George King (botanist)

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Sir George King (12 April 1840 - 12 February 1909), was a British botanist appointed superintendent of the Royal Botanic Garden, Calcutta in 1871, and the first Director of the Botanical Survey of India from 1890. King was awarded the Linnean Medal in 1901. He was recognized for his work in the cultivation of cinchona and for setting up a system for the inexpensive distribution of quinine throughout India through the postal system.

Early life[edit]

George was born in Peterhead, Aberdeenshire, to Robert King and Cecilia Anderson. Robert King was a bookseller who moved to Aberdeen to partner with his brothers who were also in the book business. One brother Arthur was the founder of the Aberdeen University Press. Another brother George was an antiquarian, founder of a local liberal newspaper and a prominent writer on economic and social matters. King's parents both died from phthisis, the father in November 1845 aged thirty six and the mother in 1850 at the age of forty. Orphaned at the age of ten, George was taken care of by his namesake uncle. After studying at the Aberdeen Grammar School where he was nicknamed "Tertius" to distinguish him from other "King" namesakes, something that stuck. One of his teachers was Patrick Geddes. Although a good student, his health was poor and was forced to leave in 1854. The family had associated with the Free church but King later favoured the Anglican church. For a while he worked with his uncle's press business but continued to take a greater interest in natural history that had developed in his youth. He started putting together a collection in his work place, something the printer uncle despised. At the age of eighteen King decided to pursue a medical education and joined the University of Aberdeen in 1861. King was influenced by his teachers George Dickie, Alexander Harvey and John Struthers. In 1862 King became an assistant to Alexander Dickson. This led to an interest in cryptogamic botany and was advised by Sir W.J. Hooker to follow the path of his son (J.D. Hooker) to join the Naval Medical Service. King however was interested in India upon reading Royle and Hooker's works. The Indian Medical Service had suspended recruitment from 1860 but it happened to restart in April 1865. King obtained an M.B. in 1865 and joined the Indian Medical Service on 2nd October, carrying with him an Ipecacuanha plant from Hooker, left for India in March and reached Calcutta on April 11, 1866.[1]

India[edit]

King was initially with the General Hospital before transferring to the Medical College Hospital where was made house surgeon. He fell ill with pneumonia and it was suggested that he transfer to drier climate. He was posted at Agra on September 4 and was attached to the 41st Bengal Infantry. He moved to Mathura in January 1867. Bouts of illness continued and it was suggested that he should move to central India. He was posted to Guna in February 1867, taking charge of the Central India Horse. The next year he moved to Rajputana with stints at Deoli, Mount Abu and Jodhpur before moving to the Botanic Garden at Saharanpur. At the end of 1869, as his term was ending at Saharanpur, he was invited to join the Forest Department as an Assistant Conservator.[1]

In his postings in India, he worked during leisure on the plants, making a study of the famine plants. He also made an ornithological survey of Guna. The posting in Dehra Dun gave him more time for study. King found that the forests of the Doon were being destroyed with a system of bribery and corruption within the Forest Department. King worked to eliminate the corrupt officials. n January 1871 he moved to the Kumaon Forest Division and prepared a report on the forests of Ranikhet. He also contributed to the botanical sections of the Gazetteers. Recommendations were made that he be made a permanent Deputy Conservator. In 1869, the Superintendent of the Royal Botanic Garden at Calcutta, Thomas Anderson, fell ill (left for Europe and died in 1870) and in 1871, the Secretary of State for India selected King as a successor. King took up the position and was also a Professor of Botany in the Medical College of Bengal. King was faced by the destruction wrought by two cyclones in 1864 and 1867. King was also involved in matters associated with tea and cinchona cultivation. While on a official visit to the Nilgiris in July, 1872, he developed symptoms of pulmonary phthisis. He was treated in Coonoor before moving to Europe. He spent a year in the Riviera and returned to Calcutta to resume duties in November 1873. King restructured the calcutta Botanical Gardens, raising the level of the ground, creating ponds and laying out footpaths and conservatories. A fireproof herbarium was also constructed based on plans from Kew. King also altered the garden design from one segregated linearly on the basis of taxonomy to one based on regions with combinations of species showing the natural plant associations.[1]

In 1873 King was also associated with the creation of the Calcutta Zoological Garden. He was also associated with setting up a botanical garden at Darjeeling. King had earlier suggested that a post for a quinologist be created and the appointee C.H. Wood found a way to extract alkaloids and this helped produce a popular Cinchona Febrifuge. Wood returned in 1879 but his setup was worked by J.A. Gammie. King replaced the quinologist, studying the methods of the Dutch and went on furlough to England in 1885 to study Wood's continued work back there. Returning to India, King worked on a system for the distribution of quinine through the postal department. The system was fully operational in 1893.[1] Village post offices in Bengal were able to sell small packets for a pice, the smallest coinage.[2]

He also supervised the work of botanical artists and worked with Sir Joseph Hooker to help him prepare the Flora of British India. A major work was on the Annonaceae of British India.[3] In 1891, he was appointed the first director of the Botanical Survey of India, an institution that linked the botanical officers in the different Presidencies.[1] King also produced a work on the orchids of the eastern Himalayas, The Orchids of the Sikkim-Himalayas (1898) in the Annals along with Robert Pantling (1857-1910) who was an assistant in the Mungpoo cinchona plantations working with James Alexander Gammie.[4]

Personal life and last years[edit]

King married Jane Anne Nicol in 1868. Jane fell ill and died on the way back to England in 1898. The loss was a blow and in the following years King lost an eye due to a ruptured vessel and he increasing fell ill. He died of a seizure at San Remo on 12 February, 1909.[1] Species described by him include the climbing fig Ficus pantoniana from New Guinea and northern Australia.[5]

Honours and memorials[edit]

King took an interest in the Asiatic Society of Bengal, was sometime president of the Agricultural and Horticultural Society of India. He also encouraged research among his friends. David Douglas Cunningham and Arthur Barclay helped him on matters of plant pathology. He received a degree of LL.D. in 1884 and was elected to the Royal Society in 1887. He began a journal, the Annals of the Royal Botanic Garden, Calcutta. As a landscape gardener, he was recognized by the Royal Horticultural Society and awarded the Victoria Medal in 1901. For his work on making quinine and distributing it inexpensively he was made an honorary member of the Pharmaceutical Society and given a ring of honour by Czar Alexander III. In 1890 he was made Companion of the Order of the Indian Empire. In 1898 he was created K.C.I.E. A memorial was built at San Remo, where he visited every winter from 1898 until his death.[1] There is a memorial plaque to him and his wife in St Machar's Cathedral, Old Aberdeen.

King was succeeded at the Calcutta Botanical Gardens by Sir David Prain (1857 – 1944).

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e f g Prain, David (1909). "Sir George King". Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. Obituary Notices of Fellows Deceased.: xi–xxviii. 
  2. ^ "New Year Honours". British Medical Journal 1 (1932): 106. 1898. PMC 2410470. 
  3. ^ King, G (1893). "Annonaceae of British India". Annals of the Royal Botanic Garden, Calcutta 4. 
  4. ^ Stafleu, Frans A. (1968). "Review: A Century of Indian Orchids Selected from Drawings in the Herbarium of the Botanic Garden, Calcutta by J. D. Hooker; The Orchids of the Sikkim-Himalaya by George King, Robert Pantling; The Orchids of the North-Western Himalaya by J. F. Duthie". Taxon 17 (3): 293–295. 
  5. ^ King, G. (1887). "Part 2. Natural history". Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal 55 (2): 407. 
  6. ^ "Author Query for 'King'". International Plant Names Index. 

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