Edgar Thurston

Superintendent of the Madras Government Museum and Connemara Public Library
In office
Preceded byGeorge Bidie
Succeeded byJohn Robertson Henderson
Personal details
Penzance, England
Alma materKing's College, London
ProfessionMuseum superintendent, zoologist, anthropologist
The title page of the first volume of Castes and Tribes of Southern India (1909).
The title page of the first volume of Castes and Tribes of Southern India (1909).

Edgar Thurston CIE (1855– 12 October 1935) was a superintendent at the Madras Government Museum who contributed to studies in the zoology, ethnology and botany of India and published works related to his work at the museum. Thurston was educated in medicine and lectured in anatomy at the Madras Medical College while also holding his position at the museum. His early works were on numismatics and geology and these were followed by researches in anthropology and ethnography. He succeeded Frederick S. Mullaly as the superintendent of ethnography for the Madras Presidency.[2]

Early life

Edgar Thurston was the son of Charles Bosworth Thurston of Kew, London. Schooled at Eton College, he then studied medicine at King's College, London, qualifying as LRCP in 1877. He worked as a medical officer in Kent County Lunatic Asylum and became a curator of the museum at King's College before joining the Madras Museum in 1885 as a superintendent.[3]

Ethnography and geography

Whereas early European ideas on phrenology were applied to identify mental traits of individuals, advocates of scientific racism used what they considered to be more refined anthropometric measurements to identify castes. Thurston was one such person. He believed that intelligence was inversely proportional to the breadth of the nose and claimed that he scrutinised this as well as handwriting when recruiting clerks in his office. He gave lectures to the students of the Madras University and sometimes to the Madras Police on practical anthropology during the 1890s, and he trained the Madras Police in the use of anthropometry for criminal identification. The Bertillon system had already been incorporated in the Bengal and Madras Police departments by the 1890s and Thurston's training was intended to help the police identify membership of what were then termed as "criminal castes".[2][4]

In 1901, Thurston was appointed to the Ethnographic Survey of India project, established at that time following the success of Herbert Hope Risley's Ethnographic Survey of Bengal.[5] Risley was an adherent to the theories of scientific racism and had been appointed as director of Ethnology in India. Thurston worked as a part of this project to collect accurate anthropometric measurements. These included a number of measurements of the skull and derived indices or proportions such as the nasal index.[6] He did this work alongside his role as superintendent of the Madras Museum, a position that he did not leave until 1908.[7]

Among other published works, Thurston wrote the seven volumes of Castes and Tribes of Southern India, published in 1909 as part of the Ethnographic Survey of India. In that work he was assisted by K. Rangachari, a colleague from the Madras museum who had also assisted him in a 1906 ethnographic study, Ethnographic Notes in Southern India. Rangachari had supplied most of the forty photographs used in this earlier study.[5] The September 1910 edition of Nature described the 1909 publication as

a monumental record of the varied phases of south Indian tribal life, the traditions, manners and customs of people. Though in some respects it may be corrected or supplemented by future research it will long retain its value as an example of out-door investigation, and will remain a veritable mine of information, which will be of value.[5]

Thurston also authored The Madras Presidency, with Mysore Coorg, and the associated States, being the third volume of the four-volume series "Provincial Geographies of India" which was published between 1913–23 by the Cambridge University Press under the editorship of Thomas Henry Holland which included physical information and ethnographic notes.[8]

Botany and zoology

Thurston made numerous collections of plant and animals specimens, many of which were sent to the British Museum.[9] In the late 1880s he was involved in studies on pearl fishing in the Gulf of Mannar. On a visit to Europe he sought to find electric lights that would work at a depth of 20 fathoms so as to assist in pearl harvesting.[10] Some species have been named after him, including the marine organisms Manaria thurstoni (E.A. Smith, 1906), Sepia thurstoni (W. Adam & W. J. Rees, 1966), Mobula thurstoni (Lloyd, 1908), and Ecteinascidia thurstoni (Herdman, 1890).[11] Also, a species of Indian snake, Gerrhopilus thurstoni (Boettger, 1890), is named in his honor.[12]

The standard author abbreviation E.Thurst. is used to indicate this person as the author when citing a botanical name.[13]

Museum and art

Aside from his role at the Madras Museum, Thurston was for some time Honorary Secretary to the now-defunct Fine Arts Society of Madras and was influential in promoting the artistic works of Raja Ravi Varma and his brother C. Raja Raja Varma.[14]

Later life

Thurston was awarded the Kaisar-i-Hind Medal, first class, on 26 June 1902.[15] He was made C.I.E. in 1909. He retired to England and spent his winters at Penzance where he studied the local plants and regularly hosted a New Year party for the local botanists. He died on 12 October 1935 at Penzance.[3]


See also


  1. ^ Dirks, Nicholas B. (2015). Autobiography of an Archive: A Scholar's Passage to India. Columbia University Press. p. 72. ISBN 978-0-23153-851-0.
  2. ^ a b Dirks, Nicholas B. (1996). "Reading Culture: Anthropology and the Textualization of India". In Daniel, E. V.; Peck, J. M. (eds.). Culture/Contexture: Explorations in Anthropology and Literary Studies. University of California Press. pp. 281–286.
  3. ^ a b "Noted botanist's death at Penzance". Cornishman. 17 October 1935. p. 10 – via British Newspaper Archive.
  4. ^ Pels, P.; Salemink, O. (2000). Colonial Subjects: Essays on the Practical History of Anthropology. University of Michigan Press. pp. 163–167.
  5. ^ a b c Vundru, Raja Sekhar (24 January 2010). "Mosaic of communities". The Hindu. Archived from the original on 31 January 2010. Retrieved 9 November 2011.
  6. ^ Bates, Crispin (1995). "Race, Caste and Tribe in Central India: the early origins of Indian anthropometry". In Robb, Peter (ed.). The Concept of Race in South Asia. Delhi: Oxford University Press. pp. 238–240. ISBN 978-0-19-563767-0. Retrieved 2 December 2011.
  7. ^ Dirks, Nicholas B. (2001). Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India. Princeton University Press. p. 183. ISBN 0-691-08895-0.
  8. ^ Kavita Philip (2003). Civilising Natures: Race, Resources and Modernity in Colonial South India. Orient Blackswan. p. 149. ISBN 978-81-250-2586-3.
  9. ^ Jackson, W. L. (1891). Statement of the progress made in the arrangement and description of the collections and an account of objects added to them in the year 1890. British Museum, London. pp. 114, 115, 121.
  10. ^ "Science Notes". Liverpool Mercury: 7. 29 November 1888 – via British Newspaper Archive.
  11. ^ "Biographical Etymology of Marine Organism Names: T and U". Tjärnö Marine Biological Laboratory. Retrieved 26 September 2012.
  12. ^ Beolens, Bo; Watkins, Michael; Grayson, Michael (2011). The Eponym Dictionary of Reptiles. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. xiii + 296 pp. ISBN 978-1-4214-0135-5. ("Thurston", p. 265).
  13. ^ IPNI.  E.Thurst.
  14. ^ Mitter, Partha (1994). Art and Nationalism in Colonial India, 1850–1922: Occidental Orientations. Cambridge University Press. pp. 69, 193, 208. ISBN 978-0-52144-354-8.
  15. ^ The India List and Office List. India Office. 1905. p. 172. Retrieved 11 November 2011.

Further reading