By S. John Britto, SJ

Long tradition: The foundation of the Society of Jesus (1540) coincides with the beginning of modern science, specifically natural history.  Botanical discipline is an offshoot of natural history, which consists of research and study of organisms including plants or animals in their environment.

Jesuit scientific work in India has had a long tradition both before the suppression in 1773 and after the Restoration in 1814. Christian missionaries, as a body, were the first educated Europeans in India and pioneers in natural history as well. Owing to their Ignatian spirituality, Jesuits pursued natural history, particularly Botany, with commitment and fervor.

Jesuit Botanists in Post Restoration Era: Let us look at the Jesuit contribution to Botany in India in three geographical regions: The West coast, the Western Ghats and Shembaganur cum Tiruchirappalli Jesuit Institutions.

West Coast: Three Jesuit botanists stationed at St. Xavier’s College, Bombay, have made significant contribution to the knowledge of plant wealth in the form of Floras.

Ethelbert Blatter (1877-1934):  He left his native land to study in Germany and the Netherlands, and later for theological studies in England. In 1903, he moved to Mumbai (Bombay), India, to teach at St Xavier College and engage in the botanical research and publishing that occupied him for the remainder of his life. Although his main contributions were in British India, his books on the plants of Aden and Arabia are also important contributions to botanical literature.

Jesuit scientific work in India has had a long tradition both before the suppression in 1773 and after the Restoration in 1814.

Hermenegild Santapau (1903-1970): He was a Spanish-born, naturalized Indian Jesuit priest and botanist, known for his taxonomical research on Indian flora. He came to India in 1928 to complete his regency. Moving to London, he graduated in Botany with honours (BSc Hons) from the University of London from where he obtained his doctorate later. From 1934, Santapau worked in Eastern Pyrenees and Italian Alps collecting plant specimens for four years. After doing two years of research from 1938 at the herbarium of the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, England, he joined St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai as a member of the faculty of Botany in 1940. Santapau served in many government committees. He was credited with the Latin nomenclature of several Indian plant species. A recipient of the Order of Alphonsus X the Wise and the Birbal Sahni Medal, he was honoured by the Government of India in 1967 with the award of Padma Shri, the fourth highest Indian civilian award.

Some of his notable publications are: The Flora of Khandala on the Western Ghats of India 1953, 1960 and 1968; The Flora of Purandhar 1958; The Orchids of Bombay 1966.

The third one was Jean Ferdinand Caius (1877-1944).

The Western Ghats:

Cecil Saldanha, SJ (1926 -2002) was born in Mangalore on 27 December 1926. He did his M.Sc in Botany at Bombay under Fr. Santapau and did his doctorate in Botany on Taxonomic Revision of the Scrophulariaceae of the Western Peninsular India. After being assigned to St. Joseph’s College in Bangalore, he set up there the Taxonomy Center. His taxonomical field work includes four bio-geographic regions of Karnataka viz., (a). West Coast Plains; (b). Western Ghats; (c). Southern Plateau and (d). Northern Plateau.

Among his published works The Flora of Hassan District is a compact work covering the botanically unexplored area of the Western Ghats of peninsular India. Fr. Saldanha and Dr. Nicolson undertook intensive field and laboratory studies on the flora of the area. 1,700 species of vascular plants were reported. His flora had original drawings and 20 color plates.

Owing to their Ignatian spirituality, Jesuits pursued natural history, particularly Botany, with commitment and fervor.

Shembaganur & Tiruchirappalli Jesuit Institutions:

Palni (Palani) hills in the Western Ghats provided a salubrious habitat for Jesuit trainees with its training College established in 1895 at Shembaganur near Kodaikanal. Fr. J. Mallat as a Professor of philosophy at the Sacred Heart College, Shembaganur in 1891, realisied the importance of the positive sciences, and introduced a scientific culture at Shembaganur.

The Shembaganur team, consisting of five Jesuits, namely S. Munch, A. Anglade, A. Sauliere, C. Montaud and G. Rodriguez did the bulk of botanical collections during 1912-17. Augustin Sauliere, the leader of the collecting group of the flowering plants, had the collections named at Calcutta and Kew Herbaria during 1913-1914 and a duplicate set of this collection is at Kew, Calcutta, Bogor, among other centres.

A significant contribution of water colour portraits of the plants of the Palnis came from two staff members of Shembaganur: Emile Gombert (1866-1948) and Aloysius Anglade (1873-1953). Gombert made 114 orchid portraits on 36 x 24 cm sheets, often with floral parts mounted alongside. Fr Anglade executed his classic illustrations of the plants of the Palni hills (1,910 plates now bound in 10 volumes).

Owing to the tireless efforts of Fr. Anglade, the entire campus of Shembaganur became an arboretum (a tree garden), that had over 200 species, several of which had been brought from the Eastern Himalayas. Today when we are mourning the depletion of biodiversity, such an innovative introduction of species from another region forms a significant conservation measure.

Through their vision and far-sightedness, these pioneers have made a great contribution to gene pool conservation. The Shembaganur Orchidarium obviously stole the show. The more attractive ones came from outside: mostly from Kurseong, or from the Kerala forests. Over 150 species were in cultivation once; though most of these are not extant now, the illustrations by Frs. Gombert and Anglade are a comprehensive record. Fr. A. Ayraud who, while at Kurseong, had sent across live orchids for planting, looked after the Orchidarium during the long years he was at Shembaganur.

Another important contribution from the College was on the flowerless plants by another team. Arriving at Shembaganur from France in 1906, Eugene Armand, with Georges Foreau organized a team in 1908 for collecting flowerless plants, especially mosses. ‘The Foreau collection of Mosses’ is at Rapinat Herbarium of St. Joseph’s College, Tiruchirappalli. Several decades earlier Fr. Rapinat had made collections of Liverworts and had them named by Chopra (1930), duplicates of which are at the Rapinat Herbarium, Tiruchirappalli. He had assiduously built up the department of Botany of St. Joseph’s College and made several collections of plant specimens from the Palni hills and the Plains. The establishment of the internationally acknowledged Rapinat Herbarium is a tribute to his contribution to Botany.

Joseph M. Pallithanam, SJ (1915-1984) was awarded the Ph.D. degree of the University of Bombay in 1963, for his floristic work on the Sirumalai hills. This is a region of 60,000 acres, situated 25 km from Dindigul, Tamil Nadu, and 90 km from Madurai, Tamil Nadu. He authored the book A Pocket Flora of the Sirumalai hills, South India, (Rapinat Herbarium, St. Joseph’s College, 2001). Single-minded attention to research was the hallmark of his field botany.

K.M. Matthew, SJ: Under the inspiring guidance of stalwarts like Frs Anglade, Sauliére and Foreau, Fr K.M. Matthew, (1930-2004) acquired his doctorate (1960-62) on the exotic plants of the Palni hills with the guidance of late Fr Dr H Santapau S.J. During his theological studies (1962-66) at Kurseong, he explored the surrounding Eastern Himalayas as well. He developed a strong research centre in systematic botany, later called The Rapinat Herbarium.

K.M. Matthew is the Founder-Director of two complementary natural history establishments. First, the plant diversity research base, the Rapinat Herbarium, in the university town of Tiruchirapalli that has been generating first-hand scientific data for conservation research and publishing a multi-volume illustrated Flora as take-off base for applied research. Secondly, the environmental base, the Anglade Institute of Natural History, Sacred Heart College at Shembaganur, Kodaikanal in the Nature Sanctuary of the Palni hills, is where he started a massive environmental awareness generation programme for the wider community, and conservation research. As Founder Vice-President of the Palni Hills Conservation Council, he was responsible for the integral conservation management of the Palni hills, part of the Western Ghats of India and one of the 25 Biodiversity Hotspots of the entire planet.

K.M. Matthew had an aggregate of 1,449 field days and 60,644 collections. This intimate knowledge of plants in the field had been invaluable in planning for conservation research. In 1992 he was made a member of IUCN’s Species Survival Commission for plants for the Indian subcontinent. Fr. Matthew published The Flora of the Palni hills (1996-1999), a work of three volumes in five parts with 1233 illustrative plates. His mammoth publications include more than 12 volumes and 175 research papers. He had completed 21 major research projects, funded by reputed international and national agencies relating to Peninsular floristics and Environmental Education. This monumental work and the Flora of Karnataka by the late Fr. Cecil Saldanha would serve as a solid and firm foundation for the new ‘Flora of India’.

V.S. Manickam, SJ (1944-2012): Fr. V.S. Manickam SJ (1944-2012) was a renowned pteridologist in India. His chief contribution was on the ferns in the Western Ghats of South India. He was the founder-Director of the Centre for Biodiversity and Biotechnology (CBB) at St. Xavier’s College, Palayamkottai, Tamil Nadu, India.

Mention should also be made of the establishement of a Kodaikanal Botanic Garden as a Jesuit Conservatory Garden with the assistance from the government in a 100-acre area at Eettippallam, 10 km below Kodaikanal town on Kodaikanal-Madurai road. The five volume Flora of Tirunelveli Hills was one of his contributions to Flowering Plants. In addition to the Kodaikanal Botanic Garden where 230 ferns of the Western Ghats are cultivated, the Centre harbours a medicinal garden, a greenhouse, herbarium and biotechnology and phytochemistry laboratories within St. Xavier’s College campus.

S. John Britto SJ (1946–), a doctoral scholar of Fr. K.M. Matthew, collaborated with him in all his floristic works, research projects and co-authored the Flora of Tamilnadu Carnatic. After the sudden demise of Fr. K.M. Matthew, he assumed the role of Director of the Rapinat Herbarium (RHT) and the Anglade Institute of Natural History (AINH).

A major initiative after the demise Fr. K. M. Matthew is the conversion of the Rapinat Herbarium as a Virtual Herbarium and the process of bar-coding of plant species especially of RET value. This became possible by the generous funding by the Department of Science and Technology, Government of India.

In keeping with trends of development across the world, John Britto started digitizing nearly 2,50,000 herbarium specimens. Our website has started uploading the digitized specimens following the methodology of Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, London and Central National Herbarium, Calcutta.

He is involved in also molecular systematic study on phylogeny and identification of plant species, Flora of North Tamil Nadu, and Vegetation Mapping. The Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India, honoured RHT by permitting the establishment of a Lead Botanical Garden in AINH of Shembaganur campus. The intention of the Government was to recognize the botanical investigations of the Jesuit pioneers of Shembaganur and to take forward their contribution. This Lead Garden has started reintroducing indigenous Orchids of the Eastern Himalayas to the Palni hills as was done earlier by Jesuit pioneers.

With the financial assistance offered by the government, RHT has empowered several groups of villagers of Palni hills by imparting to them skills needed for cultivation of orchids and environmental protection.

Jesuits in related fields: Jesuit botanists like Frs Leo de Souza, Ignacimuthu and others have branched off to applied Botany in the realm of biotechnology, and Lancy De Cruz in the fields of ethnobotany and bioprospecting. Responding to the environmental challenges our country faces, groups like Tarumitra, founded by Robert Athickal, SJ in Patna are engaged in eco-education in many schools across the country. Thanks to its contributions, Tarumitra enjoys a Special Consultative Status at the U.N. from 2005.

Fr. S. John Britto, SJ, is the Professor Emeritus at UGC, New Delhi. From 2004, he is the Director of Rapinat Herbarium & Centre for Molecular Systematics. He is also the Director of Anglade Institute of Natural History, Sacred Heart College, Shembaganur,  Kodaikanal, Tamil Nadu. He is a former Rector and Principal of St. Joseph’s College, Tiruchirapalli, Tamil Nadu.