Dr Clarke Abel MD FRS

Abel, Dr Clarke MD FRS (1789 – 1826), British medical officer and naturalist, founding member of the RAS in 1823, and President of the Phrenological Society of Calcutta in 1825, was born on 5 November 1789, in Bungay, Suffolk. In 1816 he joined Lord Amherst’s embassy to China as chief medical officer and naturalist on the recommendation of Sir Joseph Banks. During this voyage he collected seeds and plant specimens from across China, including the Abelia chinensis which carries his name.
Abel returned to England on the H.M.S. Alceste in 1817 where he met Thomas Manning, Amherst’s Chinese interpreter and future RAS honorary Chinese librarian. Curiously, several future members of the RAS were associated with the Alceste. They include John Francis Davis and Sir Henry Ellis.
Abel lost all of his specimens when the Alceste was attacked by pirates and shipwrecked. Fortunately he had left other specimens with Sir George Staunton in Canton, which were later transported safely back to England.
In 1818 he documented his time as part of Amherst’s embassy in Narrative of a Journey in the Interior of China; which contains an account of meeting Napoleon in exile on St Helena as well as an excursion to Sumatra where he was the first Western scientist to record the existence of the orangutan.
He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1819. On 16 January 1823 he was present at the second meeting of the RAS, held at H.T. Colebrooke’s house, at which the membership of the Asiatic Society, founded the week before, was discussed. In 1825 he was made President of the Phrenological Society of Calcutta.
When Lord Amherst became Governor-General of India in 1823 he took Abel as his physician. During this time he would record a description of the Tibetan antelope, or chiru, making him the first scientist to do so. Abel held this position until his death in Cawnpore, India, on 24 November 1826.
Address: Calcutta