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Hugh Falconer lived from 29 February 1808 to 31 July 1865. He was an important botanist, geologist and paleontologist who made a particular study of the flora, fauna and fossils of the Indian sub-continent. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
Hugh Falconer was born in Forres, in Moray. He graduated in natural history from Aberdeen University in 1826, and then studied medicine at Edinburgh University, where he also pursued his interests in botany and geology. He graduated with a medical degree from Edinburgh in 1829 and the following year took up a post as an assistant surgeon with the British East India Company, first in Bengal then in the North West Provinces.
Falconer quickly established himself in India's growing scientific community after publishing a paper about fossils found in Burma. He became Superintendent of the Saharánpur botanical garden in 1832, a post he held until 1842. During this time he also studied mammal fossils from the Siwálik Hills, producing a theory suggesting short periods of rapid evolutionary change throughout geological time. It was not until the 1970s that the same idea was widely accepted after its rediscovery under the name "punctuated equilibrium". In 1834 Falconer was asked to study the feasibility of growing tea in India, work that formed the basis for India's tea industry after the successful breaking of the Chinese tea monopoly by fellow Scot, Robert Fortune at the end of the 1840s.
Falconer left India between 1842 and 1847, travelling widely in Europe and pursuing his studies at the British Museum. In 1845 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. He returned to India in 1847, becoming superintendent of the Calcutta Botanical Garden and professor of botany at Calcutta College. He also advised the colonial government in India on agricultural and horticultural matters. Amongst his achievements were introducing moves towards what would now be called sustainable forestry in the teak forests of Tenasserim. He was also responsible for the widespread cultivation of the cinchona, a family of shrubs and trees whose bark could be used in the treatment of malaria.
Ill health forced Falconer to leave India in 1855 and he returned to Britain, where he began a comparative study of fossils from Europe and the Indian Sub-Continent. He died in London in 1865. Hugh Falconer is remembered in his home town of Forres by the Falconer Museum. He has also had the Rhododendron falconeri named after him, and there are marble busts of him at the Royal Society of London and at the Asiatic Society of Bengal in Calcutta.