Allan Octavian Hume (1829-1912)

Large-billed reed warbler, Acrocephalus orinus

Type specimen of large-billed reed warbler, Acrocephalus orinus, collected by Hume in 1867 and only rediscovered in the wild in Thailand in 2006.

The largest single collection of birds ever received by the Museum was given by Allan Octavian Hume in 1885. The collection contains more than 60,000 bird skins and nearly 20,000 eggs from the Indian sub-continent.

Hume's collection is the physical remains of his research into the birds of the Indian sub-continent, collected from 1865-1885.

The work also includes:

  • about 200 ornithological publications, including a number of major monographs
  • at least 148 new bird taxa descriptions that are still accepted today
  • the founding and editing of the journal Stray Feathers, which ran to more than 5,000 pages.

Hume’s bird collection has provided an essential resource for all research into avian taxonomy and distribution relating to the Indian sub-continent for the past 125 years.

Few of Hume’s diaries or unpublished papers relating to ornithology have survived, but the Museum does hold nine of his diaries covering small segments of the period from 1859 to 1881.

Only one of these has been published to date, but we are currently transcribing the others with the intention of publishing the content.

Life changes

Despite these astounding achievements, birds were just a hobby for Hume. Throughout most of this period he was an increasingly high-ranking official of the British Raj with a series of demanding jobs.

In the early 1880s, Hume took early retirement when his superiors disapproved of his egalitarian attitudes towards the Indian people.

Most of the manuscript material for his planned magnum opus on 'Birds of the British Indian Empire' were then stolen. This prompted him to donate his bird collection to the Natural History Museum and effectively give up ornithology.

Hume remained in India until the early 1890s, playing a key role in the founding of the Indian National Congress, the party that has governed India for much of the time since independence in 1947.

Afterwards, Hume returned to Britain where he took up British botany with the same enthusiasm and ability that he had formerly devoted to Indian ornithology.

Shortly before his death he founded the South London Botanical Institute, an organisation for ordinary working people keen to contribute to the science. The Institute still flourishes today, more than one hundred years later.

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