Falconer, Hugh (DNB00)
FALCONER, HUGH (1808–1865), palæontologist and botanist, youngest son of David Falconer, was born at Forres, Elginshire, on 29 Feb. 1808. He was educated at the Forres grammar school and at the university of Aberdeen, where he graduated M.A. in 1826. He showed great powers of memory for languages, as well as a marked taste for botany and zoology, with a penetrating intellect, genial humour, and a frank, winning disposition. In 1826 he entered as a student of medicine at Edinburgh University, where he graduated M.D. in 1829, and was at once nominated as assistant-surgeon on the Bengal establishment of the East India Company. Being under the required age of twenty-two, he spent the interval in London, assisting Dr. Nathaniel Wallich in the distribution of his great Indian herbarium, and studying geology, and especially Indian fossils, under Mr. Lonsdale at the Geological Society's Museum. Arriving at Calcutta in September 1830, Falconer at once showed his bent by giving an account of some fossil bones from Ava, in the possession of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, which was published in the third volume of ‘Gleanings in Science,’ an Indian journal edited by Mr. James Prinsep. Early in 1831 Falconer was ordered to Meerut, and in pursuance of some consequent duty happened to pass through Saháranpur, where he met Dr. Royle, superintendent of the botanic garden. Congenial tastes led to Royle securing Falconer as his deputy during leave of absence, and in 1832 the latter succeeded his friend in charge of the botanic garden. The locality was most favourable for all kinds of natural history pursuits, and the proximity of the Siválik hills, as yet little explored, not only led Falconer to the determination of their tertiary age, but also to his discovery of a vast series of remarkable fossil mammals and reptiles. This discovery was a notable result of scientific prevision, for in 1831, when he determined the age of these hills, Falconer had been led to the conclusion ‘that the remains of mastodon and other large extinct mammalia would be found either in the gravel or in other deposits occupying the same position in some part of the range.’ His friend, Captain (afterwards Sir Proby) Cautley [q. v.], joined him in making extended researches, and from 1832 onwards the ‘Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal’ and ‘Asiatic Researches’ contained numerous memoirs on their discoveries. By the labours of Falconer, Cautley, and Lieuts. Sir W. E. Baker and Sir H. Durand [q. v.], a vertebrate fossil fauna was brought to light, unexampled for extent and richness in any region then known. It included the earliest discovered fossil quadrumana, many species of mastodon and elephant, several species of rhinoceros, new subgenera of hippopotamus, the colossal ruminant sivatherium, species of ostrich, crocodiles, the enormous tortoise colossochelys, and numerous fishes. The task of preserving and determining these fossils, far from museums and books, was most difficult, and in order to obtain material for comparison Falconer, with rare energy, prepared skeletons of the living animals around him. Such work was not long in obtaining recognition in England, and in 1837 the Geological Society of London awarded the Wollaston medal, in duplicate, to Falconer and Cautley.
In 1834 a commission was appointed by the Bengal government to report on the fitness of India for the growth of tea, and by Falconer's advice experiments were ordered, and were conducted under his superintendence in sites selected by him. The first tea was manufactured under him, and the produce declared equal to the best China tea. He also made large additions to Indian botany, which were acknowledged by Dr. Royle (Illustrations of the Botany of the Himalayas, 1839) in naming a new genus Falconeria after his friend. To gain new specimens he travelled much in the rainy season at great risk to his life. In 1837–8 he visited Cashmere, on the occasion of Burnes's second mission to Cabul. In 1838 he crossed the mountains to Iskardoh in Balkistan, and traced the Shiggur branch of the Indus to its source, examining the great glaciers of Arindoh and of the Braldoh valley, and returning to Cashmere by the valley of Astore. In the latter he discovered the assafœtida plant of commerce, which he was the first to describe. During his stay in Cashmere, although interrupted by prolonged illness, Falconer sent to the Saháranpur gardens 650 grafted plants, including all the most valuable fruit trees. In 1840 his health gave way after frequent severe attacks consequent on incessant exposure, and in 1842 he returned to England on sick leave, bringing with him seventy large chests of dried plants and five tons of fossil bones.
From 1843 to 1847 Falconer remained in England, publishing numerous memoirs on the geology and fossils of the Siválik hills, which have been reproduced in his collected works, and also contributing several important botanical papers to the Linnean Society. His botanical collections having partially suffered from damp on the voyage to England, were deposited at the East India House during Falconer's second absence in India, and suffered greatly from neglect. In preparing the ‘Flora Indica’ (1855), Dr. (now Sir J. D.). Hooker and Dr. Thomson recorded that it was the only herbarium of importance to which they failed to procure access, and they were thus unable to do Falconer full justice as the discoverer of many of the plants they had described. In 1857 the plants which survived this neglect were deposited at Kew, and since Falconer's death his voluminous botanical notes, with 450 coloured drawings of Indian plants, have been placed in the Kew library. Besides working out his own collections, Falconer gave much time to determining the Indian fossils in the British Museum and the East India House, especially the large collections sent home by Cautley. In response to memorials from the presidents of the chief scientific societies and from the British Association, a government grant of 1,000l. was made for preparing for exhibition the Indian fossils in the British Museum, which are still unarranged and embedded in rock, and Falconer was appointed to superintend the work in December 1844. The East India Company gave him employment and pay as if he were still in India, and at his instance a series of coloured casts of the most remarkable Siválik fossils was prepared, and sets were presented to the principal European museums. The publication of a great folio illustrated work, the ‘Fauna Antiqua Sivalensis,’ edited by Falconer, was commenced in 1846, the plates being drawn by G. H. Ford. Within three years there appeared nine parts of the work, each containing twelve plates of great artistic excellence, 1,123 specimens being figured in them. Besides the Siválik fossils the work illustrates mammalian remains from the Nerbudda valley, the Irrawaddy, and Perim Island. Of the letterpress unfortunately only one part was completed. His work in the British Museum was urgent, and the time remaining did not enable Falconer to complete the immense work of making references in his full and conscientious style. He was compelled to return to India in 1847, in order to avoid losing his commission and his right to a pension, having been appointed successor to Dr. Wallich as superintendent of the Calcutta Botanic Garden and professor of botany in the Calcutta Medical College. To complete here the account of the ‘Fauna Antiqua Sivalensis’ Falconer found himself unable to continue his part of the work in India, and on his return to England in 1855 he found that many of the unpublished plates had been erased from the stones on which they had been drawn. He set himself to complete the work. Bad health and the extended studies required combined to postpone it till too late. Proof copies of seventeen of the unpublished plates, with outline tracings for the remaining plates, have been deposited in the library of the geological department of the British Museum (Natural History), South Kensington. A description of the plates, both published and unpublished, was compiled after Falconer's death from his notes and memoranda by Dr. Murchison, and inserted in Falconer's ‘Palæontological Memoirs,’ vol. i., and also published separately in 1868.
In February 1848 Falconer entered upon his new duties at Calcutta. An important part of his work consisted in advising the government of India on all matters relating to the vegetable products of India. In 1850 his valuable report on the teak forests of Tenasserim was published in the ‘Selections from the Records of the Bengal Government.’ In 1852 he published in the ‘Journal of the Agricultural and Horticultural Society of India’ a paper ‘on the quinine-yielding Cinchonas and their introduction into India,’ recommending their trial in Bengal and the Neilghiris. Numerous other botanical papers were contributed by him to the same society. He selected and arranged the botanical exhibits of Bengal for the London Exhibition of 1851. In 1854 he made a catalogue of the fossils in the museum of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, which was published in 1859. Meanwhile he was very successful as a teacher of botany in the medical college.
Falconer retired from the Indian service in the spring of 1855, and on arriving in England at once resumed his palæontological researches, visiting almost every museum in Western Europe, and everywhere making notes on mammalian specimens, principally the proboscidea and rhinoceroses. He utilised his enforced residence in South Europe in the winters of 1858–61 through ill-health in the furtherance of his studies, and in 1862 he communicated to the British Association at Cambridge an account of the newly discovered pigmy fossil elephant of Malta. Researches on the fauna of the ossiferous caves of Gower led him in 1860 to prove that elephas antiquus and rhinoceros hemitœchus were members of the cave fauna of England. In the same year he determined that the Bovey Tracey lignite deposit was of miocene age. In 1861 he gave important evidence before a royal commission on the sanitary condition of India, in which he distinguished carefully between the removable and irremovable causes of disease. In his latter years he spent much time in examining the evidences as to the antiquity of man, which he had been led to anticipate in India in 1844. His examination in 1858 of the flint implements discovered in the valley of the Somme caused him to urge Mr. Prestwich to investigate the subject, which that geologist followed up with most important results. In fact, every current question about fossil mammalia and prehistoric man was investigated and commented upon by Falconer in a patient, impartial, and candid spirit, and his work was much more extensive than even his published works and papers show. He was always seeking fresh evidence and developing his ideas, many of which he never committed to writing, owing to the great retentiveness of his memory. Having returned hastily from Gibraltar to support the claims of Charles Darwin to the Copley medal of the Royal Society, he suffered much from exposure and fatigue, and in January 1865 he was attacked by acute rheumatism, with disease of the heart and lungs, of which he died in London on 31 Jan. 1865. He was buried at Kensal Green on 4 Feb. following. At the time of his death he was a vice-president of the Royal Society (having been elected F.R.S. in 1845), and foreign secretary of the Geological Society. A Falconer memorial fund amounting to nearly 2,000l. was collected, part of which provided a marble bust of him by T. Butler for the Royal Society's rooms, another bust being placed, by a separate subscription, in the museum of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, Calcutta. A Falconer memorial fellowship for medical or natural science graduates of not more than three years' standing was also founded in the university of Edinburgh for the encouragement of the study of palæontology and geology.
His intimate friend, Dr. Charles Murchison [q. v.], arranged his notes and republished his palæontological memoirs in two volumes, 1868, under the title ‘Palæontological Memoirs and Notes of the late Hugh Falconer.’ These volumes are now among the classics of palæontology. A portrait is prefixed. Dr. Murchison, in summing up his character, speaks of ‘his penetrating and discriminating judgment, his originality of observation and depth of thought, his extraordinary memory, his fearlessness of opposition when truth was to be evolved, the scrupulous care with which he awarded to every man his due, and his honest and powerful advocacy of that cause which his strong intellect led him to adopt.’ He was ‘a staid adviser, a genial companion, and a hearty friend.’ A list of his papers is given in the ‘Royal Society's Catalogue of Scientific Papers,’ vol. ii. 1868.[Murchison's Biog. Sketch, prefixed to Falconer's Palæontological Memoirs.]