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Hugh Falconer

We should raise a celebratory cup to Hugh Falconer of Forres.

Image of Hugh FalconerWhy a cup and not a glass?  Because in recognising the life and achievements of Hugh Falconer we celebrate a Moray great who brought tea drinking to the ordinary man and woman in Victorian Britain.

And we also celebrate a great thinker and scientist whose work influenced Charles Darwin, who left the fascinating legacy of the Falconer Museum in his home town, and who may have been the first person to discover a fossil ape.

Falconer was born in Forres on 29 February 1808, one of five sons and two daughters of David Falconer and his wife Isabel Macrae.

After graduating MA from Aberdeen University in 1826 he studied medicine at Edinburgh University, becoming an MD in 1829.  During this time he attended the botanical classes of Professor Graham and the geology classes of Professor Robert Jameson, the teacher of Charles Darwin, two great interests that were to dominate his life.

He became an assistant surgeon in the British East India Company in 1830 and upon his arrival in Bengal studied fossil bones from upper Burma.  His published study of the fossils established his reputation among scientists in India.

In 1832 Hugh Falconer became Superintendent of Saharanpur/Serempore Botanic Gardens.  He became widely known for his study of fossil mammals in the Sewalik Hills including mastodons, elephants, rhinoceros, pig and giraffe, making groundbreaking discoveries that were to inform theories of evolution.  There were also fossil fishes, crocodiles and even a giant tortoise fossil which caught the public imagination.  To aid his research Falconer captured living animals to compare their anatomy with his fossil material.  He also published geological studies and for these valuable discoveries he and Professor Cautley received in 1837 the highest award from the Geological Society of London, the Wallaston Medal.

In 1834 Falconer investigated the commercial feasibility of growing tea in India, tea plants were introduced, black tea became competitive with Chinese tea and a British institution was born!

In 1842 Falconer left India because of ill health, accompanied by 70 large chests of dried plants and 5 tonnes of fossils, bones and geological specimens, many of which were put to the British Museum.

He travelled throughout Europe making geological observations and in 1845 was elected Fellow of the Royal Society.  During this home leave, work was begun on the illustrations for what was to become his best known publication Fauna Antiqua Sivalensis.

By 1848 Falconer was appointed superintendent of the Calcutta Botanical Garden and Professor of Botany in the Medical College, Calcutta, near his older brother, Alexander Falconer, a Calcutta merchant.  Through his botanical work the cultivation of Anchona, which produces quinine, was introduced to help treat malaria.  He selected and arranged the Bengal exhibits for the Great Exhibition of 1851 and continued his work on fossils.

However, his health was impaired and he returned to London, visiting Palestine, Syria and the Crimea, during the siege of Sevastopol.

In Europe a second phase of his career began.  In particular he became an expert on elephant and mastodon fossils and an active member of the scientific community being vice president of the Royal Society 1863-1864.

He died at his London home on 31 January 1865 and was buried at Kensal Green cemetery.

Hugh Falconer’s legacy to scientific thought was considerable.  His work in India benefited the health and economic welfare of the community.

Locally we can discover more about his fascinating life at the Falconer Museum, Forres.

Hugh Falconer’s achievements deserve to be more widely celebrated.  He was a great man from Moray, just one of several notable Moravians celebrated by “The Moray Connections” Year of Homecoming initiative.