Uncovering the plant collecting experiences of a 19th century surgeon naturalist through his correspondence with Kew.
James Edward Tierney Aitchison
We encounter many different sorts of plant collectors in the Directors' Correspondence collection - from avid amateur enthusiasts to surgeon naturalists. In the latter category is James Edward Tierney Aitchison (1835-1898) who had a 30 year correspondence with Kew from Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.
A portrait from Kew's collection of J.E.T. Aitchison sent to Mrs Thiselton-Dyer, wife of a former Director
Aitchison was born in Neemuch, North West India, in 1835. He read medicine at the University of Edinburgh and entered the Honourable East India Company as an Assistant Surgeon in 1858. He published articles on the plants of Punjab, Sindh and Lahal and sent his first collection of dried plants to Kew in 1862, the same year that he married Eleanor Carmichael.
In 1872 Aitchison was appointed the British Commissioner to Ladakh, India. At this time Ladakh was a crossing point for the most important trade routes in Asia from Turkestan, Tibet, Punjab, Kashmir and Baltistan. Aitchison used his experience there to compile a Handbook of the Trade Products of Leh, a kind of A-Z guide to every conceivable sort of goods from 'Anár' – from the fruit of the pomegranate, Punica granatum, to 'Zirishk' – a fruit from Baltistan analogous to European Zante currants.
An image of the Bazaar of Leh, in Ladakh, from Robert Shaw's 'Visits to High Tartary, Yarkand and Kashgar' (1871)
Working as a botanist
In 1878 Aitchison accompanied Lord Roberts into the Kurram Valley (North West Pakistan) and served with the 29th Punjab Regiment for two years during the period of the Second Anglo-Afghan War, attached to the field force as a botanist. Aitchison also collected plants whilst appointed to a Delimitation Commission settling the boundary of north-western Afghanistan in 1884. He published accounts of his botanical and zoological work from this period in the Transactions of the Linnean Society. To give you an idea of the scale of his collecting he reported that during his Afghan Delimitation attachment he brought c.800 species comprising c.10,000 specimens back to England.
The type specimen of Prunus aitchisonii (Rosaceae) from Kew's Herbarium, collected by Aitchison in 1879
Aitchison wrote to Kew primarily to request accurate plant identifications, for further information and to describe particular plant species and landscapes. In addition he often discussed the problems he faced while plant hunting...
"We go on towards Allykhe, I will try and do my best, but fighting and botany do not amalgamate", Camp Kurram, 11 Apr 1879 [archive ref: DC 154/49-52 NWI]
In a letter from Khusan in 1884 he writes;
"Just a line, we have halted here for 7 days after our very long march some 770 miles...this rapid marching in to the lateness of the season gave one no chance of collecting as everything was dried up & all fruit disappeared... We are far too late for anything unless got by accident – not a leaf or a fruit to be got growing on its own stem - & besides up to this all our communications with the people have been restricted most carefully on every subject..." [archive ref: DC 154/89 NWI]
Aitchison found isolation from the local people for political reasons difficult as he was especially interested in finding useful plant products and identifying their correct sources. He also struggled to obtain the right sorts of equipment for botanical collecting and wrote to the then Director of Kew, Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, wondering if it would be asking too much for Hooker to propose that the Government reward him for his work [archive ref: DC 154/74-75 NWI] as he had been refused his Batta (extra allowance) because botany in the field was not a Military Duty.
Having collected his precious specimens Aitchison had to ensure their safe transit to England. In 1893 Aitchison wanted to send the then Director Sir William Thiselton-Dyer a large specimen of a branched date palm, Phoenix dactylifera, from Multan (Pakistan) [archive ref: DC 154/101 NWI]. He had to send it in four pieces, each six foot in length. The vessel that transported the wood to Liverpool caught fire and Aitchison was only too thankful that the sections were not thrown overboard.
Extract from a letter detailing the transmission of a specimen of Phoenix dactylifera [archive ref: DC 154/101 NWI]
The exchange of useful plants
Throughout his letters Aitchison discusses identifying new and useful plants. For instance while in Gulran (Afghanistan) he finds there is a great deal of liquorice from which the native people made an extract by boiling down the roots in whey, using the resulting liquor to treat coughs and colds [archive ref: DC 154/86-87 NWI]. He also found a curious plant, which was very small but which grew an enormous taproot in sand and was used to make paper. He was certain it could succeed on their 'Scotch Links' [archive ref: DC 154/3 NWI].
Aitchison was also keen to introduce new economic crops and timbers which he thought would grow well and wrote to Kew asking variously for sugar maple, strawberry, gooseberry, and Vancouver and Canadian pine seeds. Several of his letters discuss the introduction of hops into Kashmir by the Murree Brewery for beer production, which he considered a sign that British interests in Kashmir were 'looking up' [archive ref: DC 154/38-39 NWI].
On his retirement Aitchison settled in Scotland and unsuccessfully contested a seat in parliament for Clackmannan and Kinross for the Liberal Unionists. C.1892 he moved to Leyden House at Mortlake intending to work up his copious notes for a Flora Indiae Desertae with the help of Kew. Sadly he passed away in 1898 aged 63, before this could be achieved. Several plant species are named in his honour including Rubia aitchisonii and Berberis aitchisonii.
Aitchison's digitised letters will shortly be accessible via the JSTOR Plant Science website where many of his plant specimens can also be viewed. In his letters Aitchison mentions that his wife illustrated some of his plants and I am keen to discover if we have any of her illustrations here at Kew.
- Kew's archive holds various other correspondence from Aitchison and a collection of his papers summarised as 'Afghan Plants and Flora Indiae Desertae: native names A-Z; Systematic lists and notes 1860s-1880s'.
- Visit the library
- See more digitised correspondence and plant specimens via JSTOR plant science
- Read more articles from the Library, Art & Archives blog
- Learn more about the Directors' Correspondence digitisation project
- Contact us at: firstname.lastname@example.org
About Nick Johnson
Nick Johnson is the team leader of the Temperate and Conservation collections. Nick has been at Kew for nearly ten years and has worked in the Tropical Nursery for eight of them.
Nick manages a small team that cares for the temperate collections and the increasingly important threatened island flora collections. He provides propagation training to the students in the Nursery and has travelled to some amazing island habitats to assist conservationists in their bid to save endangered plant species.
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