Nathaniel Wallich (1786 - 1854)

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Wallich was a Dane, born in Copenhagen, who trained as a surgeon but also studied botany. In 1807 he was appointed Surgeon in the Danish settlement at Serampore, in Bengal. However, because Denmark was allied with Napoleon the colony was seized by the British, and Wallich was imprisoned. Released on parole in 1809 he was employed as a surgeon by the East India Company and later as the company's botanist in Calcutta, taking great interest in the flora and natural vegetation of India.

Ill health forced Wallich to spend the years 1811-1813 in the more temperate climate of Mauritius, but he was able to continue his studies, and became Superintendent of the Indian Museum in Calcutta in 1814. On the occasion of his bi-centenary, in 1986, the Indian Museum instituted a prestigious annual lecture series to cherish the memory of the doyen of the museum movement in India.

He was appointed temporary Superintendent of East India Company's Botanical Garden at Calcutta, permanently joining the Garden in 1817 and serving there till 1846 when he retired from the service.

In 1822, Wallich was asked by his friend Sir Stamford Raffles to choose a site for Singapores first Botanic Gardens, and staked out a forty eight acre site. Wallich was appointed Superintendent of the Botanic Gardens, but left Singapore in January 1823 to return to Calcutta. The first Botanic Gardens in Singapore had a short lifetime, and came to an end in 1829 to be re-established on another site thirty years later. Mount Wallich, a striking landmark in Singapore, was named after Nathaniel Wallich but the area was shortly afterwards flattened for reclaiming land from a swamp.

He published two books and went on numerous expeditions, but perhaps his greatest contribution to botany was the assistance he regularly offered to the many plant hunters who stopped in Calcutta on their way to the Himalayas. He also employed native collectors, and made use of the pilgrims en route to the sacred mountain of Gosain Than in the Himalayas, by asking them to bring him plants on their return.

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

Wallich corresponded with both Sir Joseph Banks and Charles Darwin, and when he retired in 1847 it was to London. He died there on April 28, 1854.

Many plants are named after him including the palm genus Wallichia, which has six or seven undergrowth species from the mountainous foothills of the Himalayas.

Contributed by:

Ian Edwards

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