Contributions of Nathaniel Wallich in the context of his time and habitats.

· Articles

G. Maitra
DBT Nodal Cell, Tezpur University


The career and achievements of Nathaniel Wallich were deeply influenced by his habitats and time. Notwithstanding the contributions of Denmark & Serampore to Wallich’s career, he exercised very little voluntary choice in the selection of his first two habitats. In direct contrast he voluntarily selected and actively worked to secure his next two habitats. He used official positions, social benchmarks, travel, networking, publication and service to British East India Company to establish his place in the scientific (read non medical) world of the 19th century Calcutta & London. So successful were his endeavors, that he served as Professor of Botany in Calcutta Medical College and later as vice president of both the Linnaean & Royal Societies in London. Yet there remain discordant notes in his career that easily lend themselves to less than objective evaluation. His original letters put online by Kew Garden are central to a fresh appraisal.

Keywords Nathaniel Wallich, Botany, Denmark, Serampore, Calcutta, London


Central to the premise of examining the life of Nathaniel Wallich is the fact that the “Wallich collections are of fundamental importance to the story of the growth of botany within India”. His collections and contributions have been significantly shaped by the time or century he lived and worked in, habitats or the places he lived in and the niches or his occupational positions. This paper therefore examines Wallich in the context of his times, the habitats and niches he occupied and the consequent influence of these factors.


One of the keys to interpreting Wallich and his contributions is to see Wallich in relation to the period covered by his lifetime from 1786 to1854. Natural history, the science he centred his life around was rechristened Biology in 1801 and in the course of the century would emerge completely transformed. Concurrently, the natural philosopher would slowly come to be known as a scientist because he practiced science. The 19thcentury was a world increasingly interconnected by nascent globalization (Chandra, 2007) in which plant products like pepper, indigo, opium, tea, rubber, hard woods and even ornamental plants would be major players in global exchanges and conflicts. This globalization was increasingly powered and dominated by the British who not only capitalized on the openings created by the Portuguese, Dutch and French but took forward their own agenda. So by the time Wallich arrived in India in 1808, the East India Company (EIC) under Richard Wellesley had expanded its Indian territories by 135,000 sq mi. Within the next two decades the Anglo Burmese War of 1825-26 would bring Tenasserim, Arakan, parts of Assam, Manipur and Cachar under British control. With Assam came the saga of tea plantations in India and in 1834 Wallich would be part of the first Tea Committee under Lord Bentinck. Beyond territorial expansion institutions like the Asiatic Society, Calcutta Botanical Gardens, Indian Museum, Medical colleges at Calcutta and Madras and the Agri-Horticultural Society of India were established by 1820s. These institutions at once echoed the European set up and were simultaneously modified to suit the needs of in situ management in India. Wallich was closely associated with most of them as they were beginning to make their mark in the first half of the 1800s. As a science Botany grew tremendously along with an unprecedented movement in plants characterised for example by the 7000 new 1801 under the rule of George III (Hastings, 1986). On a wider canvas, significant and famous collections would come from Joseph Banks, Buchanan, Humboldt, Hooker, Roxburgh, Nees von Essenberg, David Don, Alphonse de Candolle and Adolphe-Théodore Brongniart to name a few among many others. The East India Company Herbarium contributed by Wallich nearly two centuries ago remains possibly the largest single collection available with Kew Gardens today. The Botanical Survey of India’s website displays a list of its Post-Linnaean Publications which gives us a clear indication of Wallich’s contemporaries as shown in Table 1.

Table 1: A selection of books published in the life time of Nathaniel Wallich taken from the Post-Linnaean Publications
held with BIS Howrah ( as displayed on their website)

W. Roxburgh, 1820 – 1824: Flora Indica
A. P. de Candolle, 1823-1873: Prodromus systematis naturalis regni vegetabilis
F. P. von Martius, 1823 – 1832: Nova genera et species Plantarum
N. Wallich, 1824: Tentamen Florae Napalensis Illustratae
D. Don, 1825: Prodromus florae Nepalensis
N. Wallich, 1828- 1849: A Numerical list of dried specimens of plants in the East India Company’s museum
N. Wallich, 1830- 1832 : Plante Asiaticae Rariores
J. D. Hooker, 1849-1851: The Rhododendrons of Sikkim – Himalaya
J. F. Royal, 1833-1840: Illustrations of the botany and other branches of the natural history of the Himalayan Mountains and of the flora of Cashmere
R. Wight, 1840-1853: Icones Plantarum Indiae Orientalis
W. Griffith, 1850: Palms of British-East India

This heightened worldwide awareness of the flora in the 19th century Indian subcontinent was a result of publication, communication and exchange mechanisms supported by the ubiquitous network of the British Empire over land and sea. Since Wallich worked in the time before the Suez Canal opened in 1869, ships carrying plant material took nearly six months to reach Europe  and therefore mastering the art of successfully packaging plants for long voyages became essential. Three years after Wallich’s death the control of British rule in India changed from the EIC to the British crown following the 1857 uprising. Two years later nothing in Biology would make sense except in the light of evolution after Charles Robert Darwin published his Origin of Species in 1859 (Tandon & Maitra, 2010). Given this short & selective glimpse into the period covered by Wallich’s lifetime, it would be of interest to individually examine the habitats he occupied and role they played in shaping his life and contributions.


Wallich occupied four principal habitats in the course of his life. Denmark 1786-1807; Serampore 1808-1813, Calcutta 1813-1846 and London1828-32 & 1847-1854.

Denmark 1786-1807

The sections in Wallich’s curriculum vitaeindicating birth, family, educational qualifications and first job were contributions of his first habitat Denmark which he occupied for the first 21 years of his life. His father Købmand Wulff Lazarus Wallich came from Altona near Hamburg in Germany and settled in Copenhagen where on Jan 28th, 1786 Nathanael Wulff Wallich was born. The date and pedigree classified him a Jew of the late Enlightenment period in Europe and therefore discriminated against; though the ideas of the Enlightenment in Europe had softened this to some extent. So Demark in 1798 allowed its Jews to study till the University level but favoured Lutherians over Jews for further advancement in academic life. Thus Wallich studied botany at the University of Copenhagen under Martin Henrichsen Vahl and Jens Wilken Hornemann and in 1806 he was awarded a diploma from the Royal Academy of Surgeons at Copenhagen. The common mechanisms to overcome fetters of a Jewish ancestry were either to convert or emigrate. It was the latter Wallich apparently availed when the King of Denmark allowed him to take up the post of surgeon in the Danish Mission at Frederischnagore (Sermapore) in Bengal, India (Taylor & Janick, 2013). Thus in 1807 having dropped the Wulff and qualified in both botany and medicine, he arrived at the Danish Factory at Frederischnagore ( Sermapore) in Bengal, India as King’s and Company’s surgeon. Having left Denmark at the age of 21 he would return probably just once for a short visit in 1832 but this certainly did not indicate a complete disjunction as he would remain connected through family and achievements. His first wife would be a Danish lady Julia Maria Hals and two nephews would come out to work in Calcutta. The King of Denmark would make him a knight and award him the Golden Cross, 4th Class, of the Order of Dannebrog in 1819 and Wallich later became a member of the Danish Academy of Sciences (Arnold, 2011). Thus when his first habitat first educated him and then offered him the chance to migrate to the botanical paradise of the Indian sub continent in the time honoured role of a surgeonbotanist, Nathaniel Wallich immediately took up the offer.

Serampore 1807-1813

Serampore, just 26 Km away from Calcutta was the habitat that he physically occupied for the least time but would remain well connected to it for the next four decades till his retirement in 1846. Within a few months of Wallich’s arrival in Serampore Denmark’s alliance with Napoleon’s France against Britain had lead to a disruption of political relations. Thus the hitherto friendly neighbourhood of the Danish at Frederischnagore ( Serampore) was taken over by the British from Calcutta in 1808 and its Danish inhabitants made prisoners of war. Fortunately, thanks to his credentials, Wallich was however immediately released and appointed Surgeon to the Danish Prisoners of War. Wallich on the strength of his having studied botany under the Linnaean Martin Henrichsen Vahl was offered in 1809 the position of travelling botanist to the Calcutta Botanical Gardens by Roxburgh. Wallich refused this as funds offered were hardly sufficient to cover means of conveyance but remained in good touch with Botanical establishment. By 1813 Wallich resigned from his existing position in Serampore to set up practice in Calcutta. (Correspondance, IOR_P_7_18).

In 1807 when Wallich came to Serampore, the Rev. Dr. William Carey was based at Danish Serampore only because the English East India Company did not allow missionaries to work in their territory. But it did not prevent Carey from becoming an established figure of church and state in British India whose patronage played a significant role in furthering Wallich’s career. Thus Serampore’s biggest contribution in Wallich’s life was his 26 year association with the Reverend Dr. William Carey. Wallich deeply admired Carey’s work as a missionary, botanist and agriculturist and would associate with Carey as a friend, mentor and collaborator. The famous Serampore Mission Press set up as an auxiliary of the Serampore Mission by William Carey, William Ward and other British Baptist missionaries would help Wallich in bringing out two editions of William Roxburgh’s Flora Indica between 1820 &1824. From 1822 to 1828 Wallich would be honorary secretary of the Agri-Horticultural Society founded in 1820 by Rev. Dr. William Carey for the development and promotion of agriculture and horticulture in India. Above all, William Carey’s support and recommendation would be vital in Wallich securing his appointment as the Superintendant of the Calcutta Botanical Gardens. Serampore seems to have generated ample recognition for Wallich which would quickly translate into wide ranging access & control over flora of India, conferring upon him great prestige and authority (Harrison, 2011).

Calcutta 1813-1846

Unlike the first two habitats, Wallich was able to exert a measure of volition over the choice of his next habitat. Thus he physically shifted residence to Calcutta by resigning in 1813 from his present position to be able to practice in Calcutta where he was subsequently appointed Assistant Surgeon. On a personal level, Wallich made the crossover into Christian Calcutta society by attending church, through his second marriage to Sophia Collings in 1813 and in the way he brought up his children. His connectivity among the European elite was further enhanced when Wallich became a freemason (Arnold, 2008). All of this served to push his Jewish legacy into the background. Professionally, Wallich made a series of moves which opened opportunities of contributing to and reaping the benefits from this nodal centre of 19th century British India (Table 2).

Table 2: A narrative timeline from 1814-1846 in the life of Nathaniel Wallich

1814 Two hundred years ago, 2nd February, 1814 marks the day, on which Nathaniel Wallich had written to the Asiatic Society of Bengal to set up a museum. This proposal was comprehensively backed by the society and thus the “Jadughar” (as it is commonly called) of modern, independent India started as the Oriental Museum of the Asiatic Society. Wallich was not only the enthusiastic founder and the first Curator of the Indian Museum; he was one of the largest donors to the Museum at its inception. Out of one hundred seventy four items donated to the Museum till 1816, Nathaniel Wallich donated forty-two botanical specimens. (Maitra, 2014)
1817 Wallich becomes Superintendant of the Calcutta Botanical Gardens with the support of Joseph Banks, President of the Royal Society, London; TH Colebrook, Orientalist & member of Asiatic Society and William Carey of the Serampore Mission. Wallich held this position for three long decades by being “an obliging courtier and industrious state servant as well as an accomplished botanist” (Arnold, 2008). What is left unsaid is it inevitably also contributed to the controversies and failures that were part of Wallich’s tenure.
1820 Begins 17 month trip to Nepal “for the purpose of prosecuting Botanical researches in that country and its vicinity” aided by the “matchless munificence of the East India Company”. Back in Calcutta Wallich was able to detail the huge quantity of plants and plant material collected in hundreds of large baskets, chests, etc. in his letter to secretary to the Governor General (Correspondance, IOR_F_4_712_1). Wallich also collaborated with William Carey on editing & publishing the first volume of Roxburgh’s Flora Indica from the Serampore Mission Press.
1822 Proceeds on five month sick leave to Penang & Singapore to recover from debilitating fever contracted during trip from Nepal (Correspodance, IOR_F_4_1139). Wallich renews his acquaintance with Sir Stamford Raffles whom he had met in Calcutta in 1819. Wallich helps Stamford Raffles in setting up of Botanical and Experimental Garden at Government Hill, Singapore for study of local flora and cultivation of commercial crops.
1824 In his capacity as Superintendant of Calcutta Botanical Gardens, Wallich receives tea leaves for identification from David Scott, Agent of the Governor General. In one of his most celebrated mistakes, Wallich dismisses them as “just another camellia”. This delayed tea growing in India by a decade and Major Robert Bruce’s claim to fame. This confusion understandable when even Linneaus was not sure and the debate of species stretched to 180 years (Griffiths, 2007).
1825 Inspected the forests of western Hindustan as a member of the Plantation Committee for using timber from Sissoo and Sal trees for commercial purposes (Correspodance, IOR_F_4_1139)
1826-27 Wallich is promoted to Surgeon while concurrently holding the post of Superintendant of the Calcutta Botanical Gardens. He travelled to and studied forests of Arakan, Pegu, Tenassarim following second Burmese War to report on available plant resources, especially timber. Prepares a long detailed letter setting out his contributions to the EIC service as justification for seeking a two year leave to Europe for recovering his health, availing state of art technology and scientific advice to publish his collection of 8000 plants and increasing visibility of the EIC Botanical Garden at Calcutta. (Correspodance, IOR_F_4_1139)
1828 Wallich declares the garden stock has doubled since he took charge in 1817 to 6,000 plus plant materials(Harrison, 2011). Proceeds on sick leave to England with an assistant, sanctioned pay and a collection of 8,000plants thus depleting the prime stock of the garden.
1828-1832 Stays in accommodation provided by EIC in London, distributes plants brought from the CalcuttaBotanical collection widely to public & private collectors, best of which were given to the Linnaean Society. This helps him to acquire fame and good will for himself when meets and networks with well known botanists. Wallich publishes Plantae Asiaticae Rariores or Descriptions & figures of a select number of unpublished East Indian plants, 3 volumes. While Wallich manages to extend his leave of absence his substitute in Calcutta Botanical Gardens takes many retrogressive steps.At the request of his friend Charles Grant who was the President of the Board of Control for Indian affairs Wallich made a note of observations on the feasibility of cultivating tea on a commercial scale in mountainous reaches of Hindustan. This would take on special significance post 1833 when Britain lost its monopoly over import of tea from China. ( Kar, 2011.)
1834-36 Wallich nominated as botanist in the first historic Tea Committee by Governor General Lord Bentinck in 1834. In the next year, Wallich heads the scientific deputation of the tea committee into that goes to Upper Assam for seven months between 1835 &1836. On this trip, Wallich is mercurial in judgement and mood whichleads to less than pleasant reports from his travelling companions William Griffith and John McClelland. Yet the deputation manages to affirm in situ the traditional knowledge of the Singpho tribes among the “tea forests” within British territory thus negating further necessity of experimentation or import from China of knowledge or resources. (Kar, 2011.)
1837 & 1838 serves as Professor of Botany in Calcutta Medical College.
1839-40 sends Assam tea seeds grown in Calcutta Botanical Gardens to Kandy in Ceylon (Sri Lanka)
1842-43 has to avail sick leave in Cape of Good Hope.
1846 resigns due to bad health, returns to London, becomes part of various scientific organisations in London. 
1854, 20th April died 7 buried in Kensal Green in England, UK. 

Wallich’s thirty three year overall stay in Calcutta definitely helped him break into the London scientific circle while rendering services – medical, commercial and botanical to the EIC in general and in particular to the Calcutta Botanical Garden. Wallich seemed well aware that Calcutta despite all its resources was only peripheral feeder system to the European metropolitan centres of science like London, Berlin, Paris (Hokkanen, 2013). Thus we see that the London overture in 1828 was set up and executed with an aim to bring home the much desired wider recognition on a personal and professional level.

London 1828 -32 & 1847-1854.

If he had exercised a measure of choice in moving to Calcutta, his stay in London was a totally calculated, meticulously negotiated and set up for his personal benefit. What also accrued to the Garden was incidental. His London stay of 11 years was divided into two parts covering the mid career and retirement phases of his life. For the first part the transcripts of the letters exchanged between Wallich and his employers in the EIC are a clear evidence of how vital he felt it was to visit Europe (Correspodance, IOR_F_4_1139). In this application for leave Wallich sets out services rendered to the company, the resultant bouts of ill health, similar precedence and assurances of benefit to the Company Garden to support
his claim to a two year leave on full pay along with an assistant. This wily Dane never names actual destination, London, in his application thus pre-empting questions on why he was not going to Copenhagen. So successful is his entire strategy that he is allowed to go “home” to London on his own terms and in due course and extend it beyond the strictly stipulated two years. This enables him to take some 8,000 species of plants, distribute them widely to public and private collectors, best of which we are told were preserved at Linnaean Society. Wallich was able between 1828 and 1832 to publish in three volumes, his Plantae Asiaticae Rarioresor Descriptions and figures of a select number of unpublished East Indian plants. Desmond Ray tell us in his 1994 book, The European Discovery of the Indian Flora that Wallich used 255 drawings done by Gorachand and Vishnuprasad, both local artists in the employment of the Calcutta Botanical

Gardens. The East India Company purchased 40 out of the 250 copies published. The publication of this book coupled with the distribution of the Wallichian collection in the 1820s accomplished his central objective of establishing his reputation among the botanists of Europe (Arnold pg 901).This first foray into the scientific society of London would set stage for his return on retirement in 1846 when in the last decade of his life, on the strength of his position, collection and services in India Wallich would become the Vice President of the Linnaean Society in London in 1849, Vice President of the Royal Society in 1852 member of Geographical Society, London and Royal Society Copenhagen. It almost makes one say that his last habitat added the right flourish to his final signature.


In a final analysis, the Denmark born, educated “Linnean” Wallich spent all his working life in Calcutta and as Arnold neatly phrases it went “home” to London for leave and retirement (Arnold, 2011) His habitat and niches played a central role in Wallich’s life with marked contributions from the many smaller intervals of leave and excursion. This is not to take away from his tremendous personal effort in maintaining his dual roles as surgeon and Superintendant of the Calcutta Botanical Garden. In the overwhelming attention that Wallich’s botanical career has received, it is often not mentioned that four out of five of his appointments in India were medical and only one botanical. Thus, to evaluate Wallich’s contributions only as a botanist does not present a complete picture. We should also take into account that his 39 year stay in India (1807 – 1846) was interrupted by 5 periods of leave to recover from severe illness. It shows a rare resilience and dogged determination to carry on against personal odds. As one reads Wallich’s original correspondence one realises the problems of managing scientific vs commercial institutional objectives, funding, monitoring, facilitating, networking, manpower management and profile enhancement faced by Wallich in the 19th century remain very similar to those encountered in the 21st century.

His collections in the form of new species of plants to grow/acclimatize in Calcutta Botanical Gardens and export beyond the shores of the subcontinent; material dried and preserved in herbaria; seeds; wood and other material suitably preserved remain with us after two centuries to show how well he used the opportunity to perform in each place that he inhabited for short or long periods. This is apart from his books, 35 papers, voluminous worldwide correspondence and exchange of plant material.

Yet Wallich is portrayed as less than successful, at odds with establishment (especially during the Tea Committee work in Assam) and not quite an authority in spite of the number plants that bear his name. One possible reason was Wallich remained in essence a collector of plants and never evolved into a philosopher who could extrapolate scientific theories based on his collections unlike Alexander Humboldt or JD Hooker (Arnold, 2011). Therefore it is required that there is a revaluation of Wallich and his contributions. This has lead to the ongoing Wallich & Indian Natural History programme initiated in 2007, funded by the World Collections Programme of the British Museum in collaboration with Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, the British Library, the Natural History Museum, the National Archives of India and the Calcutta Botanic Gardens based on the premise “Wallich collections are of fundamental importance to the story of the growth of botany within India”.

It would not be out of place to mention as we finally close our account that the Wallich narrative has interesting links to Shillong by way of William Carey, David Scott and Dryopteris wallichiana.


Arnold, D. 2008. Plant Capitalism and Company Science: The Indian Career of Nathaniel Wallich. Modern Asian Studies 42(5): 899-928.

Arnold, D. 2011 Nathaniel Wallich and the Natural History of India. Retrieved May 21, 2014 from

Chandra, N. 2007 in Bound Together – How Traders, Preachers, Adventurers and Warriors Shaped Globalization, Viking-Penguin.

Correspondence IOR_P_7_18 Wallich recommended for employment at the Calcutta Botanic Garden May,19 2014 from

Correspondence IOR_F_4_712_1 Wallich’s expedition to Nepal. Retrieved June 12, 2014 from

Correspondence IOR_F_4_1139 Wallich’s period of leave in England to recover his health. Retrieved June 12, 2014 from

Griffith, J. 2007. Just Another Camellia in “Tea: the Drink that changed the World”, Andre Deutch, p.32.

Hastings, B.R. 1986, The relationship between the Indian Botanic Garden, Howrah and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in Economic Botany, Bull. Bot. Surv. India, 28(1-4): 5.

Harrison, M. 2011. The Calcutta Botanical Garden and the Wider World 1817-1846 In: Uma Dasgupta (Ed.) History of Science, Philosophy and Culture in Indian Civilization: pt. 1, Pearson, Longman pp. 245 & 238.

Hokkanen, M. 2013. Review of Networks in Tropical Medicine: Internationalism, Colonialism and the Rise of a Medical Speciality,1890-1930 by D.J. Neill, Stanford University Press, 2012: Isis 104(1): 177.

Kar, B. 2011. Frontier, Collected: Nathaniel Wallich in the North- Eastern Frontier of British India. Retrieved May 21, 2014 from…/bodhisattva-kar-frontier-collected-nathaniel-wallichin-the-north-eastern-frontier-of-british-india/ 2011

Maitra, G. 2014. Wallichinama, in Green Cardamoms, Shillong Times, Sunday Canvas, p. 3.

Tandon, V. & Maitra, G. 2010 “Darwin’s theory of evolution: Survival of nature’s fit!” In: Sharma, V.P. (Ed.) Nature at Work Ongoing Saga of Evolution, Springer India p. 48.

Taylor, J.M. & Janick, J. 2013. The Extraordinary Lives of Lorenzo Da Ponte & Nathaniel Wallich: Religious Identity in the Age of Enlightenment. Retrived April 2, 2014 from

VN:F [1.9.21_1169]
Rating: 0.0/10 (0 votes cast)