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Dr. Nathaniel Wallich (1786-1854)

Wallichia disticha, one species of a genus of palms named after Dr. Nathaniel Wallich. Native to India and South East Asia.

Nathaniel Wallich was born at Copenhagen, in Denmark on January 28, 1786. In 1806 Wallich obtained the diploma of the Royal Academy of Surgeons at Copenhagen and in the autumn of that year was appointed Surgeon to the Danish settlement at Serampore, then known as Frederischnagor in Bengal. He sailed for India in April 1807 and arrived at Serampore in the following November after a long sea voyage around the African Cape.

The Danish alliance with Napoleon turned disastrous and resulted in many Danish colonies being seized by the British, including the outpost at Serampore. Wallich was held as a prisoner of war but later, in 1809, he was released from his parole on the merit of his scholarship. On his release Wallich was appointed assistant to William Roxburgh, the East India Company's botanist in Calcutta. Although ill health forced Wallich to spend the years 1811-1813 in the relatively more temperate climate of Mauritius, he still pursued his studies.

Wallich's keen interest in the native flora and fauna of India, and his scholarly work with collecting and cataloguing was making impressions both locally and abroad. As a member of the Asiatic Society Wallich was the driving influence behind the Society's foundation of the Oriental Museum of the Asiatic Society in February 1814. Offering both his services and a number of items from his own collections Wallich founded the museum and took charge as the Honorary Curator and then Superintendent. However, Geranium wallichianum by Walter Hood Fitch       circa 1840 for Curtis Botanical Magazine.Wallich continued to work in the medical profession and by August 1814 he was working as Assistant Surgeon for the East India Company and consequently he had to resign as Superintendent of the Museum in December 1814.

The Museum, later known as the Indian Museum in Calcutta, thrived under the guidance of its enthusiastic founder and the many collectors he supported and inspired. Most of them were Europeans except a solitary Indian, Babu Ramkamal Sen, initially a Collector and later the first Indian Secretary to the Asiatic Society.

Wallich had been involved with the East India Company's Botanical Garden at Calcutta almost from the day he arrived, but took on a permanent position as Superintendent of the Garden in 1817. Although he continued his duties at the Museum, by 1819 he devoted himself entirely to the garden.

As a well respected botanist Nathaniel Wallich prepared a catalogue of more than 20,000 specimens, published two important books -- Tentamen Flora Nepalensis Illustratae (1824-26) and Plantae Asiaticae Rariories (1830-32) and went on a number of expeditions himself. However, one of Wallich's greatest contributions to field of plant exploration was the assistance he regularly offered to the many plant hunters who stopped in Calcutta on their way to the Himalayas.

Map of India and Burma by the premier English cartographer, John Arrowsmith, circa 1828.

Wallich was responsible for packing many of the specimens that came through the gardens on the way to England, and over the years he developed some innovative methods, including packing seeds in brown sugar. Strange as it may seem, the sugar preserved and protected the seeds very well and, in fact, Wallich had one of the best records for keeping plant material alive for shipping prior to the development of the Wardian Case.

Wallich retired to London in 1847 and died there on April 28, 1854.

On the occasion of his bicentenary, in 1986, the Indian Museum instituted an annual lecture series in memory of the founder of the museum movement in India.

Although Wallich's main herbarium is at Kew (K-WALL), there are numerous duplicate specimens at the Botanical Museum, Copenhagen.



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