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The first snakeman of India

FATHER OF INDIAN OPHIOLOGY Dr. Patrick Russell (Courtesy: Chennai Snake Park Trust)

FATHER OF INDIAN OPHIOLOGY Dr. Patrick Russell (Courtesy: Chennai Snake Park Trust)  



Accompanying some visitors to the Snake Park the other day, I was brought up short when one of them asked me who the Russell was after whom the Russell's Viper was named and, irreverent humorist that he was, went on to wonder, with a chortle, whether the naming had anything to do with the metaphorical allusion to the species. I had no ready answer to the first part of the question, but to the aside I recalled Rom Whitaker once telling me that snakes were anything but treacherous or spiteful. Before long, however, I discovered - when I remembered where I could find out about Russell - that Dr. Patrick Russell, M.D. was another one of those patron saints of knowledge about India. What I remembered was that B. Vijayaraghavan, a former Civilian who had got interested in snakes and is now the Chairman of the Chennai Snake Park Trust, had a few months ago sent me an `Occasional Paper' he'd written titled Snake Studies: India. Referring to it I found that it had been published last July to mark the bicentenary of the man it called the `Father of Indian Ophiology'. In passing, Vijayaraghavan draws attention to the fact that Alan Octavian Hume, who is better remembered for his inspirational contribution to the forming of the Indian National Congress, is the `Father of Indian Ornithology'. Russell came out to `Vizagapatpnam' in 1781 at the age of 54 to tend a brother, an East India Company Civilian who was in poor health. His interest in the plants of the area led to the Government of Madras appointing him in 1785 the Company's `Botanist and Naturalist' in the Carnatic, the first. Writes Vijayaraghavan, "The creation of a post of `Botanist and Naturalist' by the East India Company more than 200 years ago speaks of the far-sightedness of the Company." The post, according to Ray Desmond who wrote European Discovery of Indian Flora (1992), was demanding: "The Company's expectations of their Naturalist were excessively optimistic. He was presumed to be a linguist, demographer, antiquarian, meteorologist, mineralogist and zoologist (in addition to being a botanist)." During his six years in the Madras Presidency, Russell proved he was all this and more. It was the snakebite victims he treated that got him interested in snakes, beginning with one particular species that was known in Telugu as Katuka Rekula Poda. It was this snake that was taking a heavy toll of life in the Andhra country; it was later named the Russell's Viper. His identification of snakes and study of their characteristics culminated in the publication in Britain, between 1796 and 1809, of the first detailed documentation of Indian snakes. His two-volume, five-part (two parts were published posthumously) work was titled An Account of Indian Serpents Collected on the Coast of Coromandel. All the drawings for the Account were done by him. He also took back to Britain in 1791 a huge collection of snakeskins, which he presented to the Natural History Museum, London. Russell also collected during his stay on the Coromandel 900 herbarium specimens. Curiously, his pioneering work on plant life is not mentioned in the same breath as his successors in Madras, William Roxburgh - who is described as the `Father of Indian Botany' - Francis Buchanan-Hamilton, Robert Wight, George Walker-Arnott, Alexander Gibson, Walter Elliott and Hugh Cleghorn. Even more curious is the fact that all were linked by an Edinburgh tradition - all but Elliott studied at the University of Edinburgh; Elliott, however, was born in Edinburgh, thus keeping the connection between Edinburgh and Indian Botany alive. S. MUTHIAH





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