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A Century of Science in Bengal



    IT was a happy idea of the Council of the Asiatic Society of Bengal to commemorate the completion of a century of the Society's existence by publishing a review of the progress made and the services rendered to knowledge by the institution.1 The idea of a learned society composed of Europeans in India studying the country and communicating to each other at periodical meetings the results of their researches, arose first in the fertile brain of Sir William Jones, who was judge in the Supreme Court at Fort William, and who delivered, on January 15, 1784, to about thirty members of the European community of Calcutta, a “Discourse on the Institution of a Society for Inquiring into the History, Civil and Natural, the Antiquities, Arts, Sciences, and Literature of Asia.” As a result of this discourse, the “Asiatick Society,” the: geographical limits of Asia, and within these limits its inquiries will be extended to whatever is performed by man or produced by nature. “After many vicissitudes it has just completed its hundredth year, and the record of its work forms the large volume just mentioned. This is divided into three parts: first, a history of the Society, by Dr. Mitra; its work in archaeology, history, and literature, by Dr. Hcernle; and the work in natural science, by Baboo P. N. Bose. The change which has come over the face of India in the course of a century could hardly be better marked than by the fact that two out of the three parts into which the volume is divided-one of these being on natural science-are written by native gentlemen. In the history of the Society we notice that in 1808 a resolution was proposed by Dr. Hare and seconded by Dr. Leyden (frequently referred to in Lockhart's “Life of Scott”), “that a Committee be appointed for the purpose of physical investigations, the collection of facts, specimens, and correspondence with individuals whose situations in this country may be favourable for such discussions and investigations.” It was then agreed to provide two committees—one for science, the other for literature; twenty years later, in 1828, a committee was appointed “to promote geological researches, working under the rules then in force for the Physical Committee,” and at the same time the published Transactions of the Society were divided into two parts, one devoted to physical, the other to literary subjects. Nearly twenty years later the whole of the work of the Society was delegated to six committees, one having charge of zoology and natural history, another of geology and mineralogy, and a third of meteorology and physics. The establishment of a museum did not occur to the founder, but curiosities were constantly coming in from members, and in 1796 it was proposed to give these a suitable house. In 1814 Dr. Wallich proposed the formation of a museum, and offered duplicates from his own collections, as well as his services in arranging it, and a museum was accordingly started. The story of the growth of the various sections of the Natural History Museum is told by Dr. Mitra. On the whole it is one of great progress, although financial difficulties beset the museum at first. But as soon as the Society became able to pay for scientific curators all went well. In 1865 the Society's zoological, geological, and archaeological collections were made over to the Government of India for the public museum in Calcutta. A writer in the Calcutta Review, speaking of the Society's exertions for the establishment of the national museum, said: “Had it done nothing else to promote science during the last ten years, it would have entitled itself to the gratitude of posterity for the vigour with which it has prosecuted to success a project fraught with so much public usefulness.” The earlier volumes of the Society's Transactions, published unter the title “Asiatick Researches,” created a sensation in the literary and scientific world in Europe. A French translation was speedily published, with notes on the scientific portions by no lesser hands than Cuvier, Lamarck, Delambre, and Olivier. Of the work of the Society in p-eserving Sanskrit MSS., in translating and publishing various works from the native languages, and other valuable services to literature, Dr. Mitra speaks at length. Amongst the publications, apart from the papers, we notice many of scientific interest, such as catalogues of various sections of the museum, of the mammah and birds of Burmah, of Indian lepidoptera, besides translations of numerous works of Hindoo science. In summing up at the conclusion of his historical sketch the benefits conferred on India and the world by the Society during its hundred years of existence, Dr. Mitra sums up its scientific work (apart from papers, and published volumes above referred to) thus: “It got up an archaeological and ethnological museum of considerable extent, a geological museum rich in meteorites and Indian fossils, and a zoological museum all but complete as regards the avifauna of India.”

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