Fever Trees, Markhor Goats and Paleontology - On Hugh Falconer

31 January 1865, 150 years ago, the Scottish geologist, botanist and palaeontologist Hugh Falconer died at the age of 57 in London.

“...what a glorious privilege it would be, could we live back- were it but for an instant- into those ancient times when these extinct animals peopled the earth! To see them all congregated together in one grand natural menagerie- these Mastodons and Elephants, so numerous in species, toiling their ponderous forms and trumpeting their march in countless herds through the swamps and reedy forests: to view the giant Sivatherium, armed in front with four horns, spurning the timidity of his race, and, ruminant though he bed, proud in his strength and bellowing his sturdy career in defiance of all aggression. And then the graceful Giraffes, flitting their shadowy forms like spectres through the trees, mixed with troops of large as well as pigmy horses, and camels, antelopes, and deer. And then last of all, by way of contrast, to contemplate this colossus of the Tortoise race, heaving his unwieldy frame and stamping his toilsome march along the plains with hardly look ever strong to sustain him. Assuredly it would be a heart-stirring sight to behold!” (Hugh Falconer)


Hugh Falconer in 1844




It was the backing of another man’s claim to the Royal Society’s prestigious Copley Medal that made Hugh Falconer risk his already deteriorating health. Falconer was studying fossil remains found in the caves of Sicily and Gibraltar under the auspices of finding a clue on the origin of human species. Elected vice-president of the Royal Society the year before, his voice would certainly be heard in support of his old classmate and fellow student under Prof Robert Jameson of Edinburgh University, Charles Darwin. Overworked and already exhausted Falconer hurried back from Gibraltar to cast his vote, Darwin got the award in 1864 “For his important researches in geology, zoology, and botanical physiology" and his old acquaintance lay down and died from rheumatic disease of the heart and lungs in London a couple of weeks later. A pity, because he never found the time to publish major scientific works, even though he had every reason to.




"Then Kolokolo Bird said, with a mournful cry, 'Go to the banks of the great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever-trees, and find out.'" 


Admittedly, a naturalist in the Earlies had to be something of a jack-of-all-trades and its not surprising at all that a botanist and palaeontologist went to India as assistant surgeon after his graduation. Working for the East India Company in Meerut in the northwest, his interest soon turned from the bones of the living to those of the dead, chiefly those found in the fossil beds of the Sivalik Hills, 300 miles to the east of Meerut. There, Falconer became probably the first palaeontologist to discover the remains of a fossil ape, Ramapithecus or rather Sivapithecus, along with the remains of a rich bygone fauna he would later compare with finds in Europe, thereby thinking already along evolutionary lines that wound be formulated almost 150 years later as “punctuated equilibrium” by Eldredge and Gould in 1972. But that wasn’t enough for a self-respecting naturalist in the 1840s. His research was fundamental for the East India Company’s decision to construct tea plantations in India, thereby circumventing the necessity to import the necessity to import the leaves from China, a policy that played a role in the outbreak of the First Opium War in 1839. Along with the introduction of chinchona trees in India, the “fever trees” whose bark produces quinine, to this day recommended for the treatment of malaria and the saving of teak forest trees, Falconer’s role as botanist at least gained him the lasting fame of having a type of rhododendron named after him.

After his death, the pioneer naturalist was soon forgotten along with other trailblazers of science of the first half of the 19th century, but, along with the rhododendron, the markhor, a large species of wild goat native to the mountains of Central Asia and national animal of Pakistan still bears its scientific name in his honour, Capra falconeri.








Depicted above is a markhor to celebrate Falconer’s memory, image found on:

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Capra_falconeri

And more about Falconer on 


http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hugh_Falconer

And the endangered markhor on:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Markhor