Presidency College herbarium in need of preservation

Teachers go through books at the herbarium at Presidency College, Chennai. Photo: S. Thanthoni  

M.J. Prabu

It has over 15,000 specimens collected since 1884

CHENNAI: The majestic red building has seen two World Wars and several important political and national incidents.

One of Chennai's landmarks and an institution known as the "mother of the University of Madras", Presidency College houses a herbarium that is over 100 years old. (For the uninitiated, a herbarium is a collection of plant specimens that have been dried, pressed and arranged in a sequential classification, and is available for reference and scientific study.)

The herbarium is in the department of plant biology and plant biotechnology (botany department) and it has over 15,000 specimens collected from around the world since 1884.

It was established by the late Prof. F.Y. Fyson of the college. "This herbarium has links with the Kew Herbarium in London and is given the code name Herbarium Collegii Presidentiae Madrasensis," said M. Danushkodi, college principal.

According to A. Ajitha Doss, head, department of plant biotechnology, "The collection of certain plant species from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in 1870 is the oldest. All these collections were made possible by people such as A. Loher, Bourne and C.A. Berber. It was Fyson who in 1900 started arranging the herbarium according to the natural system of classification," Prof. Ajitha Doss said, adding that, "Mr. Fyson, who was also the principal, has personally collected more than 5,000 plant species for the herbarium." he said.

"Some of the plant species in the herbarium are extinct and some of them are not found at present," said Prof. Danushkodi.

Book collection

There are several books more than 120 years old, which have been colourfully painted with vegetable dyes.

The paintings, which are more than 100 years old, are still intact with the colours still bright and appealing.

The botanists of those days were also very good artists who had drawn all their observations painstakingly. But, the herbarium is hardly in a good shape today.

Most of these plant species are kept in old wooden cupboards.

The books are infested with termites, a problem that turns acute during the monsoon.

Though the State Government extends a small amount to maintain the specimens, a lot more has to be done.

An increase in the allocation of funds from the UGC will be of great help now, said Prof. Ajitha Doss.

"The UGC has its own guidelines for allocating funds to institutions which are more than 100 years old. Though our college received some amount many years back, it is time that the UGC reviewed its perspective of increasing its allocation of funds," said Prof. Danushkodi.

Some of the students expressed their difficulty in reading the books kept in the herbarium.

A research student says most of the books are in bad shape and that the pages are brittle. They break into powder on touch. "Unlike other books, the reference books cannot be taken down from the shelves as they crumble and moisture has caused some of them to stick to the shelves," says the student.

They feel the books need steel racks, and that the collections must be indexed. Then they can be digitisated or microfilmed for posterity.

"We can only offer suggestions and hope for remedial measures from the Government," said Prof. Danushkodi.