A Doctor who laid the Nilgiri Telegraph Line

A Doctor who laid the Nilgiri Telegraph Line

(Governor General of India Lord Dalhousie was confined to the Nilgiris for nearly nine months in 1855 on health grounds. He had to attend to several important things, not least of them being the planning of the great Indian railway. He badly needed a line of communication.  He turned to his doctor friend O’Shaughnessy who laid the difficult telegraph line up the mountains in record time. The doctor had pioneered the telegraph line in 1853 in Calcutta and later extended it to Agra, Madras and Bombay.  He took over as  Director-General of Telegraphs in India in 1852, and held that post till his retirement  in  1861.)

William Brooke O’Shaughnessy was an Irish physician famous for his wide-ranging scientific work in pharmacology, chemistry, and inventions. His medical research led to the development of intravenous therapy and introduced the therapeutic use of Cannabis sativa to Western medicine.

His first stint in India was marked by work in the subjects of botanical pharmacology, chemistry, galvanic electricity, and underwater conduction, among others. O’Shaughnessy established his reputation by successfully relieving the pain of rheumatism and stilling the convulsions of an infant with cannabis. He eventually popularized its use back in England. In 1837 he published his independent design of an electric motor.

The doctor was a supporter of the idea of education in native languages in medicine. He also wanted locally available sources of medicine to be utilized to provide inexpensive aid. As a teacher, he took students on field trips to the Botanical Garden to introduce them to the local medicinal plants. His  major book the Bengal Dispensatory and Pharmacopeia  included an appendix on the “improvement of Bengal pottery”  since earthenware imports from Europe were proving to be expensive.

In 1856 the doctor was knighted by Queen Victoria for his work on the telegraph in India. In 1860, O’Shaughnessy returned to Europe for sick leave where he remained in obscurity until his death from senile asthenia in  1889.

As Director General of Telegraphs he used to tour widely and make surprise checks. Once he made surprise check from Ooty to Coonoor. The lineman at Coonoor responded  “ All clear…by the way is the old bully around?” Prompt came the reply, “ Very much and you are fined Rs1 for impertinence”.

Nilgiri Documentation Centre

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