Experiments in Producing Useful Commodities from the Nests of Insects in India John O'Brien

The India Office Records, held at the British Library, contain a wealth of material relating to the activities of surgeon-botanists, who combined their official medical duties with an active study of the flora of India. One such surgeon-botanist was Dr James Anderson. Born on the 17th January 1738 at Long Hermiston near Edinburgh, Anderson followed his father into the medical profession. Following stints as a surgeon on East India Company ships in 1759 and 1761, Anderson was appointed an Assistant Surgeon in the Madras Presidency in 1765. His career flourished, and he became the first President of the Madras Medical Board, and held the title Physician-General.

Dr Anderson’s letter to Government, IOR/P/241/15 24 Nov 1789 pp 3251

Anderson was greatly interested in the botany of the Madras Presidency, and worked to uncover new natural resources. One letter from him to the Governor of Madras on the 24th November 1789 describes his efforts to produce useful products from some insect nests to which his attention had been drawn. Dr Anderson described how, almost three years previously, local people had shown him nests of insects which adhered to trees. They had attempted to convince him of the wholesomeness of the nests by eating them. On further investigation he found similar nests in a variety of other trees, the nests being often filled with a motionless red substance, and at other times with small creeping red insects. Frequently only an empty thin husk of the mother insect remained as a lining.

On seeing a description of similar insects found in the trees of China in Abbe Jean-Baptiste Grosier’s General Description of China, Dr Anderson conducted the following experiment: I then threw some of the nests, which are properly the enamel white covering of an insect in the manner of lac, into olive oil heated over the fire, when they were soon dissolved. On cooling, the mixture lost its fluidity, became as hard and firm as tallow or mutton suet, and retained some degree of transparency, although it possessed the colour of bleached wax.

Dr Anderson’s letter to Government, IOR/P/241/15 24 Nov 1789 pp 3252

In his letter, he says the Chinese call this Pe-la white wax, and that according to Abbe Grosier only two kinds of trees in China, the ‘kan-la-chu’ and the ‘choui-la-chu’, on which it is necessary to place the insects with care, afford them proper nourishment. He concludes by saying that he … thought it not improper to mention this Singular Production, as it promises to convert oil into the consistance of wax, and serve other useful purposes.

Along with his letter describing his experiments on insect nests, Dr Anderson also enclosed a copy of another letter which he had sent to Dr Andrew Berry, Superintendent of the Madras Nopalry Garden, dated 15th November 1789. In this letter he recommended useful plants to procure for the Nopalry Botanic Garden, such as the great aloe for rope, mimosa arabica for gum, and fir trees for resin. The India Office Records holds reports on the Nopalry Gardens from 1789 to 1801, many of which are online via the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website: http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/ (search under Nopalry).

Dr Anderson’s letter to Government, IOR/P/241/15 24 Nov 1789 pp 3253


Madras Public Consultations, reference IOR/P/241/15 24 Nov 1789 pp 3251-59


Oxford Dictionary of National Biography http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/476?docPos=3  [last accessed 8th May 2014]

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