Thursday, April 1, 2010

More on Patrick Russell

Patrick Russell came down to Vizag in 1781 at the age of 54 to take care of his ill brother and left in 1791. The years in between were apparently spent collecting snake skins, plant samples and, more importantly, treating snake-bite, which was a major problem on the Coromandel coast. The most common type of poisonous snake, or perhaps the most scary one, was called katuka rekula poda in Telugu. This was later named after him -- Russell’s viper.

In my imagination, he was a silent man, who spent hours, days and months in the Eastern ghats hunting down snakes and getting the tribals and locals to skin them (when he went back to England, he took with him a huge collection of snake skins, which he presented to the Natural History Museum in London. He also collected 900 herbarium species). The fact that he spent just 10 years in Vizag, makes me think he was driven more by a thirst for knowledge than love for the place. Five years after he left, in 1796, he published the book “Serpents Collected on the Coast of Coromandel”. All the drawings were done by him.

But this image of an impersonal scientist has its flaws. Russell was first and foremost a doctor. He treated people during a plague epidemic in Aleppo, Syria, before coming to India. In Vizag his work on snakes began with his search for a way to find out how to distinguish between the bite of a poisonous and non-poisonous snake. People were dying by the hundred due to untreated snakebites. So here was a man driven by compassion -- he studied snakes with the primary aim of saving lives.

Here's another interesting biography of Patrick Russell that I found on the Internet.