The Royal Society and India


Our Library exhibition, 'The Royal Society and India', was on show in our basement display area until June 2007. The text of the Exhibition Guide is reproduced below.

India has long occupied a prominent place in the activities of the Royal Society and its Fellowship, and 21st century India is one of the Society's highest international priorities for scientific collaboration and policy work. This exhibition uses materials from the Society's historical collections to show the evolution of the relationship between the two nations, and the growing strength and bonds of our shared scientific community to the period of Indian independence in 1947.

Recently, the relationship between India and the Society has been built by Fellowships for Indian scientists, and via bilateral partnerships with organisations in India. Since an agreement with the Indian National Science Academy in 1972, we have been proud to support a large number of collaborative activities between Indian and UK scientists. The joint inauguration of the Blackett and Sir Jagdish Chandra Bose Memorial lectures in 1975 strengthened the close relationship between the two organisations, and the latest Blackett lecture will be delivered in Delhi by Lord Rees PRS in January 2007, during the period of this exhibition.

As the Society moves towards its 350th anniversary celebrations in 2010, Royal Society-India partnerships will continue to flourish. Increasing numbers of exchanges, bilateral scientific workshops and joint policy activities will have real impact on issues of global concern.

An illustration of the interior of Madras Observatory for publication in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society vol 112.

Madras ObservatoryAn illustration of the interior of Madras Observatory for publication in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society vol 112.

Observers and observatories

Fellows of the Royal Society received intermittent reports on India and its customs from the earliest years of the Society's existence. Robert Moray FRS, for example, recorded in the Register Book of 1663 how the natives of Coromandel cooled their drinks by exposing them to the sun and wind.

The East India Company strengthened its hold on the subcontinent during the 18th century. This allowed British colonial adventurers such as Warren Hastings FRS to simultaneously absorb Indian culture and languages, while applying European scientific observation and collecting methods to the new environment. Sir Robert Barker FRS, noted in 1774 as being 'late Commander in Chief in Bengall', visited the impressive Brahmin observatory in Benares, sending back to London some superb illustrations for use in the Royal Society's Philosophical Transactions.

The Benares observatory was notable for being the most visible relic of Indian science, its geometrical forms architecturally distinct from prevailing styles. Barker, commenting on his visit, noted how understanding of the Brahmin tables predicting eclipses of the Sun and Moon was now limited to a small number of scholars, "who were in possession of certain books and records; some containing the mysteries of their religion, and others the tables of astronomical observations, written in the Skanskirrit language, which few understood but themselves".

The observatory was later seen and studied by the botanist and Royal Society President Joseph Dalton Hooker in the 19th century, by which time its great equinoctial sundial was in a sad state of disrepair.

More traditional architectural was also a subject of great interest to the Royal Society's Fellows. The Library holds a copy of one of the seminal 19th century works on the subject, the 'Essay on the architecture of the Hindus' by Ram Raz, an Indian clerk who taught himself the basics of Sanskrit, mathematics, geography and astronomy. Posthumously published in 1834, the book contains a wealth of detail derived from ancient Sanskrit treatises.

More practically, the East India Company's trading activities around the coast required accurate astronomical observations to aid navigation between Calcutta and Madras, a route notorious for shipwrecks. The astronomer William Petrie FRS set up an iron-and-timber observatory at his residence in Madras, equipping it with his own instruments. This was so successful in establishing a reference meridian in British India that it became India's equivalent of Greenwich and continued to play a major role in Imperial India throughout the 19th century.

Indian Cobra from a set of paintings and drawings executed by students of the Government School of Art, Calcutta in 1872.

Indian biodiversity

To British collectors of the 18th and 19th centuries, India was a world of natural novelties. Scientific classification and description exercises were matched by fine artistic renderings of specimens sent back on East India Company ships.

An early production was the 1790 'Indian zoology' of Thomas Pennant FRS, one of Britain's foremost 18th century zoologists. A friend of Voltaire and correspondent of Linnaeus, Pennant never ventured to India, but his illustrations of creatures such as the long-tailed squirrel and tailor bird provided glimpses of the subcontinent for his British readers. Equally distant was John Edward Gray FRS,  a curator at the British Museum. His 'Illustrations of Indian zoology' (1835) contained superb colour plates of birds and mammals and was financed by General Thomas Hardwicke FRS. Hardwicke was a career soldier who had spent nearly 50 years in India, retiring to England with a huge collection of natural history paintings by Indian artists.

In the field, the physician and naturalist Patrick Russell FRS acted as the East India Company's botanist and physician in Madras. He had practical reasons to take an interest in the region's dangerous snakes. His book 'An account of Indian serpents' is aimed at distinguishing venomous from non-venomous reptiles, but the beauty of the illustrations go far beyond that purpose. The Russell's viper, Daboia russelii, is named after him.

 The ornithologist John Gould FRS is closely associated with Australian wildlife, but his idea of publishing beautiful hand-coloured lithographs in huge imperial folio volumes was pioneered with his 'Century of birds from the Himalaya mountains' in 1832. This was a catalogue of the specimens sent from Nepal and northern India to the museum of the Zoological Society, where Gould was the official 'bird-stuffer'.

In botany, Patrick Russell's successor William Roxburgh produced works on Indian plants under the direction of Royal Society President Sir Joseph Banks. His work was extended by Nathaniel Wallich FRS, superintendent of the Royal Botanic Garden in Calcutta, who was born in Copenhagen and served as a surgeon before being captured by the East India Company in 1808. Wallich, whose 'Plantae Asiaticae rariores' (1830-32) was one of the most important reference works on Indian plants, eventually rose to Vice-Presidency (1852) of the Royal Society. Such botanists transformed the understanding of Indian flora, but their work also had major economic consequences, for example in introducing the tea plant to the region of Darjeeling.

The Great Arc

British occupation of India demanded accurate physical surveys for the purposes of communication. Initially this meant roads and visual telegraphy, but subsequently railways and the electric telegraph. As part of the physical stocktaking process, a Survey of India had been established by the East India Company in 1767. This led to the Great Trigonometrical Survey (GTS), a spectacular undertaking begun by William Lambton FRS upon which the modern mapping and surveying of the country is still based.

From 1818, the project was joined by its most famous employee, George Everest. Initially chief assistant surveyor, Everest rose to become superintendent of the GTS and Surveyor-General of India, earning Fellowship of the Royal Society in 1827 for championing scientific surveying. Everest later engaged in a war of letters with the Royal Society over a rival's criticisms of his technical control of the project.

Although the Great Arc took Everest to the northern parts of India, he retired upon its completion in 1842, and it was only the continuation of the GTS into the foothills of the Himalayas by Everest's successors that identified the distant 'Peak XV' as the world's highest mountain. The peak was renamed Everest in 1856, as a tribute to the great surveyor.

Ardaseer Cursetjee

First Fellow

The first Indian citizen to be elected to the Fellowship of the Royal Society was Ardaseer Cursetjee. He was part of the same industrialisation processes which inspired the GTS, introducing both gas lighting and steam pumps to his native town of Bombay.

Cursetjee travelled to England in 1839 to further his studies of marine steam power, which was in the process of transforming navigation and commerce in India. Within months of his arrival he had made the acquaintance of the Marquess of Northampton, then President of the Royal Society; Cursetjee himself became a Fellow on 27 May 1841. He was presented to Queen Victoria during his stay in London, and appears to have visited many of the sights of the capital, commenting that a "nuisance of London is the dirty state of the roads compared with those of Bombay".

Srinivasa Aaiyangar Ramanujan (left) and Sir Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman (right)

Scientific greats

Regarded as one of the great mathematical prodigies, Srinivasa Aaiyangar Ramanujan was the Royal Society's second Indian Fellow. A self-taught and precocious child, his mathematical career was almost halted by financial difficulties in his early twenties. However, in 1913 Ramanujan began a correspondence with the mathematician G H Hardy FRS, who recognised Ramanujan's natural genius, ranking him alongside titans such as Euler and Gauss. Hardy's support led to a five-year stay in Cambridge for Ramanujan, and it was during this period that he was elected to the Fellowship of the Royal Society. His election citation highlighted his "investigations in elliptic functions and the theory of numbers". However, by the time of Ramanujan's election in 1918, he was already suffering from tuberculosis. Despite a return to the Indian climate in a bid to beat the disease, Ramanujan died in April 1920 at the age of only 32.

Sir Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1930 for his work on the scattering of light and for the discovery of the Raman effect. His first research papers were written in his spare time while he worked as an accountant in Calcutta. In his scientific career, he was to became the first director of the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore; he later founded the Raman Research Institute in the same city. Another of Raman's scientific interests was the acoustics of musical instruments, including the theory of transverse vibration of bowed strings; he was the first to investigate the harmonics of Indian drums such as the tabla. Raman was elected to the Fellowship of the Royal Society in 1924, making him the fourth Indian FRS, after Cursetjee, Ramanujan and Sir Jagdish Chandra Bose.


Patrick Blackett, Fellow of the Royal Society from 1933 and President from 1965-70, formed an important link between the Society and India in the country's formative years of independence, and was lauded as 'a true friend of India'. He met the chemist Sir Shanti Bhatnagar FRS at the Empire Scientific Conference in London in 1946, and this led to an invitation to attend the Indian Science Congress in January 1947, just eight months before the country became independent. Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first Prime Minister, was at the Congress, and shortly afterwards invited Blackett to his home to seek his advice on military and scientific matters. Blackett went on to stay for several extended visits at Nehru's Prime Ministerial residence in Delhi, becoming a trusted advisor on India's economic growth, education and atomic energy development.

By the time of Independence, Royal Society scientists of both nations swayed policy in the new Government of India under the direction of Nehru, who made explicit the needs of the new state:

"Who indeed could afford to ignore science today? At every turn we have to seek its aid ... The future belongs to science 

Events and exhibitions

We run a programme of regular events, conferences and exhibitions on the history of science for researchers and members of the public.

Audio recordings and video recordings are available for many of our events.

An archive of some of our past exhibitions is also available.