Pioneering botanists

Published : Mar 07, 1998 00:00 IST

P.F. Fyson and Diana Ruth Fyson, a British couple, made a major contribution to the study of the hill plants of South India. December 1997 marked Professor Fyson's 50th death anniversary.

THE distinct ecological realm of the hills of South India is a subject of delight for conservationists and naturalists. Interestingly, a major contribution to the study of the hill plants of South India has been made by a British couple, P.F. Fyson and Diana Ruth Fyson, who were based in Chennai between 1904 and 1932. Their most important contribution is an illustrated book on the hills' flora: The Flora of the Nilgiri and Pulney hill-tops (1915, 1921), a revised version of which was published in 1932 - The Flora of the South Indian Hill Stations. The book opened the way for the study of the plants of the Western Ghats, one of the world's 18 biodiversity hotspots.

Philip Furley Fyson (1877-1947) was born in Japan to British missionary parents and was educated in Scotland and Cambridge. He arrived in Chennai in 1904 with a Cambridge first class in Natural Science Tripos and joined the faculty of Presidency College. He served the college as Professor of biology until 1912, and then became Professor of botany.

In 1920, Fyson became the Inspector of Schools for Vishakapatnam and Ganjam and continued in that capacity until 1925. He returned to Presidency College as its Principal in 1925 and remained in that position until 1932. These 12 years of administrative responsibilities were a lean period in terms of botanical research but were marked by important contributions from him in other fields. At the Presidency College, the building of the Science block, the beautification of the campus and the introduction of the B. Sc. course were done during his tenure as Principal. Fyson was also associated with the Madras Fine Arts Society and the Madras Agri-Horticultural Society. He helped in the administration of these organisations when they were launched.

Fyson's contributions to botany fall into five main groups. First, a textbook of botany for college classes was published in 1912. The second is a set of 100 plates of illustrations of local plants, which were titled Madras Flowers and published serially between 1912 and 1921. The third, and the most important, contribution is the illustrated book on the flora of South Indian hills. A less-known but pioneering work, is his monograph on Eriocaulon (1921-22), a sedge-like group of marsh plants. Finally, the Indian Botanical Society was established in 1919 and its journal, The Journal of Indian Botany (later The Journal of the Indian Botanical Society), was launched under Professor Fyson's initiative. He also authored over a dozen botanical papers.

Fyson's most important work is undoubtedly the book on the hill flora, which was to remain a bench-mark for decades to come. The books that were available at that time on the country's flora (The Flora of British India, 1872-97) and flora of the region (The Flora of the Presidency of Madras, 1915-36) said little about the hill plants of South India. And they had no illustrations. Fyson's book made up for these deficiencies.

The crucial role of first-hand knowledge of plants in the context of plant conservation is obvious. Professor Fyson, a conservationist too, would warn his students against botanical vandalism while going in search of plant specimens. In case any student had collected more than what was necessary, he would make him or her to take the excess material back to the collection spot.

Fyson had an unpretentious start as a botanist. Right from 1906, he frequented Sacred Heart College at Shembaganur, near Kodaikanal, to name the plants in the area with the help of Fr. E. Gombert, who had a working knowledge on the subject.

In 1910 some 30 amateur women naturalists, who were among the many European summer residents at Kodaikanal and Udhagamandalam, were making portraits of plants under the leadership of Lady Bourne. They approached Fyson to write explanatory notes on these illustrations. This apparently simple job extended into considerable field work. Fyson studied his collections at the Kew herbarium in the United Kingdom for about a year. This he did in two stints around 1914, on extended leave from Presidency College. The Flora of the Nilgiri and Pulney Hill-tops, which was published in 1915, had 286 pages of sketches of the 483 species described. A supplementary volume, which came out in 1921, covered plants of the lower elevations of the Nilgiris and the Palani hills and also of the Servarayans. This increased the number of plates to 581. A revision of these volumes in 1932 resulted in The Flora of the South Indian Hill Stations, which has 611 plates dealing with 877 species of flowering plants.

Of the 611 plates in the revised book, Diana Ruth Fyson (1886-1969) did as many as 320. Besides plant illustrations, she had a special interest in nature and art. Mahabalipuram or Seven Pagodas is a travel guide written by her.

In 1932, Professor Fyson retired from service and the couple returned to England to settle at Ruswick, Worcester. They seem to have had no links with India since then, so much so that even the tragic death of Professor Fyson on December 26, 1947, following a road accident, was hardly known in India. Diana Ruth Fyson died on December 16, 1969 at Hexham, Northumberland.

Fyson's work of course had many limitations. The fact that The Flora was the result of a part-time effort is evident. The author, with a full-time teaching job had to depend on the help of the staff of the botany department, who too were similarly occupied. The total number of Fyson's collections (now preserved at the Presidency College herbarium), is not very impressive. The same is the case with the duplicate specimens that were distributed to other centres. Even at Kew, his collections are restricted to groups in respect of which he took assistance from the experts there. The plant portraits are of mediocre quality, though they have served an important need in botanical studies ever since. In fact, the Fysons' predecessors in the field, Sir Alfred Gibbs Bourne and Lady Bourne, who had much more field experience and better and more numerous collections, were better equipped to publish a book on the hill flora.

That the Fysons' fine initiatives were not followed up was not their fault. In the past 50 years, there has been considerable neglect even in preserving the invaluable natural history collections made over the years. An attempt by the late Prof. B.G.L. Swamy of the Botany Department of Presidency College for a "Fysonia" commemoration volume did not materialise.

The story of the Fysons should beckon Indian botanists out into the field, where biodiversity can be studied best.. A positive response to the call will be a rich tribute to Philip Fyson 50 years after his death.

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