by William Roxburgh, dealing with the flora of the entire country. Roxburgh arrived in Madras in 1776 as Assistant Surgeon and was later transferred to Kolkata. While in Madras, his main botanical work was on the flora of the Coromandel, published in a series of colour plates.

With each chapter being written by people who, to quote from the foreword, are “specially qualified to write it”, the book is a must read as a curtain-raiser for those interested in an in-depth study of the Presidency.

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