Falconer, Hugh

FALCONER, HUGH (1808-1865), British palaeontologist and botanist, descended from an old Scottish family, was born at Forres on the 29th of February 1808. In 1826 he graduated at Aberdeen, where he manifested a taste for the study of natural history. He afterwards studied medicine in the university of Edinburgh, taking the degree of M.D. in 1829; during this period he zealously attended the botanical classes of Prof. R. Graham (1786-1845), and those on geology by Prof. R. Jameson. Proceeding to India in 1830 as assistant-surgeon on the Bengal establishment of the East India Company, he made on his arrival an examination of the fossil bones from Ava in the possession of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, and his description of the collection, published soon afterwards, gave him a recognized position among the scientists of India. Early in 1831 he was appointed to the army station at Meerut, in the Northwestern Provinces, but in the same year he was asked to officiate as superintendent of the botanic garden of Saharanpur, during the ill-health and absence of Dr J.F. Royle; and in 1832 he succeeded to this post. He was thus placed in a district that proved to be rich in palaeontological remains; and he set to work to investigate its natural history and geology. In 1834 he published a geological description of the Siwalik hills, in the Tertiary strata of which he had in 1831 discovered bones of crocodiles, tortoises and other animals; and subsequently, with conjoint labourers, he brought to light a sub-tropical fossil fauna of unexampled extent and richness, including remains of Mastodon, the colossal ruminant Sivatherium, and the enormous tortoise Colossochelys Atlas. For these valuable discoveries he and Captain (afterwards Sir Proby T.) Cautley (1802-1871) received in 1837 the Wollaston medal in duplicate from the Geological Society of London. In 1834 Falconer was appointed to inquire into the fitness of India for the growth of the tea-plant, and it was on his recommendation that it was introduced into that country.

He was compelled by illness to leave India in 1842, and during his stay in England he occupied himself with the classification and arrangement of the Indian fossils presented to the British Museum and East India House, chiefly by himself and Sir Proby T. Cautley. He then set to work to edit the great memoir by Cautley and himself, entitled Fauna Antiqua Sivalensis, of which Part I. text was issued in 1846, and a series of 107 plates during the years 1846-1849. Unfortunately the work, owing partly to Dr Falconer's absence from England and partly to ill-health, was never completed. He was elected F.R.S. in 1845. In 1847 he was appointed superintendent of the Calcutta botanical garden, and professor of botany in the medical college; and on entering on his duties in the following year he was at once employed by the Indian government and the Agricultural and Horticultural Society as their adviser on all matters connected with the vegetable products of India. He prepared an important report on the teak forests of Tenasserim, and this was the means of saving them from destruction by reckless felling; and through his recommendation the cultivation of the cinchona bark was introduced into the Indian empire. Being compelled by the state of his health to leave India in 1855, he spent the remainder of his life chiefly in examining fossil species in England and the Continent corresponding to those which he had discovered in India, notably the species of mastodon, elephant and rhinoceros; he also described some new mammalia from the Purbeck strata, and he reported on the bone-caves of Sicily, Gibraltar, Gower and Brixham. In the course of his researches he became interested in the question of the antiquity of the human race, and actually commenced a work on "Primeval Man," which, however, he did not live to finish. He died on the 31st of January 1865. Shortly after his death a committee was formed for the promotion of a "Falconer Memorial." This took the shape of a marble bust, which was placed in the rooms of the Royal Society of London, and of a Falconer scholarship of the annual value of £100, open for competition to graduates in science or medicine of the university of Edinburgh.

Dr Falconer's botanical notes, with 450 coloured drawings of Kashmir and Indian plants, have been deposited in the library at Kew Gardens, and his Palaeontological Memoirs and Notes, comprising all his papers read before learned societies, have been edited, with a biographical sketch, by Charles Murchison, M.D. (London, 1868). Many reminiscences of Dr Falconer, and a portrait of him, were published by his niece, Grace, Lady Prestwich, in her Essays descriptive and biographical (1901).

Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)

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