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Sir William Brooke O'Shaughnessy (1808-1889), MD, FRS, LRCS Ed: Chemical pathologist, pharmacologist and pioneer in electric telegraphy

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This article reviews the life and work of Sir William O'Shaughnessy Brooke (formerly Sir William Brooke O'Shaughnessy), an Edinburgh doctor of medicine and Fellow of the Royal Society who as a young doctor in London analysed the blood and excreta of cholera victims, an action which led to the first successful use of intravenous replacement therapy. His career in India was distinguished in several spheres: chemistry, pharmacology in which he introduced cannabis indica to Europe, and in the field of electric telegraphy where he became the superintendent of telegraphs for India.
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Original Article
Sir William Brooke O’Shaughnessy
(1808–1889), MD, FRS, LRCS Ed:
Chemical pathologist, pharmacologist
and pioneer in electric telegraphy
Neil MacGillivray
Abstract
This article reviews the life and work of Sir William O’Shaughnessy Brooke (formerly Sir William Brooke
O’Shaughnessy), an Edinburgh doctor of medicine and Fellow of the Royal Society who as a young doctor in London
analysed the blood and excreta of cholera victims, an action which led to the first successful use of intravenous
replacement therapy. His career in India was distinguished in several spheres: chemistry, pharmacology in which he
introduced cannabis indica to Europe, and in the field of electric telegraphy where he became the superintendent of
telegraphs for India.
Keywords
Edinburgh, cholera, India, chemistry, Calcutta, cannabis, electric telegraphy
The purpose of this article is to examine the life and
work of a largely forgotten Irish-born physician whose
career at home and abroad was remarkable in its diver-
sity. William Brooke O’Shaughnessy can claim distinc-
tion in three spheres of scientific activity: as a professor
of chemistry and pioneer in chemical analysis particu-
larly in the chemical pathology of cholera where his
investigations led to the introduction of intravenous
fluid therapy; in pharmacology as editor of the
Bengal Pharmacopeia and his research into the thera-
peutic properties of cannabis; finally as the man who
helped to change the face of British India by his
researches on and promotion of electric telegraphy
and its eventual development across the Indian sub-
continent.
1
Professor Mel Gorman has reviewed
O’Shaughnessy’s career as a ‘pioneer chemical educa-
tor’ and has also examined his role in the establishment
of the telegraph in India and acknowledgment of his
meticulous scholarly research is hereby made.
2
J.A.Bridge in 1998 in an article for the Royal Society,
described by the author as ‘a biographical appreciation
by an electrical engineer’, examined the life of
O’Shaughnessy in considerable detail and focused
on his work in India on the electric telegraph.
3
This paper, however, will consider O’Shaughnessy’s
career from a medical perspective, while at the same
time examining his role in the development of the tele-
graph in India.
This extraordinary man was born in Limerick,
County Clare, Ireland, the son of Daniel
O’Shaughnessy and Sarah Boswell in 1808. There is
no reference to a medical background in any biographi-
cal notes, the only mention of his family being of kin-
dred who were clergymen, his uncle being the Dean of
Ennis and his great uncle the Roman Catholic Bishop
of Killaloe.
4
The young O’Shaughnessy studied for a
year at Trinity College, Dublin, matriculating in the
medical school on 17 November 1825 but left before
graduating, transferring in 1827 to the faculty of med-
icine at the University of Edinburgh where his place of
origin was recorded as Ennis in County Clare.
5
He
graduated MD in 1829 with a thesis entitled De
Metastasi Rheumatismi Acuti becoming LRCSEd the
School of History, Classics and Archaeology, University of Edinburgh,
Edinburgh, UK
Corresponding author:
Neil MacGillivray, School of History, Classics and Archaeology, University
of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, EH8 9AG, UK.
Email: N.MacGillivray@ed.ac.uk
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same year and then promptly matriculated for the aca-
demic year 1829–1830, presumably in order to pursue
further study.
6
Chemistry: Edinburgh and London
The professors in the University of Edinburgh during
the 1820s included Robert Christison (1797–1882) in
medical jurisprudence and Thomas Hope (1766–1844)
in chemistry.
7
Both these men appear to have had a
major influence on O’Shaughnessy and the direction
of his life and interests when one considers his early
publications were in the fields of toxicology and chem-
istry. Hope who held the chair of chemistry from 1799
to 1843 was reputedly one of the finest chemistry lec-
turers of his time in Europe. According to Morell,
Hope ‘held the limelight and delighted big audiences’
in his fluent style but did not promote practical chem-
istry despite the increasing importance of laboratory
experience; the result of this neglect was that extra
mural classes sprang up where aspiring chemists and
physicians could learn essential laboratory skills. The
increased emphasis on this aspect of chemical science
was clear when in 1829 new regulations were passed by
the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh requiring
candidates to take classes in practical chemistry.
Although University class records do not record
O’Shaughnessy in either Christison’s medical jurispru-
dence class or Hope’s chemistry class, Gorman has
pointed out that he may have attended classes given
by one of the many extra-mural lecturers attracting
medical students at that time. Hope’s neglect of prac-
tical chemistry allowed men like Andrew Fyfe, John
Anderson, Edward Turner, and David Boswell Reid
to set up classes in practical chemistry outwith the uni-
versity, all attracting large numbers of students.
8
Despite a lack of hard evidence that O’Shaughnessy
attended classes in theoretical and practical chemistry,
it is clear that as an undergraduate in Edinburgh he
developed an interest and proficiency in both aspects
of chemistry and in toxicology. Turner and Reid were
important influences in his enthusiasm for chemistry
and of course Reid was an undergraduate at the same
time as O’Shaughnessy between 1827 and 1829.
9
O’Shaughnessy published his first paper in May
1830, at the age of 21, a year after completing his med-
ical degree. The article reviewed the accepted methods
of detecting nitric acid in forensic cases, agreeing with
Dr Christison as to the importance of providing the
medical jurist with ‘not only satisfactory evidence but
also the best evidence which his science aords.’
10
In describing the tests used to detect nitric acid,
which apparently at that time was commonly used as
a poison, he explained that he had ‘been very recently
engaged in a series of toxicological experiments’ and
had discovered ‘a glaring fallacy in one of the tests
recommended by the most eminent authorities.’
Although in the article he refers admiringly to the
Figure 1. Images of O’Shaughnessy and Cannabis Indica. The image on the right is Courtesy of the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
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work on chemistry by Dr Turner and that on toxicol-
ogy by Dr Christison, he does not accept that their
work is infallible.
11
Both these men were Edinburgh
medical graduates and had spent time together in
Paris studying chemistry and toxicology. Turner
returned to Edinburgh in 1824 as an extra-mural tea-
cher of chemistry and Christison was appointed profes-
sor of medical jurisprudence on his return in 1822 and
published his treatise on poisons in 1829. Edward
Turner (1796–1837), MD Edinburgh 1819, published
in 1827 his Elements of Chemistry, the work referred
to by O’Shaughnessy, and in the same year took the
chair of chemistry at the University of London.
12
Robert Christison, later Sir Robert, MD Edinburgh
1819, studied chemistry in Paris with Pierre-Jean
Robiquet (1780–1840) and toxicology with Mathieu
Joseph Bonaventure Orfila (1787–1853). Not only did
O’Shaughnessy criticize Christison’s method of identi-
fying the presence of nitric acid and that of Turner but
he also objected to certain aspects of Dr Liebig’s pro-
cess, Liebig at this time being Professor of Chemistry at
the University of Giessen.
13
His objections were based
on the failure of the tests to demonstrate unequivocally
the presence or absence of nitrates, tests which
depended on the addition of indigo and sulphuric
acid to, for example, stomach contents; the mixture
was then heated and some drops of sulphuric acid
added to the mixture. The expectation was that first
the liquid would turn blue on heating and then pale
and colourless when the sulphuric acid was added,
thereby proving the presence of nitrates. However,
O’Shaughnessy pointed out that the presence of muri-
ate of soda (sodium chloride) in the stomach would
turn the experimental mixture colourless, thereby fal-
sely indicating the presence of nitric acid. He went on to
show how more sophisticated methods could be used
without the risk of false positive or false negative
results. It seems that the youthful O’Shaughnessy was
already a confident and competent chemist with a
growing interest in toxicology.
In July 1830, O’Shaughnessy published a second
paper, again on forensic pathology, in which he stressed
the importance of accuracy in toxicological analysis,
describing his methods for detecting the presence in
the body of two potential poisons: iodine and muriate
of potash (potassium chloride). He urged that in any
case of suspected poisoning with either of these chemi-
cals, if tests on the intestinal contents proved negative,
the substances may be detected in the blood and urine,
a circumstance which he had proven by poisoning six
dogs and testing their body fluids.
14
Such animal
research is considered totally unacceptable in the
21st century but was quite unremarkable in the early
19th century.
At about this time O’Shaughnessy moved to London
and the next phase of his career began. Shortly after his
arrival he published a paper, again on toxicological
chemistry, analysing the methods used to detect the
presence of opium, an important technique for the pro-
secution of medico-legal cases. On this occasion also he
referred to Christison and Hope and admitted that this
contribution was not an original one but rather a col-
lection of ‘some isolated and scattered chemical facts’
which he hoped might prevent confusion during the
course of criminal trials. His next foray into the
world of forensic chemistry concerned food analysis,
especially confectionery, in order to detect adulteration
from poisonous substances. This was published in the
Lancet in May 1831 at the behest of Dr Thomas
Wakley (1795–1862), the founder and editor of the
journal.
15
He explained that a year previously Dr
Wakley had asked him to carry out ‘a series of analytic
investigations into the truth or accuracy of various
alleged adulterations’ in order that the information
obtained ‘might lead to the ecient protection of the
public health.’ Wakley had stimulated his interest by
sending him a copy of the Journal de Chimie Medicale
in which was an article by the French chemist and
pharmacist Jean–Baptiste Chevallier (1793–1879) on
the adulteration of confectionary by mineral poisons.
16
The exposure by Chevallier of these dangerous prac-
tices resulted in an order from the Paris prefecture of
police in December 1830 condemning their use, listing
those which were harmful and ordering all confection-
ary to be labelled with the name of the maker so that he
could be held responsible. O’Shaughnessy analysed the
green, red, yellow and blue coloured confections finding
dangerous substances in all those examined and
although he had not quantified the amounts present
he wrote that ‘it appears to me to be altogether unne-
cessary to take the trouble, [to weigh and measure
Figure 2. Kolkata Medical College or Calcutta Medical
College.
MacGillivray Sir William Brooke O’Shaughnessy 3
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quantities] as the mere presence of the minutest possible
quantity of any such substance should not be allowed.’
He put his findings to the Government after obtaining
an interview with the Secretary of the Home
Department but wrote: ‘how far this representation
may induce the authorities to direct their attention to
matters of this description, I should not be justified in
oering even a conjecture.’
17
Later that year he demonstrated his versatility by
publishing in the Lancet a translation from the
French of Lugol’s work on iodine, later published as
attracted Wakley’s attention and it was his chemical
knowledge that enabled him to develop a successful
teaching programme in Calcutta (Figure 2), an aspect
of his career which will be addressed later. It seems that
he was forced to adopt a career in chemical analysis on
discovering that the regulations of the College of
Physicians would not permit him to practice medicine
in London not being a Licentiate of the college. The
young physician was ambitious not only in the field of
chemical analysis but also in academic forensic medi-
cine for the archives of University College London
record that he applied unsuccessfully for the chair of
medical jurisprudence in that institution.
19
His inability
to practise medicine led to his involvement in medical
politics becoming secretary of a group, encouraged by
Wakley, to promote a London Medical College in order
to counter the closed shop of the College of Physicians.
The movement failed.
20
However, it is his next endea-
vour which ensured his place in the annals of medical
research; his publications on chemistry and his connec-
tions in London were the key to his selection as the
scientist best qualified to analyse the blood and dis-
charges of cholera victims.
Cholera Epidemic of 1831–1832
Although it is generally accepted that the first cholera
pandemic occurred between 1817 and 1823, there is
some disagreement as to the exact dates of the second
pandemic. However, it is most likely that it began in
1829 spreading from Asia through Russia and thence to
the rest of Europe, arriving in Britain in October
1831.
21
The appearance of cholera in Russia triggered
a flurry of ocial action with many European countries
sending medical observers to study the modes of
spread, the clinical features and the management of
the disease. The British Privy Council in June 1831
established the Central Board of Health, consisting of
11 men, six medical and five from the military and the
government; one of the first acts of the new Board was
to appoint two medical envoys to study the epidemic in
Russia and the Russian response to it.
22
The two phy-
sicians, William Russell (1773–1839) and David Barry
(1780–1835), both later knighted, reported back to the
Central Board of Health after visiting Russia in the
summer and autumn of that year.
23
Their report from St Petersburg in July 1831 made
disturbing reading. They had consulted Sir James Wylie
(1768–1854), a Scottish surgeon whose power and influ-
ence in Tsarist and military circles were considerable.
24
Wylie had approved their request that they might take
exclusive charge of a certain number of military cholera
patients in order to gain experience ‘but the violent
excitement of the people against all foreigners, more
particularly against medical men ...has rendered the
adoption of our proposition inadmissible’; a German
physician had been killed by the mob and six were
severely beaten on the 26 and 27 June.
25
In their final
report, they warned that ‘no remedy at all approaching
to the nature of a specific has been as yet discovered for
this disease.’ Reports from abroad show just how
varied and improbable some of the suggested treat-
ments were, a state of aairs illustrated in a letter to
Barry and Russell from the British Vice–Consul at
Cronstadt who wrote that ‘the methods of cure are as
various as incredible.’
26
The British government knew
full well that it was only a matter of time before the
epidemic entered Britain, island state or not, and
undoubtedly there was great apprehension as to the
political consequences, both from the expected high
mortality and the public’s reaction to it.
Within a few months of the establishment of the
Central Board, cholera reached England claiming its
first victim in Sunderland on 20 October 1831, and it
was there that O’Shaughnessy was sent – one theory is
that a Vice President of the London College of
Surgeons requested the young physician to go there
to analyse the blood and excreta of cholera victims.
27
Whatever the immediate reason, there is no question
but that O’Shaughnessy had become prominent as a
chemical analyst and was therefore an ideal choice for
the task.
On his return from the north of England,
O’Shaughnessy presented his findings to the Board of
Health on 7 January 1832, a report that was subse-
quently published.
28
This included a detailed analysis
of contemporary knowledge of the chemistry of the
blood in the healthy state, a review of publications on
blood chemistry in cholera, emphasising the research
carried out in Russia by Hermann and Jaehnichen,
who had found that the blood of cholera victims had
lost almost 30% of its water, and who had attempted to
replace the loss with six ounces of fluid.
29
Prior to his
ocial report of 3 December 1831, O’Shaughnessy read
a paper to the Westminster Medical Society in which he
referred to Dr Stevens, a West Indies doctor, who had
observed that the blood of yellow fever patients was
often darker than normal; Stevens administered salt
solutions orally to restore the red colour to the blood
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and when cholera reached England, it appears that
Stevens treated patients using this method but with
the intention only of restoring the red colour to the
blood. The London Medical Gazette proposed an exten-
sion of Stevens’ method suggesting a trial of intrave-
nous medication but, as Howard–Jones points out,
there was at this time no intention of rehydration
merely of changing the colour of the blood from
black to red.
30
In contrast to the earlier recommenda-
tions in his paper of December 3, O’Shaughnessy now
concluded that it was essential first to restore the blood
to its natural specific gravity and second to correct the
deficiency in ‘saline matters’. He wrote that ‘the first of
these can only be aected by absorption, by imbibition,
or by the injection of aqueous fluid into the veins. The
same remarks... apply to the second.’
31
O’Shaughnessy wondered if in cholera ‘the habits of
practical chemistry which I have occasionally
pursued... might lead to the application of chemistry
to its cure.’
32
His analysis and conclusions are in stark
contrast to contemporary orthodoxy, the belief that
venesection would remove the supposedly tainted
blood and therefore aid recovery, a notion based on
outdated humoral theory. O’Shaughnessy wrote that
the blood had lost a large proportion of its water,
1000 parts of cholera serum having but the average of
860 parts of water and that it had also lost a great
proportion of its neutral saline ingredients. Moreover,
he found that all the salts deficient in the blood, espe-
cially the carbonate of soda, were present in large quan-
tities in the dejected (sic) matters.
33
He concluded:
I would not hesitate to inject some ounces of warm
water into the veins. [original italics]. I would also with-
out apprehension dissolve in that water the mild innoc-
uous salts... which in Cholera are deficient.’
34
It was
following these articles in the Lancet that Dr Thomas
Latta, a medical practitioner in Leith near Edinburgh,
determined to put into practice the treatment suggested
by O’Shaughnessy which was a radical step – totally
opposed to the accepted treatment of the time, blood-
letting.
35
Bloodletting was so common that one medical
historian commented that ‘the physician also consti-
tuted himself the unwitting ally of the Vibrio cholerae
by practising forced exsanguination of patients who
were dying for want of circulating fluid.’
36
The Edinburgh Board of Health in November 1831
‘having maturely considered what steps should be taken
for checking cholera’ expressed the opinion that if it
became contagious, cleanliness and sobriety would
greatly diminish the risk of spread and the most essen-
tial precaution was sobriety. In a long list of recom-
mended treatments which included mustard poultices,
hot air baths (including a model of simple construction
at a cost of ten shillings) the Board were certain that
bloodletting if resorted to within the first three hours
‘has generally been found very useful.’
37
The contrast
between the Edinburgh Board’s report and that of
O’Shaughnessy is remarkable; equally remarkable is
that in 1847, Edmund A. Parkes, MD, FRS, in his
MD thesis, later published, writing on the pathology
and treatment of cholera was still advocating bloodlet-
ting, quoting a case in which he had bled to the extent
of 40 ounces. Later in his thesis, he discussed the use of
saline intravenously and had injected 4.5 pints [2.55
litres] of saline with the albumen of one egg after
which the pulse improved briefly but the patient devel-
oped ‘a violent rigor and died’. It is probable that the
addition of a foreign protein, egg albumen produced an
anaphylactic reaction and the rigor. Parkes was recog-
nised as an expert on cholera. It was little wonder that
Sir Thomas Watson, a London physician, once
remarked that ‘if the balance could be fairly struck,
and the exact truth ascertained, I question whether we
should find the aggregate mortality from cholera in this
country was in any way disturbed by our craft.’
38
The first notice of Latta’s new treatment appeared in
a letter to the Central Board of Health from a friend
and colleague, Dr Lewins, also from Leith, in which he
described the successful use of intravenous saline
during the cholera epidemic in Edinburgh and Leith.
The immediate reaction to his letter was generally
favourable but there were exceptions, the negative
reports often following the injudicious addition of
other substances to the saline solution; a Liverpool
physician, injected saline with added egg white but
after an initial good response the patient developed
an intense fever with rigors, presumably a reaction to
the foreign protein.
39
A leading article in the Lancet
claimed that intravenous saline had failed only in one
case in which it had been ‘fairly tried – that is, where no
organic disease had pre-existed and where enough of
life was left to sanction the least anticipation of suc-
cess.’
40
The following week in a letter to the London
Medical Gazette, Professor Robert Christison who
had been asked by the Dutch government to report
on the saline method stressed that ‘no other remedy
has anything like the immediate eect of the injection
of saline solution into the veins’. However, he pointed
out possible dangers: air embolism, phlebitis and the
unknown eects of introducing so great a quantity of
saline into the blood. Christison’s opinion was based on
the Edinburgh and Leith experience of treating 37
patients of whom 12 patients were alive and of those
who died all showed signs of extensive organic disease
at post mortem examination. It is worth noting that
Latta had selected his patients carefully, choosing
those who were on the threshold of death.
41
Despite
his reservations, Christison approved of the treatment
and said that had he been in charge of cholera patients
he ‘should certainly have given it a trial.’
42
In view of
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later events, it is interesting to record extracts from a
letter written by the Professor of botany, and Regius
Keeper of the Royal Botanic Garden of Edinburgh,
Robert Graham, (1786–1845) to his opposite number,
the Superintendent of the Calcutta Botanic Garden, Dr
Nathaniel Wallich, (1786–1854) in which he describes
the recent remarkable and successful use of intravenous
saline in the treatment of cholera. Graham, who was
not only a botanist but also a physician and President
of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh in
1840, wrote from Edinburgh on 28 May 1832:
We are producing here the most marvellous eects on
the worst cases of Cholera by injecting marvellous
quantities of salt water into the veins. I saw a man
today who was far on to the grave yesterday. Into his
veins there have been since that time 49 pounds [22.23
litres] of salt water injected, and his eye and feeling and
general appearance are now like a man in perfect
health. [original emphasis]
Graham went on to describe the method of prepar-
ing the solution and the temperature at which it was
injected:
to ten pounds [4.54 litres] were added four drachms
[7 grams] of muriate of soda and four scruples
[5 grams] of bicarbonate of soda and the solution
is injected at a temperature varying from 112 to
115 or even as high as 120 but this generally produces
flushing—if at a lower temperature than 110 it
generally produces a rigor—it is positively worth your
while to come and see this before you return to
India ....’
It is worth noting that prior to his appointment to
the Calcutta Botanical Garden Wallich, like almost all
those who held ‘professional’ botanical posts at this
period, was trained as a doctor of medicine, starting
his Indian career as surgeon to the Danish colony at
Frederiksnagore (Serampore), before transferring to
the East India Company primarily as a botanist.
43
The interest in Latta’s therapy and the subsequent
use of intravenous saline was short lived: the cholera
epidemic ended in 1832 and the following year Latta
died from pulmonary tuberculosis. There were many
reasons why the treatment fell into disrepute, not
least being unwanted and sometimes fatal side-eects
such as phlebitis, anaphylaxis, circulatory overload and
cerebral oedema. In August 1833, O’Shaughnessy
joined the East India Company as a surgeon in the
Bengal service, a decision perhaps triggered by two
events: a failure to be appointed Professor of Medical
Jurisprudence in the University of London and his
marriage.
44
East India Company and Calcutta (present
day Kolkata)
The Bengal medical service at this time had a comple-
ment of 350 ocers who before appointment had to
undergo an examination in medicine by the East
India Company’s chief physician. The cost of the
voyage from London to Bombay via Egypt was £150,
whereas the cost via the Cape of Good Hope was £120.
This was a considerable sum when an assistant sur-
geon’s salary was £118 per annum with a three year
furlough to Europe after 10 years’ service.
45
O’Shaughnessy’s first appointment with the Company
was as an assistant surgeon but within two years he had
been promoted to the rank of Surgeon, the next rung
on the professional ladder. India at this time was in the
process of change with the promoters of Anglicisation
beginning to succeed in at least some of their aims – and
in terms of O’Shaughnessy’s career this change was
highly significant. Whereas, since 1822 basic medical
training had been available in the vernacular at the
Native Medical Institute, in 1835 the Calcutta
Medical College was opened, with instruction in
English.
46
O’Shaughnessy was appointed as the College’s first
Professor of Chemistry and gave his introductory
course in January 1836; one of the texts he used was
David Boswell Reid’s Practical Chemistry but he also
corrected and criticised certain sections of the book.
47
Reid (1805–c.1862) was an Edinburgh contemporary of
O’Shaughnessy, graduating in 1830, who ran classes in
practical chemistry and it is possible that
O’Shaughnessy attended some of these. In October
1838, O’Shaughnessy writing on Indian Materia
Medica declared his aim of enabling ‘the native
practitioner... to dispense with exotic or imported
remedies, and turn with confidence to those supplied
in every direction around us, by a bountiful provi-
dence.’
48
By 1841, he was suciently well versed in
Indian pharmacology to edit a volume in which
he drew on the works of colleagues including
Dr Nathaniel Wallich, Dr John Forbes Royle
(1798–1858) and Dr Robert Wight (1796–1872), all
botanists and physicians.
49
In 1836, Dr John Forbes (1787–1861), later Sir John,
and Dr John Conolly (1794–1866) started a new pub-
lication: the British and Foreign Medical Review, or, A
Quarterly Journal of Practical Medicine, sharing the
editorship from 1836 to 1839.
50
They published in
1840, a review of O’Shaughnessy’s 1839 monograph
on Indian hemp; O’Shaughnessy had become interested
in the properties of cannabis and its potential uses in
medicine. Relating how the narcotic eects of hemp
were well known in Africa, South America, Egypt,
Asia Minor and India, he observed that ‘in the popular
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medicine of these nations we find it extensively
employed for a variety of aections. But in Western
Europe its use either as a stimulant or as a remedy is
equally unknown....’
51
The Lancet in a review of this
work on cannabis observed that
the labours of Dr O’Shaughnessy, as a scientific che-
mist, are already known in the most favourable manner
to our readers; but unlike the greater number of che-
mists, he combines practice with theory and directs his
scientific discoveries to the advancement of medicine as
a healing art.
The writer concluded hoping ‘that some of our hos-
pital physicians will, without delay, procure the remedy
which Dr O’Shaughnessy has thus favourably intro-
duced, and determine how far it may sustain its reputa-
tion as a ‘‘powerful anti-convulsive’’ in this country.’
52
Remarkably, the same year as O’Shaughnessy’s mono-
graph was published in Calcutta Jonathan Pereira
referred to the eects of cannabis in his two volume
work on materia medica.
53
O’Shaughnessy experimented with a resinous extract
of hemp in several disorders but only after he had used
the substance in a series of animal experiments, finding
little benefit in rheumatism, hydrophobia or cholera but
found it to be useful in tetanus. As Mills, in a wide
ranging analysis of cannabis and its uses in the
British Empire, points out ‘it was O’Shaughnessy who
was to write the definitive account of cannabis of the
early nineteenth century.’
54
Mills illustrates the distrust
almost amounting to contempt shown by British
doctors towards Indian medicine and therapeutics but
exonerates O’Shaughnessy from this criticism writing:
‘it does not seem surprising that it was O’Shaughnessy
who was the first British doctor to decide to find out for
himself exactly what the impact of cannabis substances
was rather than to rely on hearsay or on recycled ver-
sions of other writers’ compilations.’
55
O’Shaughnessy communicated his findings to
Christison in Edinburgh sending botanical specimens
to him and to the Royal Botanic Garden in
Edinburgh. It is not coincidental that Christison’s
son, Alexander, wrote his 1850 Edinburgh MD thesis
on Cannabis indica, describing its use in tetanus in both
private practice and in the Infirmary.
56
In a paper pub-
lished the following year, he wrote that Indian hemp
was little known to Europeans until it was brought
prominently into notice by Dr O’Shaughnessy of
Calcutta in 1839.
57
When O’Shaughnessy published
his Bengal Dispensatory and Pharmacopoeia in 1842,
the section on cannabis extended to 25 pages and has
been described as ‘the most comprehensive assessment
of the properties of cannabis... to appear by the hand
of a British Scientist during the entire period of colonial
rule.’
58
In 1840, he was appointed government chemical
analyst at the same time continuing his professorship
and teaching commitments, but it is likely that the
strain was too great and on the grounds of ill health
he was allowed to take furlough in England in
November 1841, two years earlier than the regulations
allowed. He remained on leave until 1844 and it was
during this time that he was elected a Fellow of the
Royal Society in 1843. His certificate as a candidate
for election recorded his designation as an assistant
surgeon in the Bengal Medical Service and as late pro-
fessor of chemistry and natural philosophy in the
Calcutta Medical College, now on sick leave. Several
of his publications were mentioned and he was
described as distinguished in the sciences of medicine
and chemistry.
59
Electric telegraphy
O’Shaughnessy developed an interest in electric telegra-
phy, writing an article for a Bengal journal in 1839
describing an advanced type of electric motor; later
that year he erected an experimental line of 13 miles
near Calcutta with a considerable portion under water
and obtained excellent transmission of signals.
60
These
activities took place only two years after Sir William
Cooke (1806–1879) and Sir Charles Wheatstone (1802–
1875) demonstrated the feasibility of such a system
building a circuit between Euston and Camden.
Wheatstone and Cooke’s first patent, ‘for improve-
ments in giving signals and sounding alarms in distant
places by means of electric currents transmitted
through electric circuits’, was signed by William IV
on 10 June 1837. They tested their invention with the
London and Blackwall, the London and Birmingham,
and the Great Western Railway companies allowing the
use of their lines for the experiment.
61
O’Shaughnessy
visited Joseph Henry (1797–1878), an American physi-
cist when on sick leave; Henry, the son of Scottish
immigrants, was a scientist whose work on electromag-
netism was the basis of the electric telegraph and it is
clear that by the time of his visit O’Shaughnessy was
already interested in the possibilities of such a means of
communication.
On his return to India he obtained permission in
1847 to build a length of telegraph of 82 miles from
Calcutta; first a 30 mile length was constructed to
Diamond Harbour in the space of three months, later
extended a further 52 miles to the sea in March 1852.
Gorman makes the point that O’Shaughnessy’s success-
ful demonstration of telegraphy and his conviction that
telegraphs of 1000 miles were possible might have been
MacGillivray Sir William Brooke O’Shaughnessy 7
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to no avail had not there appeared a new Governor–
General in 1847. The appointment of James Ramsay,
Earl (later Marquis) of Dalhousie (1812–1860), thought
by some to have been one of India’s finest administra-
tors, brought to the country a man who had been
President of the Board of Trade in London and an
enthusiast for technological change who during his
period of oce at the Board of Trade had overseen
the rapid expansion of railways in Britain.
Dalhousie’s biographer records that ‘he found on the
spot a professor of chemistry in the Medical College of
Calcutta, Dr William Brooke O’Shaughnessy, who
entered heartily into his schemes and satisfied him
that he could carry them out.’ Dalhousie informed
the Military Board that they were not to exercise any
authority over O’Shaughnessy who was to report
directly to Dalhousie himself.
62
The fact that the first
working telegraph in Britain had been constructed only
in 1838 on the Great Western Railway between
Paddington and West Drayton emphasises
O’Shaughnessy’s achievement in building an experi-
mental line of 22 miles with excellent transmission of
signals in 1839. On the strength of this success
Dalhousie ordered his return to London to persuade
the Directors of the East India Company to release
funds for an extension of the line from Calcutta to
Agra, Delhi, Lahore and Simla with a second line
from Agra to Bombay and thence to Madras, in total
3200 miles.
63
It was after his return to India that he was
appointed to the post of Superintendent of Telegraphs
in India but his travels were not over: in 1855
O’Shaughnessy was sent to Europe and America to
study the Morse system of transmitting messages.
Dalhousie’s biographer claims that ‘the military and
political gains [of the telegraph] were of incalculable
value’ and that ‘telegraphic communication was the
most powerful weapon with which Lord Canning con-
fronted the mutiny.’
64
O’Shaughnessy was created a Knight Bachelor in
1856, largely at the prompting of Dalhousie and pro-
moted to the rank of Surgeon Major in 1858. He retired
from the service in 1862 having assumed by royal
licence the surname of Brooke in 1861. The reason
for this change of name is unknown.
His contributions in three distinct areas of science
have been reviewed by several scholars and his career
in India recorded in a memoir written in 1889 by a
member of the Indian Telegraph Department. In the
preface the author indicated that the memoir was
based on the records of the Oce of Telegraphs, of
the Calcutta Mint, of the Surgeon-General’s Oce
together with the Proceedings of the Asiatic Society
and that the Director General of Telegraphs had
authorised its publication as likely to be of great
general interest. In the appendix is included a
series of lectures on Natural Philosophy given by
O’Shaughnessy in 1841 and which had been earlier pub-
lished in the Journal of the Asiatic Society. Some of the
experiments O’Shaughnessy carried out took place in
the grounds of the Botanical Garden of Calcutta
‘with Dr Wallich’s liberal aid’ as the lecturer pointed
out. With Wallich’s appointment as Professor of
Botany at the Calcutta Medical College, he became a
colleague of O’Shaughnessy, but here in this single
reference are gathered together many of
O’Shaughnessy’s interests: telegraphy, botanical thera-
pies, cannabis, and of course the connection with
Robert Graham and Wallich that had started many
years earlier as a result of O’Shaughnessy’s work on
cholera. It is hoped that this article will renew interest
in O’Shaughnessy’s career.
65
Funding
The author received no financial support for the research,
authorship, and/or publication of this article.
References and notes
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1832; William Brooke O’Shaughnessy, Bengal
Pharmacopoeia and General Conspectus of Medicinal
Plants. Arranged according to the Natural and
Therapeutical Systems: Published by Order of
Government, Calcutta, Bishop’s College, 1844; William
Brooke O’Shaughnessy, The Electric Telegraph in British
India: a Manual of Instruction for the Subordinate Officers,
Artificers, and Signallers employed in this Department,
London for the Court of the Directors of the East India
Company, 1853. In this article I have used his original
surname O’Shaughnessy rather than Brooke which he
adopted in 1861 although the DNB uses Brooke:
Katherine Prior, ‘Brooke, Sir William O’Shaughnessy
(1808–1889)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography,
Oxford University Press, www.oxforddnb.com/view/art-
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tise on adulterations of food and culinary poisons : exhibit-
ing the fraudulent sophistications of bread, beer, wine,
spirituous liquors, tea, coffee, cream, confectionery, vin-
egar, mustard, pepper, cheese, olive oil, pickles and other
articles employed in domestic economy; and methods of
detecting them. London: J. Martin, 1807.
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Scrofulous Diseases, translated by WB O’Shaughnessy,
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M. Jeanne Peterson, The medical profession in Mid-
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20. Morning Post, 27 April 1831 p.1 published a notice from
O’Shaughnessy postponing for a week a public meeting of
the medical profession to discuss the proposed London
College of Medicine.
21. Standard, 10 November 1831 pp.3 &4 recorded the chol-
era outbreak in Sunderland, an emergency meeting of the
Board of Health and the arrival of Drs Russell and Barry
from Russia on 9 November.
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of Health had been established on 21 June.
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Dictionary of National Biography, www.oxforddnb.com
(accessed 20 January 2015). It is remarkable that Russell
and Wylie were born in Scotland about twenty miles
apart – the former near Edinburgh and Wylie in
Kincardine on Forth.
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of acetic acid and water but despite a return of the pulse
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43. I am grateful to Dr Henry Noltie, Royal Botanic Garden,
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letter, the original of which is in the archives of the
Calcutta Botanic Garden. Graham was appointed to his
post as Keeper in January 1820 and was responsible for
establishing the Garden in its present Inverleith situation;
Anita McConnell, ‘Graham, Robert (1786–1845)’,
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Author biography
Neil MacGillivray retired from a career as a consultant otolaryngologist in Victoria Hospital, Blackpool to study
history in the Department of Scottish History at the University of Edinburgh graduating MSc in 1999, PhD in
2004 and has published on a variety of topics including medical, social and economic history. He is now an
Honorary Post-Doctoral Fellow in Scottish History and a council member of the Scottish History Society.
MacGillivray Sir William Brooke O’Shaughnessy 11
by guest on September 22, 2015jmb.sagepub.comDownloaded from
... indica, Cannabinaceae) 20 . In addition to such contributions to therapeutics in India, O'Shaughnessy also published on the science of photography and telegraphy [21][22][23] . ...
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by John M'Cosh. Originally the author's thesis, published here to orient those entering the Bengal Medical Service.