Patrick Russell, a Scottish naturalist, was born Feb. 6, 1726. Russell went to India in 1781 and soon became company botanist for the British East India Company, but he perversely made snakes his specialty. India has a number of venomous snakes, including the famous Indian cobra. Russell collected live specimens of a variety of snakes from the local natives; he would listen to their tales about which species were the most deadly, and then experiment for himself. His standard of venomosity was the “chicken-minute”, as in: “When this snake bites a chicken, the chicken lives for 36 minutes.” Russell collected his observations into a book that he published in 1796, Account of Indian Serpents, which has 46 folio hand-colored plates of the snakes he collected. One of the snakes he described, which he called by its native name, “Katuka Rekula Puda”, was soon renamed Vipera russellii, or Russell’s viper, in his honor (see first image above). The other images above, all taken from the splendid copy in our Library, show in order, the cobra (Naja naja), the krait, and three other serpents that are not easy to identify from the names Russell used.
Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City