It is a commentary of our times that European and British adventurers who sought India for conquest and plunder loom large in history books which pay scant attention to the smaller stream of European scholars, scientists, archeologists and engineers who came to India and made a profound impact on life and culture in this country.
A striking example is Vasco da Gama of Portugal, who was the first European to reach India by the sea route and is widely celebrated, while another distinguished Portuguese physician – Garcia da Orta – who settled down to practice medicine in Goa for 36 years in the 16th century and pioneered studies in indigenous medicine is hardly known. He wrote Colloquies on the Simples and Drugs of India in 1563 based on years of observation on diseases in India, medicinal plants, their use in medicine and his views on the practice of medicine. The book became popular and was translated into several European languages because there was a rush among European nations to explore India, which was believed to be fabulously rich.
The would-be explorers were keen to know more about the unfamiliar diseases in the tropics, which had decimated large numbers of Europeans in India. In the 17th century, Van Rheed, the Dutch Governor of Kochi, organized a large group of medicinal botanists, herbal experts, soldier–artists, an Ayurvedic physician, laymen and field workers who studied plants in common use from Kanyakumari to Goa for 30 years and published a classic in 12 volumes – Hortus Malbaricus – in Latin. It listed over 700 plants with exquisite illustrations and information on their medical applications. The interest in taxonomy of plants grew rapidly in Europe and India and Linneus systematization became a landmark.
After the establishment of the Botanical Survey of India and major studies by Roxburgh in Bengal, Ainslie in Tamil Nadu and several others, taxonomy was at the ‘cutting edge’ of science in India in the 18th and 19th centuries. It was the favourite tool of biologists to study the role of medicinal plants used in Ayurveda for many centuries.