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HomeContents > People > Photographers > Sir William Brooke O’Shaughnessy

Dates:  1808, October - 1889, 8 January

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John Falconer, British Library 
A Biographical Dictionary of 19th Century Photographers in South and South-East Asia

Amateur, India
Son of Daniel O’Shaughnessy by his wife (née Boswell), of Limerick
M.D. Edinburgh, 1829; Assistant Surgeon, Bengal, 1833; Responsible for the introduction of the medicinal use of cannabis in 1839; Surgeon, 1848; knighted, 1856; Surgeon-Major, 1859; retired 1861; Director-General of Indian Telegraphs, 1852-61;
Author: Manual of chemistry (1837), Report on poisoning (1841), Lectures on galvanic electricity (1841), Bengal dispensary (1841), Bengal pharmacopoeia (1844), Electric telegraph manual (1853).
Demonstrated photogenic drawing to the Asiatic Society of Bengal in October 1839. These experiments were reported in The Calcutta Courier of 3 October 1839:
Dr O’Shaughnessy next called the attention of the meeting to a series of experiments he had lately made on the art which was exciting so much attention at home - namely Photogenic Drawing - and his experiments were all successful. To prepare the photogenic paper at home, a solution of silver had been used, but he had made it from a preparation of gold, which though the dearest of metals, in this preparation was cheaper than that of silver. He had succeeded in obtaining, besides all other colours, that of a green from a mixture of purple and yellow, which had not been obtained at home by the preparation from silver; he had also discovered another advantage of this method over that adopted in Europe, which all the experimenters there had been unsuccessful in obtaining, namely, that by merely washing the drawing on the photogenic paper with a little water, the picture would become fixed, and be preserved for any length of time without the colours being affected by light. In taking off a picture, which occupied eight seconds only, he had found the gold preparation not so sensible as the silver.
The Englishman and Military Chronicle, 4 October 1839:
Dr. O’Shaughnessy obliged the meeting with some details, accompanied by specimens of a new kind of Photographic - Drawing by means of the sun’s light - of which the principle wholly differs from that of Europe, - we mean from that used in England, where Nitrate of Silver is the colouring agent. Professor O’Shaughnessy uses, it seems, a solution of gold, and produces many various tints from a light rose colour, through purple down to a deep black! He also uses a lens which expedites the process and gives different shades. We hope this interesting discovery will be followed up, for it promises much and we have here such sun and light that our means in this respect are far above those of Europe.
A brief report of the same event also appeared in The Asiatic Journal (vol. XXXI (new series), January-April 1840, part ii, pp. 14-15):
PHOTOGRAPHIC DRAWING. At a meeting of the Asiatic Society, October 2d, Dr. O’Shaughnessy gave some details, accompanied by specimens, of a new kind of photographic drawing, by means of the sun’s light, of which the principle wholly differs from that of Europe, where nitrate of silver is the colouring agent. Professor O’Shaughnessy uses, it seems, a solution of gold, and produces many various tints, from a light rose colour through purple down to a deep black, and, what is more extraordinary, a green! He also uses a lens, which expedites the process, and gives different shades.
On 28 February 1840, O’Shaughnessy’s researches were described and discussed in the Hannoversche Zeitung:
Dr O’Schaughnessy [sic], from Calcutta, makes use of the daguerreotypes, specifically in red, purple, even green. He also avails himself of a special polished lens, in order to give a greater sharpness to the highlights and shadows of the mirrored image...O’Schaughnessy appears to be engaged in investigations leading towards the perfection of photographs similar to those already pointed out by me in the ‘Göttinger Gelehrte Anzeigen’ (number 197, 9th December 1839)...and which lead to a further perusal of these satisfactory results to give these delicate photographs more stability, greater clarity, and varying tonalities, according to discretion. A considerable Göttingen audience has had the opportunity in the past few days to be convinced of the superiority of these images, insofar as several of these very images were, on the occasion of a photographic exhibition organized for the benefit of the city’s poor, on public display for viewing and comparison with those of M. Daguerre. Notwithstanding, of course, the presence of certain circumstances, the priority of this discovery cannot be in doubt, and so in order to deflect future controversy, I find it sufficient to bring my latest procedures to public attention, even though this matter was originally destined for detailed treatment in a purely scientific journal. The exclusive quality of the process lies in the substitution for the liquid quicksilver used in the Daguerreian photographs of specific metals which, in respect of their electrical state, occupy a position above that of quicksilver, namely: gold, platinum, rhodium, palladium, iridium, and silver itself. This is done quite easily by electrochemical methods through the use of specific dissolutions of these metals. They are among those which can be melted only at extremely high temperatures. One is thus in a position, with the employment of chemically pure silver-plated coppers, to raise the temperature of the latter without destroying the image, so that the latter can be bound more firmly to the silver surface. The decomposition of various metals, utilized under varying conditions, produces varying tonalities. The far greater clarity of these pictures, however, is dependent upon other factors, and must be discussed on another occasion.[1]
By early 1840 O’Shaughnessy seems successfully to have mastered the daguerreotype process and the Calcutta Courier (5 March 1840) records what appears to be the first definite record of daguerreotype images taken in India. These were shown at also the 4 March 1840 meeting of the Asiatic Society of Bengal:
The Secretary then begged the attention of the meeting for a few minutes to something which he doubted not would prove of greater interest than what had just been discussed. On the table was exhibited the very apparatus which had been used by Daguerre at Paris in obtaining and fixing of drawings from the Camera Obscura. The Secretary said that the process was very simple and yet very unintelligible, and then proceeded to explain the process through which the drawings are obliged to pass ere they reach a state of perfection. Several drawings were exhibited to the meeting, of the Esplanade and other parts of Calcutta which had been taken by him. In one part of one of the drawings a black speck was observable to the naked eye, but with a microscope of great power it would be seen that the speck represented a kite which was at that moment perched [on] the building - and though so small, even the wings and tail of the bird could, with a lens be easily distinguished so minute and yet so true to life was the picture. The Secretary mentioned too that this instrument had lately been used in Europe in the taking of miniature portraits - in which the exactness of the likenesses was most wonderful.
The meeting appeared highly delighted with this exhibition and about ten o’clock, after voting a return of thanks for the various presentations, etc., the meeting broke up.’
The Bengal Hurkaru, 6 March 1840, repeats Calcutta Courier article of 5 March 1840.
The Englishman and Military Chronicle, 6 March 1840:
The attraction of the evening, however, was a genuine Daguerreotype, the same, as we understood the Secretary to say, which had been exhibited by M. Daguerre himself, before the Committee of the Chamber of Deputies at Paris. It consists of four boxes of various sizes. The first containing the silver plates only; the second for shutting up a single plate to expose it to the vapour of Iodine at common temperatures, where it becomes slightly tarnished; the third a small Camera Obscura, in which, when properly adjusted, the tarnished plate is allowed to remain for a short time till the effect is supposed to be produced; though upon taking it out, no change can be detected by the closest examination. It is now placed in the fourth box, and exposed, with certain precautions, to the vapour of mercury, where, as if by magic, the picture formed by the Camera Obscura appears upon it! It is then fixed by washing it with a solution (of hyposulphite of soda?) which prevents farther change.
No language can describe the incredible beauty of these delineations, of which three or four, taken from houses in Chowringhee, were exhibited to the meeting; and admirable as they appear to the eye, when examined with the microscope, they are found to have reproduced traits, which the eye cannot discern in the buildings, unless by the minutest scrutiny. A remarkable instance is given of this in one of the French reports, we think that of Monsr. Arago or Biot, where a line was found by the microscope to intersect the figure of a marble statue on one of the public buildings. Upon close examination it was found that the statue was cracked, but so little that only the most practised workman could find the flaw! The meeting broke up at a late hour, and all we believe were highly gratified.
On 29 April 1840 the Calcutta Courier announced the resumption of the ‘scientific parties at Government House, which, it will be remembered, were so extremely agreeable to all who had a taste for the sciences’, and on 1 May the paper carried the following piece:
The scientificSoirée at Government House was very numerously attended last night by the native and European gentry of Calcutta. One such meeting as this is worth a thousand nights of revelry. In the rooms were exhibited some excellently preserved specimens and skeletons of Indian indigenous animals; of native arms, offensive and defensive; of oil paintings by Messrs. Schoeff, Pybus, and other artists, among which were portraits of the late and of the present Advocate-General, Miss Turton, etc. Some of them were very good specimens of the pictorial art, but, being necessarily placed on the ground, suffered materially in effect by being so much below the point of vision. The illustrations of the process pursued in obtaining pictures by means of the Daguerrotype [sic]; and the galvanic experiments with which Professor O’Shaughnessy favored the assembly, were extremely interesting, and were explained in his usual lucid manner. Some of the Professor’s illustrations promise to lead to an explanation of M. Daguerre’s, at present incomprehensive [sic] instrument.
The company did not entirely disperse until nearly midnight.’
The Englishman and Military Chronicle, 4 May 1840:
...There were fishes and skeletons, birds, animals, snakes, and a fine leopard for the naturalist. Native arms and armour, some of it really magnificent, for the militaires, female ornaments from the hill tribes, models, plans and drawings...The zest of the evening, however, was Professor O’Shaughnessy’s exhibition and clever explanation of the Daguerreotype, which, with some electrical experiments of great novelty and interest, formed during part of the time, and to those who were near enough to hear and see, the great attraction. Many were precluded from hearing, as we learnt, by the forgetfulness - to give it no worse name - of some who continued conversing in a tolerably loud tone, while the explanation or lecture was going on. Now this, it should be recollected, is doubly forgetful, it disheartens the lecturer, who supposes that little or no interest is taken in his explanation, and it deprives those who wish to listen of the power of doing so...We have before expressed our opinion of these entertainments as eminently combining example, amusement, and even instruction...
This report was followed up in the Calcutta Courier (reprinted from The Friend of India) of 7 May 1840:
Last Thursday the scientific soirees of Lord Auckland were renewed, and, in addition to the show of curiosities of nature and art with which the company was entertained, Dr O’Shaughnessy delivered a very lucid and interesting lecture on the Daguerrotype, and electro-magnetism. He had intended to devote his lecture rather to an explanation of the electro-magnetic telegraph; but his apparatus met with an accident on its way to Government House, which caused that subject to be postponed for another month. His statement of the process by which the pictures of the daguerrotype are obtained was divested as much as possible of technical phraseology, and being accompanied with the exhibition of every part of the necessary apparatus, could not fail to be generally understood. The chief hindrance arose from the extreme ill-manners of a part of the company, who were entertaining themselves, and disturbing the better employed, by loud talking and laughing. When Dr O’Shaughnessy had described the several stages of the process - the polishing of the silvered plate which is to receive the picture; its exposure to the iodine vapour, so that it becomes covered with a golden yellow film; its subjection to the rays of the sun in the Camera Obscura; and, lastly, its exposure to the vapour of mercury, at a certain point of which, when the temperature having been raised considerably, has fallen again to a particular degree, the picture becomes manifest as it were by magic - he added, that neither Arago, nor any of the other scientific men of Europe had yet been able to account for the result, on any principal either of chemical or optical science, and with such men he did not need to be ashamed to confess himself ignorant. But although he could not reveal the mystery, he had made an experiment which seemed to throw some light upon it. Some years ago a German chemist fell upon an experiment of this kind, with the resinous plate of the electrophorus. Taking a Leyden jar, whose internal coating was electrified positively, he drew its nob in fanciful lines, all over the plate of the electrophorus, and thus communicated the positive electricity to the lines he drew; whilst the non-conducting nature of the resin prevented that electricity from spreading in any direction. He then drew another series of lines on the same plate, with the nob of a jar which charged with negative electricity, so that this series was negatively electrified and equally preserved distinct, though invisible, the non-conducting power of the plate. A mixture of sulphur and red lead was then rubbed well together, and by the friction of the two ingredients were thrown into opposite states of electricity, so that, when the mixture was dusted over the plate, the sulphur was attracted to the lines electrified differently from itself; and the red lead to the other series, and the plate was covered with red and yellow lines perfectly clear and distinct. Now Dr O’Shaughnessy has treated the silvered plate of the Daguerrotype, after it has received the film from the iodine vapour, as the resin plate of the electrophorus. If our memory serves us right, he stated, that aving described various lines over the yellow surface of the plate, with the nob of a Leyden jar, charged with electricity, he exposed it to the action of the mercurial vapour, just as the plates are treated which have been placed in the Camera Obscura, and the result was, that the lines were clearly developed. Hence it would appear that the plate of the Daguerrotype is electrically excited by the bright rays of light falling on it, in the Camera Obscura, and the fine particles of mercurial vapour are thereby attracted to it, so as to form the beautiful picture which is obtained. Of course the subject requires further experiment; and it well deserves it: for it this view turn out to be correct, it is easy to perceive that it may lead to methods of preparing and exciting the plate, and also of forming the picture which will vastly increase the value of the process, from facility of operation, additional beauty of delineation, and means of preservation and transfer. In the meantime the experiment does great honor to the science and ingenuity of Dr O’Shaughnessy.’
O’Shaughnessy was a regular and gifted lecturer at the Governor General’s gatherings. At the soirée of 28 August 1840 (where ‘it seemed as if the unruly spirits only were absent, for we heard but a solitary soda water bottle explode during the lecture’), he lectured on galvanism, and was praised by the Calcutta Courier (29 August 1840) for his lecturing ability: ‘no lecturer, we ever heard, has the gift in greater perfection than Dr. O’Shaughnessy of rendering his subject lucid - he brings the matter down to the capacity of even the unscientific.’
At the soirée of 7 December 1840, attended by the young Nawab of Murshidabad, two short lectures were given, one on suspension bridges by Captain Boileau, and one by O’Shaughnessy on the history of the electric telegraph (‘as usual, very clear and entertaining’), including a demonstration of ‘the brilliant combustion of charcoal by the galvanic agency...and this intense light was employed, we believe for the first time, in exhibiting the power of the solar microscope.’
On 12 December the Calcutta Courier reported that the gold galvanic battery made by O’Shaughnessy at Lord Auckland’s request with gold loaned by the government, was to be melted down. The paper suggested that in recognition of the ‘instruction and amusement’ given by O’Shaughnessy’s ‘almost unrivalled talents’, a subscription should be got up to buy the battery and present it to him. Whether this ever happened is not known.
[Obituary in The Times, 11 Jan 1889]
India Public Consultations
No. 15 of 5 August 1835
From Assistant Surgeon W. B. O’Shaughness
y To: Sir C. S. Metcalfe, Governor-General
I respectfully beg leave to solicit your attention to a paragraph in the report of the Committee of Native Medical Education which I have the honor to enclose and which refers to the number of teachers essentially required for the new Medical in Calcutta.
The paragraph I allude to prominently sets forth, that three lecturers at least should be employed, and from the mode in which the various branches of medical science are enumerated and associated by the reporters, we may infer their desire that chemistry and materia medica should be taught by one lecturer, while the superintendent and his assistant should conduct the courses of anatomy, surgery dissections, midwifery, medical jurisprudence and the practice of medicine and further that these gentlemen should afford medical attendance to the patients in the clinical hospital attached to the Medical School. Thus, exclusive of chemistry, materia medica and toxicology, the superintendent and his assistant have to deliver six courses of lecture, to superintend and conduct dissections and discharge hospital duties besides, with such multifarious and laborious duties it is self-evident they cannot teach chemistry and materia medica also.
It is equally obvious that a lectureship on chemistry and its applications to medicine is essential to the constitution of any medical school intended to fulfil the true objects of such institutions. Without instruction of this kind the pupil must remain in utter ignorance of most of the functions of the human body, the mere framework of which he is taught by the anatomical; professor. We cannot without this comprehend how the living body breathes, digests, secretes and is nourished. He knows not the composition of the medicines he ventures to use and if in his ignorance he administers a poison he is incompetent to find the simplest antidote to counteract its effects. For one rare occasion which may arise for his anatomical acquirements, one hundred present themselves in the daily and hourly task of prescribing and compounding medicines, wherein an exact knowledge of chemistry and materia medica is absolutely necessary. Yet for the teaching of these very branches no provision whatever has been made in the constitution of the new Medical school in Calcutta. But if further proof be required for the necessity, the unavoidable, paramount necessity for such a lectureship being appended to the Institution in question it may be found in the fact, that in the world there does not exist at this moment one other school of medicine wherein chemistry is not separately taught, and in importance regarded only second to anatomy, but superior to all other elementary branches of medical knowledge.
But the appointment of the third professor recommended in the report, might be urged on many additional and most important considerations. In no country is there a greater demand, a richer field for the researches of the practical chemist than in our Indian possessions and nowhere has the application of this science to the furtherance of medical resources, to the progress of the arts, or to the benefits of the inhabitants, been so completely and so unaccountably neglected. The Botanical Garden of Calcutta alone teems with multitudes of medicinal plants of the highest promise, but which never having been investigated by the chemist remain of utter inutility to mankind. I confidently appeal to Dr Wallich, one of the most distinguished of living botanists, for corroboration of this statement, which applies with nearly equal force to vast numbers of vegetable productions calculated to prove of great value in commerce and the arts.
It is enough to specify one subject for enquiry to demonstrate how deeply the community at large is interested in the prosecution of such researches. The Government or science could scarcely bestow a greater practical blessing on the natives of India than by the discovery of a native substitute for the expensive quinine as a remedy for the agues and fevers which periodically desolate whole provinces of this country, yet the application of a few months experimental research would in all human probability lead to the attainment of the great object in question.
Having for several years made chemistry my constant and favourite study, having given lectures and written numerous papers on various branches of it at home, and being ardently desirous to be enabled to persevere in a pursuit to which I am warmly attached, I venture to lay before you the accompanying proofs of my qualifications as a teacher of that science and to solicit employment in the Medical School of Calcutta for the undermentioned objects.
1. As a lecturer on chemistry theoretical and practical and its various applications to medicine.
2. As a lecturer on materia medica or the substances employed as remedies.
3. For the performance of an extensive series of analyses of the medicinal plants of British India and of the mineral and vegetable products of the country of probable value in the arts.
4. In the summer months or vacations I would propose to give practical instructions to non-medical and well as medical pupils of all classes, native East Indian and Europeans, on the chemical arts of dyeing, bleaching, calico printing, distilling, sugar refining, smelting of ores and manufacture of drugs.
I feel it necessary ere I conclude to anticipate some objections which may possibly arise, either to the immediate appointment of any teacher of chemistry or should the appointment be deemed expedient to the nomination of the present applicant. In the first place it is possible that the anatomical teachers may desire the appropriation of the whole of the next cold season to their courses. But I would respectfully submit that before lectures on chemistry can be commenced some months must be devoted to the construction of apparatus, preparation of a laboratory and in the making of numerous materials for the experimental illustration of the lectures. By being employed at once I would undertake to save the Government considerable expenditure, by having constructed in Calcutta under my own directions and at insignificant cost, numerous articles which must otherwise be imported at extravagant prices, and in course of these preparatory labours several intelligent pupils would receive much practical instruction by assisting me in the manual labour of the laboratory. Again, the analyses of indigenous vegetables and researches for a substitute for quinine should be commenced forthwith.
To myself an objection may arise from my low standing in the service. I trust, however, that the letters of Professors Christeson, Duncan and others which I herewith forward will counterbalance that difficulty. Under the circumstances too in which I am placed, in a remote station, the longer I serve the less competent will I be for the discharge of the duties in question.
As the Government too may be unwilling to incur at once any great additional expense for the new Medical School I will most cheerfully conduct all the preliminary labours on the pay I now draw, as a Cavalry Assistant Surgeon. When my lectures commence it will be time enough to assimilate my emolument to those of the present assistant. By that time too the Government will probably be enabled to decide, from my analysis of native medical plants, on my competency and efficiency as a practical chemist.
W. B. O’Shaughnessy
Assistant Surgeon doing duty with the 10th Cavalry
Muttra, 31st March 1835
[These suggestions were accepted and O’Shaughnessy was appointed Assistant to the Superintendent of the new Medical College by order of 5 August 1835.]
Portrait: By Colesworthy Grant, +++ 

  1. Λ Translation in History of Photography, vol. 6, no. 1, January 1987, p. 62 

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