Edgar Thurston

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Edgar Thurston
Superintendent of the Government Museum, Chennai and Connemara Public Library
In office
Preceded by George Bidie
Succeeded by J. R. Henderson
Personal details
Born 1855
Died 1935
Profession Museum superintendent, zoologist, anthropologist
The title page of the first volume of Castes and Tribes of Southern India (1909).

Edgar Thurston CIE (1855- 12 October 1935) was a superintendent at the Madras Government Museum who contributed to studies in the zoology, ethnology and botany of India and published works related to his work at the museum. Thurston was educated in medicine and lectured in anatomy at the Madras Medical College while also holding his position at the museum. His early works were on numismatics and geology and this was followed later by his researches in anthropology and ethnography. He succeeded Frederick S. Mullaly as the superintendent of ethnography for the Madras Presidency.[1]

Early life[edit]

Edgar was the son of Charles Bosworth Thurston of Kew. He studied at Eton and medicine at King's College, London, qualifying as L.R.C.P. in 1877. He worked as a medical officer in Kent County Asylum. He became a curator of the museum at King's College before joining in 1885 as a superintendent at the Madras Museum. Between 1902 and 1909, he conducted an ethnographic survey of the Madras Presidency.[2]

Ethnography and geography[edit]

Among other published works, he wrote the seven volumes of Castes and Tribes of Southern India, which was a part of the Ethnographic Survey of India project to which he was appointed in 1901 following the success of Herbert Hope Risley's Ethnographic Survey of Bengal.[3] Risley was an adherent to the theories of scientific racism. He was appointed as director of Ethnology in India and Thurston worked under this project to collect accurate anthropometric measurements. These included a number of measurements of the skull and derived indices or proportions such as the nasal index.[4] Whereas early European ideas on phrenology were applied to identify mental traits of individuals, these more refined anthropometric measurements were applied to identify castes. Thurston gave lectures to the students of the Madras University and sometimes to the Madras Police on practical anthropology during the 1890s. Thurston believed that intelligence was inversely proportional to the breadth of the nose and claimed that he scrutinised this as well as handwriting when recruiting clerks in his office. Thurston trained the Madras Police in the use of anthropometry to criminal identification. The Bertillon system had already been incorporated in the Bengal and Madras Police departments by the 1890s and Thurston's training in anthropometry was intended to help the policy identify membership to what were then termed as "criminal castes".[1][5]

He was assisted in the writing of Castes and Tribes by a colleague from the museum, K. Rangachari, who had also assisted him in a 1906 ethnographic study, Ethnographic Notes in Southern India. Rangachari had supplied most of the forty photographs used in this earlier study.[3] The September 1910 edition of Nature described the work as

a monumental record of the varied phases of south Indian tribal life, the traditions, manners and customs of people. Though in some respects it may be corrected or supplemented by future research it will long retain its value as an example of out-door investigation, and will remain a veritable mine of information, which will be of value

Thurston authored the third volume The Madras Presidency, with Mysore Coorg, and the associated States of the four volume series "Provincial Geographies of India" which was published between 1913-23 from the Cambridge University Press under the editorship of Thomas Henry Holland.

Thurston was awarded the Kaisar-i-Hind, first class, on 26 June 1902.[6] He was made C.I.E. in 1909. He retired to England and spent his winters at Penzance where he studied the local plants and regularly hosted a New Year party for the local botanists. He died on 12 October 1935 at Penzance.[2]

Botany and zoology[edit]

Thurston made numerous collections of plant and animals specimens. Many of these were sent to the British Museum and some species have been named after him.

Some marine organisms named after him include: Manaria thurstoni (E.A. Smith, 1906), Sepia thurstoni (W. Adam & W. J. Rees, 1966), Mobula thurstoni (Lloyd, 1908), Ecteinascidia thurstoni (Herdman, 1890).[7]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Daniel, EV and J.M.Peck (1996). Culture/Contexture: Explorations in Anthropology and Literary Studies. University of California Press. pp. 281–286. 
  2. ^ a b "Noted botanist's death at Penzance". Cornishman. 17 October 1935. p. 10 – via British Newspaper Archive. 
  3. ^ a b Vundru, Raja Sekhar (24 January 2010). "Mosaic of communities". The Hindu. Retrieved 2011-11-09. 
  4. ^ Bates, Crispin (1995). "Race, Caste and Tribe in Central India: the early origins of Indian anthropometry". In Robb, Peter. The Concept of Race in South Asia. Delhi: Oxford University Press. pp. 238–240. ISBN 978-0-19-563767-0. Retrieved 2011-12-02. 
  5. ^ Pels, P & O Salemink (2000). Colonial Subjects: Essays on the Practical History of Anthropology. University of Michigan Press. pp. 163–167. 
  6. ^ The India List and Office List. India Office. 1905. p. 172. Retrieved 2011-11-11. 
  7. ^ "Biographical Etymology of Marine Organism Names: T and U". Tjärnö Marine Biological Laboratory. Retrieved 26 September 2012. 
  8. ^ "Author Query for 'E.Thurst.'". International Plant Names Index. 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]