Sir William Brooke O’Shaughnessy (1808-89)
Born to Daniel O’Shaughenssy and Sara Boswell, a well-to-do Catholic family from Co. Limerick, O’Shaughnessy was educated at the University of Edinburgh where he gained an M.D. in 1829. Following his degree, O’Shaughnessy pursued medical research, studying the treatment of Cholera and the detection of poison, upon which he wrote several reviewing articles which appeared in the Lancet (1830-1). By 1833 he had joined the Bengal Army as an assistant surgeon, becoming Professor of Chemistry at the Calcutta Medical College.
In India, O’Shaughnessy quickly distinguished himself in the fields of science and medicine. He published the Manual of Chemistry in 1841 and was a regular contributor to the Annals of the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal. At the same time, he also conducted extensive research into the pharmaceutical application of indigenous plants and their derivatives, including opium and cannabis which were published in the Bengal Dispensatory (1842) and the Bengal Pharmacopoeia (1844). In addition, his efforts to perfect the refinement of gold, led to his appointment as director of the Calcutta mint, but failed to gain appointment as Assay master.
Nevertheless, O’Shaugnessy continued to pursue scientific and technological advances. As early as 1837, he built his own telegraph network to prove that it was viable on the Indian subcontinent. It took until 1849 for the authorities to take notice. Under the patronage of Lord Dalhousie, O’Shaughnessy was tasked with establishing an experimental telegraph network in 1850. O’Shaughnessy’s network proved highly successful, leading to his appointment of Superintendent of Electric Telegraphs for all of India in 1853. In little over six months, he had succeeded in laying over 800 miles of wire between Agra and Calcutta. By February 1855, the telegraph had connected these cities to the North Western city of Attock, as well as the presidency capitals of Bombay and Madras. O’Shaughnessy’s skilful and determined work in establishing India’s telegraph network was later credited with playing a major role in Britain’s defeat of the Indian uprising of 1857-8. And, as a reward, O’Shaughnessy was knighted the following year and promoted to the rank of Surgeon Major. In 1861, O’Shaughnessy retired to Southampton, where he died in January 1889.
For further reading see:
Katherine Prior, ‘Sir William Brooke O’Shaughnessy’ in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
Helen Andrews, ‘Sir William Brooke O’Shaughnessy’ in the Dictionary of Irish Biography.
Davis Coakley, Irish masters of medicine (Dublin, 1992).
James Mills, Cannabis Britannica: empire, trade and prohibition (Oxford, 2003).