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Misfortune in paradise

Caroline Wakeham
30 March 2010

Read about one 19th Century botanist's run of bad luck while collecting plants in Latin America. Every botanist has a different story to tell, although not always a happy one.

My name is Caroline and I work one day a week with the Directors' Correspondence digitisation team at Kew. Digitising the letters is fascinating and intriguing: no two letters are the same and every botanist has a different story to tell. They often had to leave their loved ones behind and contend with natural disasters, political unrest and hostility from the native population. If this wasn't enough to struggle with, infection and disease were also constant dangers, as highlighted through the experiences of one botanist stationed in Dominica.
 

We work with the original letters to summarise them and make them available online. 

 

Suffering from 'ground itch'

George A. Ramage (1864-1933) collected plants for the West Indian Commission to Dominica. It is from here that he corresponded with Kew and, in a letter sent in August 1888 (DC Vol. 212, f.419-420), he complains of becoming afflicted with 'ground itch', which has prevented him travelling to St. Lucia.

Ground itch affects the feet and is characterised by blister-like eruptions and severe itching caused by the entry of hookworm larvae into the skin. Ramage complains of both legs and feet ballooning to twice their size and leaking 'watery serum'. Ramage did not, however, do himself any favours when plant collecting, which left him vulnerable to infection.

A letter written on 17 June 1889 (DC Vol. 212 f.429-431) details Ramage's expenses whilst in Dominica and he is keen to stress that he saved money wherever he could: he 'used neither alcohol or tobacco' and 'went into the forest barefooted'. Whilst he must be commended for being thrifty, had he worn shoes, he would have certainly avoided the undesirable consequences of ground itch.

The infection was cured when a local doctor supplied a lotion of acetate of lead, which is no longer used in the modern age due to its high levels of toxicity. Not only did Ramage have to contend with infection, but also with the possibility of being poisoned by his treatment!

More problems in St. Lucia

Ramage did however, make it to St. Lucia, but his problems did not end there, as he records in a letter to Kew on 6th December 1888 (DC Vol. 212, f.421) that he was struck down with a fever and had to be carried in a hammock through the 'swampy abandoned cane land'. In a letter dated 23 January 1889 (DC Vol. 212, f.424), Ramage apologises for his poor collection of plants as he has been unable to undertake any forest collecting for two months because of fever and dysentery.

Unfortunately, it all proves too much for Ramage, as he concedes he is no longer fit for forest collecting. He is pleased to hear someone has been sent to replace him, however, not before he has finished collecting in Dominica and St. Lucia. Ramage explains that he enjoys the tropical climate but that he would like to find 'some less trying occupation'.

Ramage finds love

Eighteen months later, in a letter written on 10 September 1890 (DC Vol. 212, f.371), Henry Alfred Alford Nicholls writes that Ramage seems settled and is going to apply for the post of Curator at the Botanical Station. Nicholls attributes this change in Ramage to his recent nuptials as he writes 'his recent marriage to a person old enough to be his mother has strangely enough improved him vastly'!
 

Extract of a letter from Henry Alfred Alford Nicholls to Sir William Thiselton-Dyer, 10 Sep 1890 commenting on Ramage's new wife (DC Vol. 212, f.371).


Ramage's example highlights the stark reality facing many botanists who collected overseas: whilst the tropical climate was favourable, the threat of disease and infection was never far away and could ultimately end a man's career, if not his life. Thankfully however, Ramage seems to have achieved his happy ending.

 

- Caroline -


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Comments

9 September 2010
Comment: 
The dedication it must take to endure all of those ailments is astounding! I had no idea botanists faced such hardship when collecting information. What is the purpose of going without footwear?
27 April 2010
Comment: 
Thanks for your comment Jeremy. Yes, we intend to make this a regular series, posting some of the interesting content we come across as we digitise the Directors' Correspondence. If you browse the Library, Art and Archives blog posts, you'll find a few more posts from our team. Thank you for directing us to the 'How did they die?' article (by Ralph R. Stewart; 'Taxon', Vol. 33, No. 1 (Feb., 1984), pp. 48-52), the examples described in it certainly resonate with us: within the Directors' Correspondence there are many accounts of such tragedy. What is always surprising, however, is that the letters written by Kew's pioneering correspondents convey an unremitting stoicism and a very matter of fact attitude towards death and illness! The Kew library has 'Taxon' and many other journals of its kind and can supply copies of articles for a charge (and subject to copyright law). Please contact library@kew.org for details.
21 April 2010
Comment: 
Interesting piece; thanks so much. Will this be a regular series? You reminded me of a paper given to me by, I think, Gren Lucas, called How did they die? I long ago lost my copy, but I did find it again on Jstor http://www.jstor.org/pss/1222028 Now all I need to do is find a paper copy again.
9 April 2010
Comment: 
I enjoyed this story. Wow, it is amazing to learn what they had to go though. I wonder if that extensive is something people would have to go through today. Or has all the research been done that is allowed to be done

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