Wight, Robert (DNB00)

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WIGHT, ROBERT (1796–1872), botanist, was born at Milton, Duncra Hill, East Lothian, on 6 July 1796, being the twelfth of fourteen children of a writer to the signet. He was educated at the high school and university of Edinburgh, having among his contemporary students Robert Christison and George Walker-Arnott, and took out his surgeon's diploma in 1816, graduating M.D. two years later. He went on several voyages as surgeon, including one to America, before entering the East India Company's service in 1819, but knew very little botany before his arrival in India. He was appointed assistant-surgeon on 25 May 1819, and attached to the 42nd native infantry stationed at Madras, where he employed 'natives to collect plants, and obtained copies of Willdenow's 'Species Plantarum,' Persoon's ' Synopsis,' and Linne's ' Genera Plantarum.' A collection sent by him to Professor Robert Graham in 1823 was lost at sea; but one formed at Samulcotta, Rajamundry, Vellore, and Madras, reached Dr. William Hooker at Glasgow in 1826. In that year Wight was appointed to succeed Dr. Shuter as naturalist at Madras, and for two or three years had charge, as such, of the botanical establishment there, employing native draughtsmen, making an extensive tour in the southern provinces, the route of which is marked on the map in Wallich's 'Plantre Asiatics Rariores,' and collecting and distributing among botanists a great number of duplicates. In 1828, on the abolition of his office, Wight was appointed garrison surgeon at Negapatam, and thoroughly explored that neighbourhood and Tanjore; but in 1831, having attained the rank of surgeon on 22 Feb., he contracted jungle fever, and came home on three years' furlough, most of which he spent in Edinburgh. He then began the publication of his materials in W. J. Hooker's 'Botanical Miscellany' (ii. and iii.), and afterwards in his 'Companion to the Botanical Magazine' (1835-6), issuing also some coloured plates in quarto, under the title of 'Illustrations of Indian Botany, principally of the Southern Parts of the Peninsula' (Glasgow, 1831), but was prevented from continuing the publication by the expense.

During this furlough Wight was mainly occupied in preparing, in conjunction with George Walker-Arnott [see Arnott], what is certainly one of his chief works, the 'Prodromus Floræ Peninsulæ Indiæ Orientalis,' which J. D. Hooker and T. Thomson, in their 'Introductory Essay to the Flora Indica' (1855), describe as 'the most able and valuable contribution to Indian botany which has ever appeared, and. one which has few rivals in the whole domain of botanical literature.' Only the first volume, however, was published, carrying the work down to the end of the Dipsacaceæ. It describes some fourteen hundred species, and in 1833 Wight issued a lithographic catalogue of 2,400 species enumerated in it.

Before his return to India Wight made himself master of the art of lithography. In 1834 he was attached to the 33rd native infantry at Bellary, and marched with them to Palamcotta, near Cape Comorin, a distance of some seven hundred miles. He then planned a systematic series of plates to illustrate Ainslie's 'Materia Medica,' a scheme which he never carried out, but in the course of which he published various papers on officinal plants in the 'Madras Journal of Science.' Seized with a severe attack of fever in Tinnevelly in 1836, Wight was obliged to pay a short visit to Ceylon. In the same year he was transferred to the revenue department, with the title of superintended of cotton cultivation, to inquire into and re- port on the cultivation of cotton, tobacco, senna, and other useful plants, and in this capacity he had charge from 1842 to 1850 of an experimental cotton farm at Coimbatore. In 1838 he began the issue of his ‘Illustrations of Indian Botany’ with coloured, and ‘Icones Plantarum Indiæ Orientalis’ with uncoloured, quarto plates; but, though the Madras government subscribed for fifty copies, both works entailed a considerable loss upon Wight, who in 1847 started his ‘Spicilegium Neilgherrense,’ a selection of a hundred plates copied from those in the ‘Icones,’ in the hope of partly reimbursing himself. The ‘Icones’ ran to six volumes (1838–53), containing in all over 2,100 plates, and during his entire Indian career of thirty-five years he described nearly three thousand species of Indian plants.

Wight remained at Coimbatore till March 1853, when he retired. He then purchased Grazeley Lodge, near Reading, formerly the residence of Mitford the historian, and devoted himself zealously to farming the land attached to this property. In 1861 and 1862 he contributed articles on cotton farming to the ‘Gardener's Chronicle,’ and from 1865 to 1868 he gave great assistance in the editing of Edward John Waring's ‘Pharmacopœia of India.’ Wight died at Grazeley on 26 May 1872. He married, in 1838, the daughter of Lacy Gray Ford of the Madras medical board, who, with four sons and a daughter, survived him. He was elected a fellow of the Linnean Society and a member of the Imperial Academy in 1832, and a fellow of the Royal Society in 1855.

Wight's chief works were: 1. ‘Illustrations of Indian Botany,’ Glasgow, 1831, 4to. 2. ‘Prodromus Floræ Peninsulæ Indiæ Orientalis’ (with G. W. Walker-Arnott), vol. i., London, 1834, 8vo. 3. ‘Contributions to the Botany of India,’ with the assistance of Walker-Arnott, A. P. De Candolle, and Nees von Esenbeck, London, 1834, 8vo. 4. ‘Illustrations of Indian Botany,’ 2 vols. Madras, 1838–50, 4to, with 182 coloured plates. 5. ‘Icones Plantarum Indiæ Orientalis,’ 6 vols. Madras, 1838–53, 4to, with 2101 plates; Systematic Index, compiled by Dr. Hugh Cleghorn, printed by the Madras government, 1857. 6. ‘Spicilegium Neilgherrense,’ Madras, 1846–51, 4to.

[Memoir, by Dr. H. Cleghorn, with lithographic portrait and full bibliography, in Transactions of the Botanical Society of Edinburgh, xi. 363; Dodwell and Miles's Medical Officers of India.]

G. S. B.